The seven deadly sins of academic writing


Like a lot of university lecturers, I mark many essays. And I see a lot of rookie mistakes being made by students who are normally very intelligent, but when faced with an impending assignment, suddenly forget how to formulate things properly on paper. I therefore present the seven deadly sins of academic writing so that students can learn what drives their tutors to distraction, allowing them to avoid the main pitfalls. See it as insider knowledge, a kind of Urban Dictionary of the Senior Common Room.

Citation bombing

Like its visual cousin photo bombing, this describes the phenomenon of students finding a juicy quotation and then ramming it into the text with no preamble or explanation, leaving the quotation just to speak for itself. Usually appears with about twenty other quotations doing the same thing, as a string of apparently unconnected mini-plagiarisms without any critical analysis linking them, that makes a lecturer’s weary heart sink.


We need to think about children’s verbal experiences of school. “In the case of an elaborated code, such a code points to the possibilities which inhere in a complex conceptual hierarchy for the organization and expression of inner experience” (Bernstein, 1971). Early Years classrooms are often focused on play-related activities.

So here we have three sentences, two of which might just make sense in terms of an essay and then the random Basil Bernstein bit in the middle. Just because it sounds clever, it does not mean you have to squeeze it in there. It won’t help you impress us. You need to make it work harder. This is really what we are looking for in a student essay:

Children from different backgrounds respond to school in different ways, and some will find the medium of instruction difficult compared to their experiences of home. The sociologist Basil Bernstein argued that this can be related to social class. He showed through his research that middle-class children were likely to have distinct advantages when it came to understanding the complexity of their teacher’s speech, and the various concepts that were being expressed, as they were more likely to have experienced this at home. Bernstein termed this ‘elaborated code’, as opposed to ‘restricted code’, which uses fewer words and a more simplistic syntax and conceptual frameworks. As Bernstein explained, “In the case of an elaborated code, such a code points to the possibilities which inhere in a complex conceptual hierarchy for the organization and expression of inner experience” (Bernstein, 1971). If we are to extend this idea it would mean that in early years settings, play-based settings may well offer potential scope for helping children unfamiliar with the type of speech represented by elaborated code to access these complex conceptual hierarchies in a more structured way. In order to achieve this, educational programmes need to be carefully planned and implemented with a transition to elaborated code in mind.

Inverted comma spillage

Similar to an oil spill on a motorway, this is when a student is temporarily transported back in time to the 1940s-1950s linguistically. Every ‘term’ that is potentially to be ‘interpreted’ in more than one way or vaguely resembles some kind of ‘simile’ or ‘metaphor’ if you dig deep is ‘surrounded’ by inverted commas in order to ‘hedge’ the writer’s ‘bets’. (See what I did there?). Avoid.

Op. cit. and ibid.

Sometimes students over-cite their limited range of references, with the same three or four authors popping up again and again, every other line. Reading academic journal articles might be partly to blame here, as in the social sciences there is a convention which means you cite the author’s name afresh each time it comes up, and the effect is exaggerated when a student is only working with a very limited number of sources. However in essays, and particular in dissertations, it is important to familiarise yourself with the use of op. cit. (from the Latin opere citato, meaning ‘from the work cited’) and ibid. (from the Latin ibidem, meaning ‘the same’). You use op. cit. when there has been a gap between the original reference and where you are now, with other authors in between. You use ibid. when it is the same as the reference you last had.

Narration disease

This is when students simply write out long lists of information from the literature with no critical analysis, interpretation or insight. Guys, we already know this stuff, we work with it all day. We can even look it up if we want to. What we are looking for is an intelligent analysis of what it all means. Compare and contrast things, bring authors together, synthesise or apply different aspects of knowledge, craft your writing so it brings deeper meaning to the topic. Feed the beast, please.

