Robert Gullifer, Headmaster of New College School, backs the Chief Inspector of Schools

Along with speculation about the weather and bank holiday traffic jams, school league tables now form a staple part of our media diet at the latter end of August. So how brave of the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Speilman, to wade in at this time of year allegedly with a plan to mark down ‘exam factory’ schools.

According to media reports, a new inspection framework is to be introduced for 2019 which will judge schools not simply by exam results, but by ‘quality of education’. The distinction is important. As educators and parents, we all know that the best schools try to inspire children with a genuine love of learning and prepare them for the wider challenges and joys of life, not simply to jump through the next immediate hoop. To focus everything on the short-term is clearly a dereliction of professional duty. But apparently the Chief Inspector was deeply alarmed to find, for example, primary schools where 11-year-olds spend most of their last year being crammed in English and Maths for SATs and entrance tests, and secondary schools that set GCSE targets for children in their first year at school.

Now don’t get me wrong, exams are a helpful component of school life: it’s important for children to learn to meet the challenges of what preparing for and taking a test involves. But what really matters in a school is an atmosphere of mutual support in which pupils and teachers are engaged together in an exploration of knowledge and skills; where teaching is dynamic and responsive to the pupils in the class. Given that almost all knowledge is now available at the click of a button, the quality of education now, more than ever, must be measured by the way a school encourages its pupils to ask questions and to be innovative thinkers. That’s how we produce adaptable, flexible, employable and fulfilled citizens of the future. Teaching to the test will simply not fit the bill. Moreover, an exclusive focus on exam results can be corrosive in other ways: even narrow differentials can quickly become a source of division in a school community (often as much among parents as well as pupils) and it’s all too easy to lose sight of wider talents in sport, music or the arts which for many pupils can be the gateway to gaining confidence in all areas of school life, including exams!

So why do league tables and exam results still dominate our national educational consciousness? I suspect it’s because ‘quality of education’ is so much more difficult to measure objectively. But ask any teacher or parent who visits schools regularly how they get a sense of how well pupils are being educated: the answer will almost always lie in the quality of the interaction between pupils and teachers, and how eager the pupils are to learn.

When, as an adult, you have that feeling on visiting a school “I wish I’d been to a school like this’’, then you can bet the school is doing education well. Good luck to the Chief Inspector in attempting to quantify this, but her long-term view is refreshing.