Andrew Clapham – Legitimation, performativity and the tyranny of a ‘hijacked’ word

Principal lecturer, School of Education, Nottingham Trent University

What research are you working on?

We’ve been looking at what “outstanding” means. We started off to try and pin down what it meant. We found that part of that is the word outstanding equals Ofsted, and interestingly that was for both teachers and students.

The research emerged from two separate projects. One was in the further education and skills sector: that was quite a large-scale project. We spoke to 30 different colleges, we’d framed FE practitioners to be action researchers, and they sent back to us their understanding of what outstanding was.

The other bit was looking at one outstanding school in a lot of detail. We interviewed students. We also interviewed people in the office. For instance one of the premises managers told us that he knew if a lesson was outstanding or not! So he might be outside in the corridor fixing a light bulb or something, and he would know if it was an outstanding lesson just by listening to the conversations, the tone, and the interactions between students and teachers – which was interesting.

You say this research is interesting, why is that?

The headline finding is that there’s a disconnect between what the inspection says outstanding is and what our informants say outstanding is.

Of course, there are loads of similarities, a lot of the things in the common inspection framework like attendance and behaviour and all those things, they come up obviously, but there’s a tranche of vital emotional elements that just don’t feature in the common inspection framework. And the argument is that this kind of negates any claim for outstandingness.

What’s the main message?

That this word “outstanding” has, in many cases, as one of our informants told us, been hijacked by the inspection narrative.

When we dug a little deeper, we found out that what year 9 and year 10 pupils were telling us what they thought outstanding was, plus a whole range of other people – dinner ladies, chairs of governors, headteachers – what they told us was that the really important parts of being outstanding didn’t feature anywhere in the Ofsted common inspection framework.

What’s unique about this particular approach is that no one is actually talking about the emotion of inspection. People think there are other things about being outstanding: trust, empathy, relationships, fun, understanding, intuition – all of these parts are absolutely vital for outstanding practice, but as I said, don’t feature anywhere in the inspection framework.

You can understand why, because how is an inspector going to go and see whether those things are there or not?

What do you hope its impact will be?

I’m a policy sociologist, so I look at inspection as a policy and I see how people enact that, and not implement it. There’s a nuance there between the two. I look at how people enact it in their day to day work, and that can be students as well as teachers. I am hoping that a report like this will influence policy, and enable inspection to take account of these hard-to-measure emotional aspects of outstanding practice.

Recommended study: Stephen Ball’s work on performativity:

Good school/bad school: paradox and fabrication

Performativities and fabrications in the education economy: towards the performative society

Managing, teaching and learning in a performance culture

The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity

Education, governance and the tyranny of numbers

How Schools Do Policy: Policy Enactments in Secondary Schools