Religiosity or ideology outbreak

However meaningful and enduring your favourite religious text is, it does not count as an academic reference unless the essay is specifically meant to analyse it, for example as part of a theology or divinity course. Therefore simply citing from the Bible or Koran in support of your arguments is not sufficient. Moreover, even if your assignment is being marked by someone of the same faith as you, it will be marked as having a defective bibliography if you only draw on a very limited number of texts, unless it is clear close reading has been part of the brief (and this is a particular skill more commonly used in literature courses). Similarly, using respectful phrases such as ‘Our Lord’, “Peace Be Upon Him’ and so on each time you invoke a religious figure is not a suitable form of expression for academic essays, however well-intentioned and devout. Your job as an academic writer is to distance yourself from religion and ideology and assess texts as objectively and dispassionately as you can, regardless of any personal feelings in the matter. This is actually a good discipline as you are then forced to think your position through a lot more carefully, and harness stronger arguments. You can still draw on your beliefs, but they need to be more conventionally expressed and draw on the broader academic literature rather than purely religious texts. Incidentally, this also would apply if you were an avid follower of Marx, Juche or whatever.

Id, ego and superego

Many students are not sure how to position themselves within an essay and whether they can use the pronoun ‘I’. Where it works well is when it is clear you are offering a personal insight that clarifies a theoretical point. This rises above the commonplace and counts as the application of knowledge, something we might call a measured, controlled, superego approach. What works less well is when students ramble on about their own lives for half the essay in a narrative way, and this is mainly off-task. It comes across as indulgent, and we might call this a rather self-interested ego approach. What really comes across badly is the use of bold pronouncements in academic writing. In some of the weaker essays I mark, these come across as assertions that because the author has twenty years’ classroom experience as a practitioner, for example this means they know more about education than the authorities who have carried out seminal research studies. For the purposes of theoretical psychoanalytical completeness, I would call this an id approach, being apparently unaffected by logic or reality. So the secret when referring to yourself is considering how you would link it to a reference that adds to the debate. If you can do this easily and effectively, it is most probably an appropriate use of the pronoun.

Apostrophe catastrophe

What can I say? It beggars belief that intelligent postgraduate students with at least 14 years of schooling behind them are not always able to use the apostrophe properly. If you can’t, read Lynne Truss’s amazing book Eats Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Her blog is here:


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Fact-checking education policy for the Daily Telegraph

Like many people in day-to-day contact with schools, I was astonished to read the contents of the somewhat surreal Education Excellence Everywhere White Paper when it came out recently. However on reflection, I was not entirely surprised the Secretary of State had produced it. It was clearly an attempt to salvage something from the frenzied regime of her predecessor. And like many career politicians in a similar position, she has fudged a lot of the detail. She is not the first to do this, and she will not be the last.

Therefore in this post, I don’t want to talk at length about whether politicians should or shouldn’t be selective with the truth. We can pretty much take it for granted that many will. I want to talk instead about today’s Daily Telegraph opinion piece  Stop this academic heckling, in which many of the pretexts of the White Paper were rehearsed once again without any effort to check the facts, or get to the heart of why even moderate and right-wing thinkers are nervous of many of the premises contained within it. I will do this by fact-checking the introduction of the White Paper myself (much more than that and it would be too long for a reasonable blog post).

My first impression of the Education Excellence Everywhere stance was that it started on a weak footing with this paragraph:

“In 2010, we inherited an education system where 1 in 3 young people left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly; where the number of young people studying core academic subjects had halved in 13 years. Far too many schools were failing, and far too many children were left out or left behind. Recent international assessments, comparing the performance of our young people in 2011/2012 with their international peers, have shown that our education standards have remained static, at best, whilst other countries have moved ahead”.

Nicky Morgan was publicly reprimanded by Sir Andrew Dilnot from the National Statistic Agency on 18 December 2014 for making the assertion that one in three young people left primary school unable to read, write, and add up properly, something she re-asserts on the first page of the document, and which is a claim so outlandish that it would put the British education system somewhere around the level of countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Haiti, Malawi and Nepal (according to UNESCO data). Here is the public letter of reprimand:—correspondence/correspondence/letter-from-sir-andrew-dilnot-to-rt–hon–nicky-morgan-mp-181214.pdf

In the other measures, since the Tories came to power, internationally we have fallen slightly from 8th in the world (2006) to 13th in the world (2011) in PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Survey), 5th in the world to 9th in the world for Science in TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Survey) and 7th to the world to 10th in Maths (TIMSS). TIMSS leans towards testing applied knowledge. The tests are scheduled to occur again this year. These shifts are not particularly significant and many other Western European countries show a similar pattern, but if the fall continues once the PIRLS and TIMSS data for 2016 are in, this might show that the Coalition education policies were not particularly effective and may have been detrimental if, for example, we fall to a position in the mid to low 20s or beyond for each subject. Testing is taking place at the moment and results will be available next year.

In PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) we have moved from the 2009 position of being 26th in the world (Maths) 20th in the world (Science) and 23rd in the world (Reading) to the 2012 position of being 28th in the world (Maths – a slight fall), 16th in the world (Science – a slight rise) and 25th in the world (Reading – a slight fall). PISA leans towards testing pure knowledge and has been heavily criticised for its statistical basis. The next round of PISA results should be available in December 2016.

On the basis of the international data cited above, it would be reasonable to say that our education system shows broadly similar levels of attainment and movement to our Western European neighbours such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium and so on. Sweden, which introduced similar education policies to the ones Morgan is proposing in the 1990s, represents an outlier as it has fallen dramatically in PISA international league tables to the low 30s since these policies were introduced.

Other claims are made in the introduction to the report, and I will address each of them in turn:

“Over the course of the last Parliament we put in place bold reforms to drive up standards in schools. We tackled grade inflation and restored the integrity of our qualifications,
introduced a new, more ambitious national curriculum, raised the bar for entry to the teaching profession, and gave more freedom and autonomy to headteachers and leaders through the academies and free schools programme”.

Grade inflation
It is important to be aware that in the Education Reform Act 1988 the Conservative Party put arrangements in place for the schooling system to move from norm-referenced qualifications, known as O Levels or Ordinary Level Examinations, to GCSE examinations (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which were to be criterion-based. This meant that the qualifications system changed from one in which only a set percentage of candidates could receive a particular grade each year, to one in which, mathematically speaking, all candidates could technically receive the top grade if they met each of the criteria. This forms the fundamental basis for grade inflation – changing the mathematical basis upon which results were calculated and compared, and it was something introduced by Nicky Morgan’s own party.

Integrity of qualifications
According to the British Council, each year 2,000,000 non-UK candidates from 90 countries sit UK examinations, as they are regarded as world-leading in their impartiality and rigour.

National curriculum
All schools now have to become academies, so they will also be at liberty to disapply the national curriculum for their pupils, and it may not be used in its current or future form by many schools.

Raising the bar for entry to the teaching profession
Academies do not have to employ qualified teachers, and indeed the Government plans to abolish Qualified Teacher Status, thereby lowering the bar.

Some readers of this blog post may have been present at a recent Policy Exchange event when I asked Nicky Morgan about Liverpool College, an HMC (Head Masters’ Conference) school founded in 1840, which recently converted from being an independent school to an academy. As an Old Girl, I happen to think this is a step forward, as every child should have the chance to attend a school of this type if their parents think it is suitable, not just those who can afford the fees. However at the Policy Exchange event the Secretary of State tried to assure me that Liverpool College would enjoy enhanced autonomy after conversion. Clearly this makes no sense at all – as it was originally an independent school, i.e. wholly autonomous, moving to the state sector is quite obviously going to mean a loss of autonomy as it complies with a raft of state regulations surrounding everything from admissions to procurement. So let’s see how the question of autonomy might play out for other schools.

According to summer 2015 DfE figures, more than 846 schools belonged to multi-academy trusts (MATs), with the largest multi-academy trusts then being:

E-ACT – 23
Greenwood Academies Trust – 27
Ormiston Academies Trust – 27
ARK Schools – 31
The David Ross Education Trust – 34
The Harris Federation – 35
Plymouth CAST – 35
REACH2 – 39
Kemnal Academies Trust – 41
United Learning Trust – 42
Oasis Community Learning – 44
School Partnership Trust Academies – 46
Academies Enterprise Trust – 61
Therefore many head teachers will be subject to control by the MAT and not independently autonomous. As Local Management of Schools (LMS) is being abolished, it may be that schools have less autonomy in practical terms with regard to procurement, outsourcing of certain key functions, uniform, curriculum, staff appointments, and so on.

