Not waving but drowning?

All at sea - becalmed or awiting a storm?

All at sea – becalmed or awaiting a storm?

 Definitions of coasting:

To slide down an incline through the effect of gravity.

To move without use of propelling power.

To act or move aimlessly or with little effort.
New terms appear within the education lexicon quite frequently. They soon enter into common parlance and are distributed liberally through the media, in meetings or at the school gate. Sometimes the new word or expression, after a period of short term fostering enters into the adoptive language of the education profession, but others are rejected or simply go out of fashion.

The latest term that has tripped indelicately from the lips of the UK Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, and has grabbed the attention of the media is “coasting.” This morning on the radio, I listened to Mrs Morgan being interviewed about this term and reached the conclusion that, articulate as she undoubtedly is, the process of adequately defining “coasting,” as used in an educational context, remains a work in progress. I do of course appreciate that obfuscation is an essential part of any politician’s armour, and understand that a person who holds such a post of responsibility as that in the possession of Nicky Morgan, needs to err on the side of caution. However, a discussion with two other colleagues who I met on arrival at the university this morning, confirmed that I was not the only one left wondering about the lack of clarity applied to this latest fashionable term. This morning’s radio interview was far from enlightening.

From what we could glean from an admittedly brief radio interview, it would appear that over the next couple of years, school inspectors will be asked to identify those schools that may be judged to be successful, but are seen to have taken their foot off the accelerator and have begun to ‘coast’ with little perceived purpose. Such schools will presumably be told to hoist sail, unfurl the spinnaker and seek more favourable winds. Though when asked about the consequences of being found ‘coasting’, the admiral of the educational fleet appeared less than certain. Asked what actions might be taken to encourage such schools to stop “coasting,” she appeared to flounder, and sounded almost surprised by the question.

The Oxford English dictionary certainly appears to indicate that “coasting” is a nautical term. Therefore, somewhat perplexed by this situation I sought the advice of a colleague who I know to be an enthusiastic and accomplished sailor. I must emphasise that he is not involved in education in schools, and indeed had not heard this morning’s interview. However, he was able to inform me that in his vocabulary, coasting is sometimes an essential part of the sailor’s strategy. From time to time he tells me, it is necessary to ease back a little and to take stock of the progress made. Such a period then enables the skipper of a vessel to make choices about the correct setting of sails and to check the direction of travel. For this seasoned adventurer, who has twice crossed the Atlantic in a ridiculously small boat (by my limited reckoning) unscathed, coasting is seen as an essential process and a positive action.

I can imagine that there are many head teachers, who having successfully steered their school through choppy educational waters, achieved good academic and social outcomes and gained the respect of their local community, must relish the idea that they can ‘coast’ for a brief time as they asses their current position and make plans for the immediate future. In the words of my sailor colleague, a failure to take this kind of action sometimes results in the ship running aground.

As ever, I will be interested to see the new advice given to inspectors of schools, and the ways in which this is interpreted over the coming months. It will be equally educative to see the consequences faced by any schools that are deemed to be “coasting”. Might we witness use of the cat o’ nine tails? Will school governors be keel hauled? Might head teachers be forced to walk the plank? Possibly not, though I suspect that someone is dreaming of an appropriate admonition for mutinous teachers even as we speak.

In the meantime, when next out on my bicycle rather than occasionally freewheeling down the hills, I will try to increase my cadence, just in case there is a Morganite lurking in the bushes!


Captain Morgan, notorious 17th-century Welsh pirate and privateer, scourge of the Caribbean


Do education “officials” have tunnel vision?


Will this village school with its minimal resources be evaluated under the same criteria as an "elite" school. If so, is this a fair system?

Will this village school with its minimal resources be evaluated under the same criteria as an “elite” school. If so, is this a fair system?

It is hard to imagine why they should, but if any teacher in England had cause to read yesterday’s Times of India, they would have found an article that might just as easily have been extracted from the Daily Mail or Daily Express here in the UK a few years ago. Under the headline “All schools will now have a minimum benchmark to meet” the journalist Akshaya Mukul reported on an initiative from the Indian government aimed at “raising school standards” through a new system of school inspection and evaluation (Times of India Aug 31, 2014).

School inspection has been an ever present and at times highly valuable aspect of education life in England since the end of the nineteenth century. I recall in my first year of teaching in a school in Derbyshire, we had a visit from two representatives of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools (HMI) who provided both the school and myself as a class teacher with valuable comments and feedback on teaching and the curriculum, and offered useful advice on how we might continue to develop processes to support teaching and learning. However, in recent years the supportive network of HMI, which commanded tremendous respect from all within the teaching profession, has been sadly eroded and replaced by an inspection regime which is largely held in contempt by head teachers, teachers and school governors.

The reason for this parlous state of affairs is the misguided notion that inspection is in itself a process of school improvement. Certainly an objective evaluation of the work of schools can be helpful, but is most likely to achieve positive change only at a point where support is provided to improve areas that may be in need of attention. Inspection alone cannot improve schools, it is only the work of teachers, governors, parents and students working together towards a common aim that will achieve the desired effect. To inspect schools without engaging in this process is a dereliction of duty towards children and those charged with the responsibility for their education and care.

A second misinterpretation of how effective schools operate was evident in a statement from an Indian “education official,” (who exactly this was is unspecified in the article) who is quoted as saying that

“Schools must provide evidence of continuous improvement in results. [An] External evaluator will visit the schools to validate the self-evaluation and provide feedback for improvement. Schools should be able to show it is effective (sic) and that it makes good and proper use of the resources it is given,” he said, adding that the primary objective is continuous improvement.

It would appear that this “official” is unable to see school improvement in terms other than academic results measured through a formal assessment procedure such as an examination. Whilst never doubting that academic attainment is a critical indicator of school success, a naïve reliance on this approach to defining school improvement demonstrates a narrow interpretation of the role of schools. In India, as here in the UK, I have worked with schools that have had a radical impact upon improving the lives of children and their families through social intervention and the provision of emotional support. These schools, sometimes working with children in very challenging circumstances are in danger of a failure to recognise the importance of their impact if the sole measure of improvement is one based upon academic outcomes.

I am also interested in the relationship identified by the education official between  the quality of teaching and the resources provided. In an education system such as that in operation in India, the discrepancy in resource provision between schools is more pronounced than in any other country I have visited ( I suspect that this would be equally true in some other parts of the world with which I am not familiar). Does this then mean that there will be a differentiated system of school evaluation that takes account of these inequalities? If so, how will this be managed and on what basis will judgements be made? A few of my colleagues in India work in schools with resources that would be the envy of many teachers here in England. However, these are the exception and far more work with minimal provision and often perform near miracles with those resources with which they have been provided.

Throughout the world national governments feel the need to be seen to take action for the improvement of teaching and learning. It is a laudable ambition to strive to improve education for all children. However, I suspect that this latest Indian initiative, like its counterpart here in England will lead to increased teacher anxiety, provide an inequitable approach to understanding what works in schools and will continue in its failure to support teachers in addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged children in society. Surely a broader view is required?