The Blog

'Satisfactory' Has No Place in Schools

It is right that schools are competitive environments because a school is a microcosm of real society. A debating tournament is not won by the fastest or the strongest or the man who grafts.

Living up to their stereotype of mindless inertia and intransigence, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) disliked the new Ofsted chief's recently-announced plans to scrap the "satisfactory" rating from school inspections.

Never mind that every school should be aspiring to excellence; ignore the fact that "satisfactory" will be replaced with the more motivational "requires improvement": any hint that a teacher or school might not be fulfilling their objective is instantly branded "derogatory" and "insulting". That attitude is anathema to the example we should be setting to our leaders of the future.

Over the past fortnight participants in the Debate Mate programme have been flexing their competitive muscles for the first round of the Urban Debate League (a national tournament which takes place over three rounds). After eight weeks of after-school sessions where they've been learning the ropes of debating, it's great to see them leave the cocoon (viz. their clubs and mentors) and do battle with other schools in their area.

Young people should, and frequently do, aspire to be better than their peers--that's the only way we as a nation can raise our game. On a recent edition of the Today programme, there was a dispiriting report about the sorry state of literacy amongst students taking vocational qualifications. While it's great that our educational system offers an alternative to those ill-suited to academic qualifications, it's important these qualifications do actually prepare young people for life in the real world. After all, even if you're going to be a mechanic, you still need to be able to communicate with your patrons.

On the evidence presented in the Today report, too many are let down at an early age, their literacy woes undetected or unaddressed at primary school. From there, they drift through secondary school and, unable to pass a GCSE in English, are channelled into "entry-level" literacy courses where some of the ground is made up. The students' eventual realisation of how stymied their prospects are makes for a wretched state of affairs.

This chain of events can be hewn into several distinct questions. First, why do schools push vocational qualifications to such an extent? Is it because, until now, each could be worth up to four GCSEs? Or is it because they truly believe their students, at the age of 15, are better served by an alternative to a globally-accepted standard of "general" education? Second, why are problems with literacy not detected and addressed at an earlier age? One interviewee in the report attested that his primary school teacher had refused to believe in his difficulties, claiming he was simply "lying" or "not trying hard enough". Third, does this provide evidence of schools merely "satisficing" (Simon, H.A., "Rational choice and the structure of the environment", Psychological Review, March 1956) when they ought to be maximising pupils' potential?

On the first question, it is plausible that both reasons are at play, however deluded schools are for thinking either way. Education is no place to play the numbers game, which is why Mr. Gove's persistence with the English Baccalaureate is laudable; furthermore, it is clear parents and industry alike recognise the primacy of the GCSE, especially those in English and Mathematics.

On the second question, something is going wrong in a minority of primary schools, typically those outside London: children's aspirations are downplayed at an early age, and school becomes a nursery for overgrown babies. At a round of the Urban Debate League for primary schools in Newham, east London, one teacher told me too often children are seen as "cute", and do not have basic concepts drilled into them. She makes sure to write up debating-related concepts like PEEL (Point, Explanation, Evidence, Link) and rebuttal (the technique of dismantling someone else's argument) on the whiteboard, defying her students to forget the lessons they have learnt in Debate Mate sessions, which are applicable to all parts of the curriculum.

On the third question, it is resoundingly true that opportunities for competition are thin on the ground, sport excepted, and that competitive and cerebral things like debating need to be pushed into as many schools as possible. But competitiveness is a trickle-down characteristic, so it rests upon senior figures in schools to take the lead and will their students to best their peers.

Do not mistake this for an apologia for pushy parents, who cart their sprogs from trumpet lesson to swimming pool to maths tutor. It is right that schools are competitive environments because a school is a microcosm of real society. A debating tournament is not won by the fastest or the strongest or the man who grafts. As our own Urban Debate League suggests, it is won by those who heed the advice of their mentor and strive to persuade others of their talents. "Satisfactory" won't do for our kids, and it won't do for our schools: there's a valuable lesson for stubborn NUT mules.