“We will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards”

Many of us are parent governors, a role we take very seriously and carry out with a great degree of altruism in our spare time. However soon the role of parent governor will cease to exist in many MATs, and there will be fewer governors overall as schools will be grouped together with governance being provided by boards overseeing up to 60 schools at once. It is hard to see how parents (and indeed the Government itself) will be able to navigate such structures usefully when seeking accountability, and this means higher risks of schools running into problems as a result of distant boards not being sufficiently aware of what is happening on the front line.

So as we can see, even the most cursory fact check shows the introduction to the White Paper in a distinctly negative light, from wherever you are sitting in the political spectrum. This is the reason why even moderate and right wing professionals have started to voice unrest. Unless there is a more intelligent debate about the way forward that does not rely on insulting groups of professionals and misdirecting the electorate, as happened in the White Paper and more recently today’s Daily Telegraph article, I fail to see how we can make any useful progress in terms of raising standards. The Daily Telegraph has had repeated opportunities to engage with this White Paper properly, but in its anxiety to get an opinion piece out quickly in response to the Nick Gibb versus ATL fracas, it relied on repeating stirring the same pot rather than doing a decent editorial job. Given that it is supposed to be a respected broadsheet newspaper, today it will have left its readership somewhat hungry.


On four types of love in education, and how we can find balance

loveOne of my favourite school mottoes is from Kristin School, Auckland, New Zealand.  It is “Progress with Vision, Integrity and Love”. Their choice of words is very interesting. Love is pretty unfashionable at the moment beyond Valentine’s Day, wedding fayres and soppy films. However love in all its forms is very important to the human condition. It would probably not be going too far to argue that, without love, we are completely lost. With this in mind, I am going to apply four types of love from Ancient Greek to the field of education to see what we find. I am trying to establish whether we can move education towards a more worthwhile 21st century model by thinking about the different types of love a bit more often in our daily practice.

Here they are.

  • Agápe
  • Éros
  • Philia
  • Storge

So how do we see each of these manifested in today’s educational system?


This is the ‘I love you’ type of love, love for spouses and children, and something we see in the reading a lot of people choose for Christian weddings from Corinthians I in the New Testament. It can even mean an unconditional love for God. Here is an extract from the Bible, and similar words appear in the texts of many other religions:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

This kind of love is unconditional, enduring, and pretty tolerant. Where do we see this? In the eyes of the teacher as he or she explains something painstakingly to a pupil in the belief that it’s worth the effort. When the teacher writes careful comments on a pupil’s work, in the hope that this will help him or her. When a teacher gives up a lunch hour to go through work a pupil has missed. At its extreme, I think of the schools where teachers buy breakfast for children who come to school hungry, buy coats for children who come to school cold, and cuddle children who have fallen over. I also see it in the eyes of pupils as they look up teachers they admire. I see it in my students’ eyes, when they think of their favourite teachers. It’s in the eyes of parents as they affectionately wrap a scarf around a child’s neck, watch over their homework, or walk them to school. It is in the eyes of trainees as they start to model their professional behaviour on the very best practice they see around them. All this is Agape.


This can mean different things, but here I will take it to mean erotic love, the dark side of pupil/teacher relationships.  The stuff of tabloid headlines, of CRB and DBS checks, of Vetting and Barring, of List 99. In our society there is no place for physical love between pupils and teachers, and the penalties are harsh. Philosophically speaking, why is this? Perhaps it is because it is so easy for the vulnerable to confuse this type of love with one of the other types. And without clarity there is scope for manipulation.

