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Ofsted Action On Schools ‘Gaming’ The System May Be Too Little, Too Late For Some Pupils

When schools ‘game’ the system it puts additional pressure on others, and gives an unrealistic picture of what is happening in the sector. Competition wins over collaboration, says Sue Cowley...

  • Ofsted Action On Schools ‘Gaming’ The System May Be Too Little, Too Late For Some Pupils

If you were ever in need of an adage that sums up exactly how school accountability works at the moment, it would be Campbell’s Law: ‘The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.’

No matter that the majority of schools try to do the right thing, a minority push at the boundaries of what is ethical.

When some schools ‘game’ the system, this puts additional pressure on others, and gives an unrealistic picture of what is happening in the sector. And when competition wins out over collaboration and cooperation, this hits at the core of what education is about.

The question of when something is ‘gaming’, and when it is ‘doing your best for your pupils’, is tricky to answer. Anecdotally, there is evidence of timetables being narrowed during Y6, to focus on ‘passing’ SATs. Social media is full of stories of months of mock SATs papers, or of a narrow curriculum focused solely on passing tests.

Clearly, if Y6 is maths, English, maths, English, leavened by one session of PE a week, this is problematic.

But are after-school SATs booster classes a form of gaming, or a way of offering extra support? If a school asks children to come in during half term for extra SATs ‘practice’ – is that unfair? And what about ‘phonics screening check’ workshops for parents? Why does a supposedly light touch diagnostic check need these?

A multiplication ‘check’ has recently been announced for Y4 children – how long until we see after-school ‘times tables preparation’ classes?

In a commentary accompanying research into the curriculum last year, Amanda Spielman noted that the primary curriculum is ‘narrowing in some schools as a consequence of too great a focus on preparing for KS2 tests.’

Although Spielman said that schools must retain a broad curriculum, she has also been quoted as saying that they could ‘embrace’ creative subjects via extracurricular activities.

This leaves space for schools to put arts subjects into after-school provision, without finding themselves in hot water with Ofsted.

And then there is the suspicion around the reliability of teacher assessed writing for SATs, and its subsequent moderation.

What could be a useful discussion between colleagues about what ‘good writing’ looks like, is a high-stakes situation where the incentive to game results is magnified one hundred fold.

Then there are ways in which the system can be gamed by changing the nature of the school population – the suggestion to parents that a school ‘might not be suitable’ for their child; the use of illegal exclusions, with parents being encouraged to put their child on a part-time timetable or home educate, rather than run the risk of an exclusion going on their record.

Last year, Education Datalab undertook some research into the number of pupils moving out of mainstream secondary education. They found that around 32,000 children left the rolls of mainstream state schools each year to go to other destinations, despite less than 5,000 being permanently excluded.

The researchers concluded that in a minority of cases, ‘pupil moves are being used to boost league table results.’

They also noted that ‘in some schools, the number of pupils who have been on-roll but leave at some point between Y7-11 is more than 50% of the number of pupils who complete their secondary education at the school.’

No matter how mobile a school’s population is, these figures seem incredibly high.

The Datalab research led them to conclude that, in some cases, pupils are being ‘managed out’ of mainstream schools before this point, with the effect of ‘boosting the league table performance of the school which the pupil leaves.’

In the speech that she gave to launch her first Ofsted annual report, Amanda Spielman stated that excluding pupils to boost school results, whether that was via formal exclusions or pressuring parents, ‘is never acceptable’.

She warned that inspectors would be looking more closely for signs of off-rolling and pointed to the related issue of reports that ‘troublesome children’ are being sent home on inspection days.

Clearly Ofsted is trying to take action on gaming. But for those children who have gone ‘missing’ from mainstream schools or face a narrow Y6 timetable, it may be much too little, far too late.

Sue Cowley is a teacher, presenter and author. Her latest book, The Ultimate Guide to Differentiation, is published by Bloomsbury.

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