Why is ‘outstanding’ such a dirty word in schools?

Her Majesty’s Inspectorate has more influence over our use of the English language than meets the ear

Your head of department is praising a lesson that you have just delivered. “It’s great,” she says. “It’s fantastic. It’s excellent.” What she doesn’t say is that it is outstanding.

The word “outstanding” has been hijacked by Ofsted, according to new research, and is now almost taboo in non-inspection contexts.

Academics from Nottingham Trent University found that teachers used “outstanding” only when referring to Ofsted judgements.

“Teachers won’t use the word at all, other than reflecting the inspection framework,” said Andrew Clapham, lead researcher on the paper Legitimation, Performativity and the Tyranny of a “Hijacked” Word. “If a lesson was described as ‘outstanding’, it would only be within a very set discourse of inspection.”

So, for example, one head of department told the researchers that she would never feel comfortable saying to members of her department that elements of a lesson were “outstanding”. Equally, colleagues discussing work in the staffroom would use a succession of superlatives, while deliberately avoiding the word “outstanding”.

Satisfactory doesn’t cut it

This is not the first time Ofsted has subtly influenced the English language. In 2012, the damning undertones of an Ofsted “satisfactory” were made explicit, when the category was changed to “requires improvement”.

“Of particular concern are the 3,000 schools educating a million children that have been ‘satisfactory’ for two inspections in a row,” Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said at the time. “This is not good enough.” As far as the watchdog was concerned, “satisfactory” was no longer satisfactory.

Mick Connell, vice-chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, says that Ofsted’s impact on the language that we use is an inevitable consequence of judgement without context.

“Am I outstanding because I’m better than you?” he said. “Am I outstanding because I’m the best you can see? Or am I outstanding because I meet certain criteria? Are there things I need to do in order to be outstanding? And then you stop using the word in other contexts, because it involves a checklist.”

Among the 70 teachers and pupils whom the researchers interviewed was a Year 9 pupil who pointed out the flaw in the Ofsted version of “outstanding”. Asked what the word meant, she replied: “Something that stands out.”

“Every school has to be outstanding now,” Dr Clapham said. “Which is a bit of an oxymoron. If everything becomes outstanding, then it’s average, isn’t it?”

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “My view is that Ofsted should stop trying to define ‘outstanding’ altogether.

“Is this school good or is it good enough? That’s the only judgement that any inspection regime can safely make.”

But even “good” is fraught with potential for “Ofstedisation”, Dr Clapham argued. “Good isn’t good enough,” he said. “If I’d gone to see a film and I’d said that it was good, that would really mean something. But the discourse of being good in the inspection landscape is that good isn’t good enough.”

Mr Connell believes that this reduction of words to caricatures of themselves is a result of government efforts to make the inspectorate’s judgements simple.

“They take as their model a red-top editorial,” he said. “That seems to be the model of how Ofsted reports should communicate. But simple doesn’t tell you anything.

“‘Requires improvement’ or ‘good’ basically means ‘boo’ or hooray’, because it doesn’t communicate anything worthwhile. Teachers expect a level of contextualisation of judgement. That doesn’t happen with ‘good’ or ‘requires improvement’.”

It’s down to the individual

In reality, he says, pupils that are asked to recall outstanding teachers will rarely mention individual lessons. Instead, they refer to individual relationships.

This was something that Dr Clapham heard during his research interviews, too. “You can’t be outstanding unless you have good relationships and empathy,” he said. “Those hard-to-quantify things.”

Dr Bousted, however, does not believe that this is an issue of semantics. “I’m not so bothered about the meaning of words,” she said. “I’m bothered about the effect on the school system. The worst thing that can happen to a school is that it becomes outstanding. Then you have to retain that status, which leads to a bigger workload. That causes more misery for teachers than almost anything else.”

Ofsted declined to comment.

This is an article from the 1 January edition of TES. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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