There is also erotic love between pupils, of course. Anyone who has worked in a secondary school will feel this in the air, hanging around mixed with the aroma of hormones, cheap aftershave and hair products. An almost tangible smell. This erotic love takes two forms: the positive and the negative. The positive can provide a practice ground for adult relationships, and a space where adolescents can learn the rules of engagement. A liminal state, as they pass from companiable childhoods to higher stakes in adulthood. The negative can be the humiliation of the person they most admire, through the abuse of social networking, pornography, sexting, websex and harassment. This is something our society is not managing well, because we set a bad example. Teachers learn to recoil from physical contact from even their youngest pupils, for fear of accusations of abuse, which leaves everyone in schools confused about where acceptable boundaries might be in a more holistic sense. This is a work in progress for society, I think, and this is how Eros rears its head in our schools.


What is Philia? This is brotherly love, the sense of solidarity amongst teachers, amongst subject specialists, or amongst pupils. It can mean the affectionate or loyal feeling of an alumnus or alumna for their old schools. It can refer to the shared sense of enjoyment as people engage in a shared activity. Its meaning is captured in terms like Outreach, Communication, and Community. These are all buzz words, and all evident in policy documents, curricula, and prospectuses. They are easy to measure superficially, easy to value superficially, but very hard to know whether they are truly present, in more than a fleeting capacity.


Finally we come to Storge. This is the toughest of all the loves. This is about putting up with awkward people, especially if they are in your family. This is the teacher patiently enduring the disruptive pupil, because it is his or her job to do so while the pupil learns to conform.  It can mean the pupil putting up with classmates who are less than co-operative, or the head putting up with the teacher who is having a tough time at home and has become temporarily unproductive. It also means the teacher putting up with a colleague whose personality is radically different from his or her own, or the head putting up with the parent who is worried and aggressive. In turn, it can mean the parent putting up with the child who refuses to do homework. At an extreme, dear reader, it means this author putting up with an earlier Education Minister who confused helpful critique with harmful dissent. This is about seeing the long game, the bigger picture, and not always having everything on your own terms. This is Storge.


Having labelled the different types of love encountered in education, it’s important to seek to balance them. We have to face up to the fact that the emotional side of education is as important as the technical side. We need to spend more time thinking about the ethics of care vs the ethics of emotional neglect. This particularly struck me when my son was smaller, in a school nursery class at the age of three. I realised that when he fell over he had been taught to kiss his own knee in order to feel better. This left me in something of a dilemma. Is such teaching promoting independence, or does it in fact deny the human aspects of the relationship between him and his carers? Perhaps it is both. However conversations debating the matter are all too rare. We shy away from them.

This is where we need the term Pedagogical love, coined by Finnish academics Kaarina Määttä and Satu Uusiautti in this insightful article entitled ‘Pedagogical love and good teacherhood’.

We need to move towards a state of grace, a real balance between professional and personal involvement. Such a state of grace requires patience, care, insight and tolerance. Only then can our pupils achieve their true potential in all forms.



What’s worth learning? Curriculum confrontation!

Kari’s curriculum debate is likely to be one of the hottest educational events of the summer. Education ‘hipster’ beards optional, apparently. See you in Helsinki.




A Curriculum Confrontation 

A free, inspirational and up-lifting educational pop-up happening in the heart of Helsinki in the middle of the summer.

Three different learning models coming together to deliberately disrupt each other’s thinking. The potential outcome?  An optimal curriculum to educate children for a changing world.

Finnish curriculum reform 2016

The Common Ground Curriculum for international schools

European School – From Early Education to Baccalaureate

The City of Helsinki – Phenomenal Helsinki – the joy of learning and doing together



PLACE:European School, Helsinki, Bulevardi 18, 00120 Helsinki

DATE: Saturday, 15th of August, from 10.00 to 16.00.

