When I Hear The Word ‘Outstanding’

The word ‘Outstanding’ – always capitalised and don’t you forget it – is now the teacher’s equivalent of a medal for participation. It is just one decoration in an array of different baubles with which leaders see fit to adorn the profession. The problem is that when it’s Christmas every day, you start wanting to brick up the chimney, or hoping Santa’s sleigh will be shot down over the Ukraine.

The problem is that every man and his dog is an Outstanding teacher. It’s as meaningless as your mother saying you look nice. The epithet at my old school was paired with ‘world class’. Every teacher was world class. Sometimes, I had to pinch myself that of the 90 million teachers currently working in the world today, a sizeable proportion of the world-class ones were working in Coventry schools. How fortuitous.

The worst thing about the word is what it causes people to picture in their mind’s eye. When I hear the word Outstanding, I think of Torvill and Dean, or of the judges on Strictly. They will rave about the showstoppers, the sequined costumes, or of some death-defying somersault. Sadly, school isn’t clown college, we have mark schemes rather than marquees, and our lessons aren’t sponsored by Barnum & Bailey. It is not just some harmless party-streamer of a word, but rather a glittery garrotte, choking, strangling, and silencing any attempt at a genuine appraisal of a school’s ordinary lessons.

We need to properly assimilate the works of Daisy Christodoulou, Alex Quigley, David Didau, Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and the list goes on … their message? Children should be taught without gimmicks. They need knowledge, which, in turn, will build up their skills base. And we should be leading our classes from the front, allowing for deeper questioning, narrative building, and explicit vocabulary instruction. This is the tripod upon which we must place our viewfinder, looking forward.

As a profession, we are moving away from ineffectual practices such as group work, discovery learning, and lollipop sticks.[1] Yet the people who moved up and out of teaching – back when learning styles were so fashionable that you half expected to see gaunt runway models donning ‘VAK’ on black baggy sweaters – are still observing us, and they are stuck in a New-Labour time warp. Maybe it’s the nostalgia: ‘So what if classrooms were as anarchic as post-invasion Iraq? Love Actually still holds up and the Nokia 3310 was a bloody good phone. I don’t care what anybody thinks.’

Meanwhile, Outstanding is a throwback to the bad old days when ‘you couldn’t sit pupils in rows, you had to hide away to teach knowledge, [and] there were games everywhere and you’d get down-graded for not having enough games’. This really happened. If you want an insight into how bad the education system was in the noughties, either read Teaching Battleground,[2] or scroll back in the Guardian’s education section.[3] The amount of headlines about teachers being punched in stomachs, thrown out of windows, or being threatened with rape on the corridors, shows you how far we’ve come.

The word Outstanding reminds me a lot of Pennywise the Clown in Stephen King’s It. It’s symbolic of a supposedly fun and flashy kind of teaching, and it’s there sometimes, on rainy days, stood on the periphery – waiting to come back. All it would take is for us to drop our paper boat down a storm drain or to find ourselves under an abandoned bridge, and those teeth and claws will come out again. Arguably, the word has unleashed more atrocities on the children of the UK than Pennywise ever did on the small town of Derry.

Many of the problems come down to cognitive dissonance – holding two contradictory ideas in our mind simultaneously. If we believe that immediate performance in a lesson is not a good indicator of long-term learning, then an effective lesson is hardly something we’re going to plump for the word Outstanding in describing. The lesson will be understated. One seemingly unexceptional tile in a nevertheless coherent mosaic structure that is underpinned by a well-sequenced scheme of learning. To deal with our doublethink, maybe we need to borrow from newspeak and narrow the range of language. Just one word, ‘Outstanding’ – let’s be rid of it.

[1] According to Hattie, ‘Teacher as Facilitator’ (a term which covers all forms of child-centred learning, including group work) has an average effect size of 0.17, whereas ‘Teacher as Activator’ (direct instruction, mastery, reciprocal teaching) averages 0.60, in Robert Peal, Progressively Worse, p. 182

[2] Teaching Battleground, The Worst Behaviour in School Corridors (October 24 2018). Available at: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/the-worst-behaviour-in-school-corridors/

[3] Two examples are: Jessica Shepherd, Police to be drafted into schools to cut violence, minister says, and Teachers vote for cadet forces in schools, The Guardian (30 July 2008). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/education?page=1898. (Scroll back from this section. I’m not sure what was happening in schools, but it seems schools wanted to bring in everyone short of the Avengers to sort the problem.) & Polly Curtis, One in five teachers would back the return of the cane’ (3 October 2008). Available at https://www.theguardian.com/education/2008/oct/03/pupilbehaviour.schools. For the record, I think the cane would exacerbate bad behaviour.

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