TARGET POPULATION (150 – 180 places):

  • Educational hipsters,
  • The staff of the National Board of Education,
  • Teachers/Directors/Parents/Students of the Finnish, European, and International schools
  • Curriculum specialists

KEYNOTES (20 to 60 minutes each/English):

Kevin Bartlett (Director, International School of Brussels) is the Co-Designer and Co-Leader of two successful global…

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A response to Martha Lane Fox

petiteI like technology, I really do. At the age of 7 I was fiddling about with my Petite Junior Typewriter in my bedroom, trying to see how it worked. Then, if we fast forward, I can see myself at the age of about 10, looking at a ZX81 as it came out of its futuristic box and wondering what it was all about. Later I found myself running a technology department in a school and teaching primary school kids how to use early networks. It wasn’t long before I was stripping down old hardware and rebuilding it for fun, something that was to get me a grad student job at a Cambridge college one day, when they caught me surreptitiously soldering a decrepit RISC-PC motherboard with borrowed tools in the college workshop (I was on a research council grant and just could not afford spare parts in those days). Occasionally I produced a bit of low key software if there was something I wanted to do that other people wouldn’t provide. However that’s in the past now. These days I tend to keep my hands a bit cleaner and sit on a lot of technology committees and the like.

Like a lot of people, I probably get my interest in all this from my parents. My father was an engineer, although he bought that computer for my brother rather than me (boys being ‘better at Maths’ and all that). My mother was the first student parent at Hull University, and at the time was working on a pre-digital research project using the university’s punch card system to analyse the linguistic structures in the stories of the Brothers Grimm, to see if they were all authored by the people claimed (which would be going it a bit even now, I reckon). So I had the idea that computer technology was full of promise and possibilities. I also assumed that it was available to me, just as it would be available to everyone.

I was wrong about that. They will let me use it as a consumer, of course, and like everyone I have to put up with the vagaries of poor IT procurement, sloppy installations, and indifferent customer support. However working in the field, influencing the field, proves a lot more challenging. Let me give you an example.

Over the years, I have been to many IT conferences, and I am invariably one of a small number of women delegates at most, surrounded by literally hundreds of male delegates. One JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) conference I attended ten years ago was a real revelation. That time, I had gone as part of a group of women and there were about a dozen of us facing 200+ men (we counted). Once we had recovered from the sheer creepiness of JISC putting us all up in a chain hotel where the first thing you saw upon walking into your room was a rather, shall we say, exotic advertisement for no fewer than 6 hotel porn channels (aimed at men, of course), we braved the conference. It ended up being something of a meat market from our point of view, with drunken men frequently looming at us with propositions galore. Few men seemed able to have a proper conversation with us about technology, presumably as they were so distracted by seeing Real Women who weren’t relatives or conference organisers/booth babes. After 24 hours of this, we decided to try a little experiment. “How many women do you think are at this conference?” we asked an unscientific sample of male delegates. “Oh, lots!” they would reply. “Half the people here are women!” When we asked the same question of women delegates, the answer was nearer 10%. Which was the right answer, of course, and there’s the rub. Women in technology are still seen as an oddity, and if one or two appear into the daylight they are noticed more than men, so people think gender isn’t an issue.

I had forgotten about the JISC conference until last week, when I sat in a meeting to talk yet again about how online learning is the future, and if we just do x, y and z (in the past this has usually involved a migration from one meagre, poorly designed US commercial platform to another, carried out by beleaguered IT staff during long, dusty August nights in a university basement) then our future will be secure. My mind was cast back to a presentation someone made in that very JISC conference where they put up slides of each university’s network structures, and pointed out how incompatible they were with one another, and how online learning couldn’t get very far unless systems were interoperable and students were able to access their learning materials and university accounts for life. And I sat in the meeting last week and cited the presentation, and realized I had probably cited it half a dozen times over the years in half a dozen ‘big meetings’ about the future of online learning. And nobody had really done anything about the problem in the meantime.

Which is why I think we need to listen to the likes of Martha Lane Fox. What we have in the UK (and even to an extent in the US) is an horrific case of IT groupthink. This is why our systems don’t work very well, and why whole swathes of society are left out of the debate. Many of those in charge of our most influential social and political systems are technologically illiterate, with it being a joke to some (Ed Balls Day, anyone?) and unrecognised by others (hence the Cambridge University CAPSA accounting software disaster). Technology is seen as something done to us, rather than for us, by a group of male tech nerds and investors in a distant room somewhere.

I have one response to that.


Please consider signing Martha’s petition for a new public internet body for the digital age, which you can read about here.

#mydayonaplate – A post just for fun

I thought it might be amusing to join in with the latest social media meme #mydayonaplate. This is how a Senior Lecturer in Education forages throughout the day, in case any anthropologists are interested.


Accept cup of stewed tea with scummy surface from husband and check BBC News, Twitter feed and emails whilst shouting instructions about dress codes and PE kit for family members from bed.


Eat some cornflakes with skimmed milk whilst silently reminding self that despite the fact they taste of cardboard, at least they are not going to make self even fatter, unlike preferred breakfast of Bavarian sausages, pretzels and beer or massive bowl of granola with full fat Greek yoghurt and honey.


Sip at lukewarm overpriced skinny decaff cappuccino on grubby train wondering how it has come to this.


Shield eyes from the 101 snack outlets on arrival at station and give self a stern talking to about the evils of fast food. Ignore any smells of bacon.


Paperwork. Cake avoidance manoeuvre in office kitchen. Make self cup of tepid decaffeinated coffee with stolen milk from colleague’s carton.


International research student arrives with inviting snacks from home country as friendship offering. Try to ignore snacks but end up eating three. Make self cup of tepid decaffeinated coffee with stolen milk from colleague’s carton. Eat long life Granny Smith’s apple from office fruit bowl. Ignore slightly stale cheap biscuits in bottom drawer from last research team meeting, despite their enticing calls.


Enjoy healthy balanced hot meal of vegetable curry and rice in staff canteen for £4.75 but refuse to pay a further £1.75 for a tiny low fat yoghurt. Resist poppadoms and naan. Purchase massive four pint carton of guilt milk to donate to office kitchen to make up for stealing milk from colleagues previously.


Have been back in office for 40 minutes but already hungry again. Give self talking to.


Meeting with two green tea loving colleagues. Make some from special tea purchased in Beijing Airport on work trip. Drink it wondering what the attraction is, as it is so bitter.


Sit on train sipping at overpriced bottle of water whilst telling self off for not remembering own reusable water bottle.


Eat two small sausages, some peas, and a dollop of mashed potato with the kids, followed by two wrinkly Satsumas apparently left over from Christmas. Enforce conversation and staying at the table rule conversation with teenagers. Try not to express shock and amazement when teenagers load dishwasher willingly after meal without alpha male scuffle.


After putting youngest to bed, watch people being bumped off TV in the name of detective fiction, at husband’s behest, and do emails and Twitter posts on knee whilst drinking cups of tepid instant coffee at hourly intervals.


Go to bed, repeat.

OFSTED, moderation of inspection grades, and what we can learn from universities

InspectI’ll begin this post by writing about how assessment works in higher education, and then explain how this shows us potential shortcomings in the OFSTED system of grading schools, with reference to one Lead Inspector and a sample of 50 inspections.

In universities, we do a lot of high-stakes marking, so we have to be very careful about our processes to make sure they are transparent and defensible at all times. There are different ways of approaching this, for example second marking (when a colleague marks papers to check the original marks make sense), blind second marking (where said colleague has no idea what the original marks might have been) and even third marking (where the first two colleagues are in dispute, and another view is felt to be appropriate). These approaches generally apply to essay-based answers, projects, dissertations and reports. Marking is double checked by an external examiner, to ensure conformity with national standards with comparable courses, and any anomalies investigated.

For certain subjects, that might involve more scientific or mathematical answers involving technical or numerical content, there are techniques such as scaling that are typically used. This means that if a cohort of, say, 200 students all score uncharacteristically badly on a question, the pass mark for that question can be raised or lowered if it was felt that the original question was pitched wrongly in the context of the overall examination, as well as what is usually expected at a particular level. That way students get a fair and reasonable result, and standards do not fluctuate wildly if there happens to have been a change in the assessment team, for example. Again, marking is checked by an external examiner, and any scaling has to be justified to him/her in the context of national standards.

If an examination board really wants to probe assessment standards, it is possible to track how individual colleagues or groups of colleagues assess over time, in terms of a particular set of criteria, or statistical norm, depending on the subject under consideration and the group size. This then feeds into ongoing staff training. Academics tend to see assessment standards as an ongoing work in progress, routinely checked and altered, and underpinned by principles of fairness and parity. People take it very, very seriously indeed. This is why I am not being my usual jokey self in this blog post.

With this in mind, recently I spent some time looking at how OFSTED inspection grades vary amongst inspectors, and which factors influence this. To that end, I would like to present a case study of an individual inspector to give an example of quite how variable grades can be in comparison with a national norm. I am not saying this is the case for everyone, or making a pronouncement about OFSTED in general. I am just saying that, in this case, there is a case for OFSTED/Serco/Tribal to moderate grades internally, as part of ensuring professional standards are met. Then, and only then, can the public have real confidence in inspection findings.

My approach

  1. I carried out an internet search to locate all OFSTED officially published inspection reports with the same Lead Inspector (n=50), who has inspected primary schools for two different subcontracting agencies, but who does not appear to have been an HMI (a centrally employed inspector).
  1. I have gone to considerable lengths to find as complete a data set as possible, by digitally searching published OFSTED reports, with triangulation against relevant newspaper articles reporting school inspections. I was also allowed access to the Watchstead website to check the data, which was very useful (thank you, Watchstead).
  1. I logged the overall inspection grade given by this Lead Inspector in each case.
  1. I calculated the overall proportion of inspection grades in each category given by this Lead Inspector, in percentage terms.
  1. I compared this percentage to the officially published OFSTED average grades overall for all inspectors in each category, which were available on the OFSTED website.


        1. Some caution is required in interpreting the data, as a sample of 50 inspections means that one or two unusual incidences may skew the findings more than it should, more so than if we had a sample of, say, 100 inspections.
        2. The table below lists the 50 inspections carried out by the Lead Inspector over the last 9 years, and overall inspection grades awarded in each case. I have removed the names of the schools as it identifies the Lead Inspector concerned very easily and that is not the point of the exercise here.
        3. The figure below demonstrates the pattern of the Lead Inspector’s inspection grades over time. It tells us that in recent years, the inspector has become considerably more likely to award Level 4 grades to schools. This corresponds to a decreased frequency of inspections carried out by this Lead Inspector during the period 2010-2014, when the new regulations applied. Click the icon in the bottom right hand corner if you want to enlarge the chart/table.
  • As stated above, the inspection regulations changed after 2010, but the overall OFSTED proportions of schools getting level 2 or 4 has roughly stayed the same during that period.
  1. In the case of this Lead Inspector, the table below represents the proportion of grades given during  the period 2005-2013. The second column represents the OFSTED average for the same period. I have listed the 2010-2014 OFSTED averages in column 3, but I have not done so for the Lead Inspector as we only have data for fifty school inspections, so that seems unhelpful. Note: columns will not add up to 100% due to complex rounding.

                        Inspector   OFSTED 05-14    OFSTED 10-14

Level 1           10%                13%                            10%

Level 2          30%                50%                           50%

Level 3          40%                34%                           36%

Level 4          20%                7%                              6%

  1. It would fair therefore to conclude, with the caveat that this is a relatively small sample of 50 inspections, that on the basis of the publicly available data, this Lead Inspector appears to be around three times more likely to give a Level 4 grade to a school than the overall OFSTED average.

The problem with this is that we don’t know:

1. If this inspector is being specifically sent to schools in trouble, hence the lower grades. However it is usually directly-employed HMI that are sent to schools in trouble, as I understand it, rather than a sub-contracted inspector, as in this case (I am sure someone will correct me if I am wrong).

2. If this inspector has become more or less reliable in terms of judgements over time, compared to the OFSTED guidelines and the opinions of inspection peers (I found many incidences where this inspector was working alone, in small primary schools).

3. How inspection grades are defended internally by inspectors to one another. And if we don’t know this, then we have no idea how accountable inspectors are for their decisions.

This is why OFSTED needs to tell us more about how its moderation processes work, or if it has none, then simply to implement some as soon as possible. Otherwise wild vacillations and inconsistencies will continue to make parents, teachers and pupils very nervous indeed. If surgeons can publish their personal outcomes, then surely so can inspectors?


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