‘Attitudes’: What exactly will Ofsted look for?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

From this term, Ofsted will be reporting on both the ‘behaviour’ and ‘attitudes’ of a school’s pupils as one of the four judgements within the new Education Inspection Framework. In a move designed to emphasise the importance of how pupils approach their learning and life in school, do we really know enough about attitudes and how they are formed to inspect them? Suzanne O’Connell takes a look...

When Ofsted unveiled its new Education Inspection Framework (2019, it came as no surprise that the judgement combining personal development, behaviour and welfare was to be split. This judgement was responsible for covering a huge range of very important subjects. Under the heading, inspectors reported on attendance and punctuality, showing respect, discussion and debate, careers guidance, valuing education, bullying, pupil safety, keeping healthy, and spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

That both behaviour and personal development deserved a judgement of their own was evident. What perhaps came a little out of the blue was the inclusion of “attitudes” alongside “behaviour”. Attitudes of learners had received a mention as part of the old “personal development, behaviour and welfare” judgement but was only one of a number of factors referred to. In the new framework it has its share of a judgement all to itself.

Most people would recognise just how important attitudes are. The problem is that this is an incredibly complex area that includes emotions, experiences and beliefs. Do we know enough about attitude and its relationship to behaviour and achievement in school to inspect it? And even if we think we do, are we really able to collect evidence of it and report on it in a meaningful way?

Unpicking the meaning

The study of attitudes is a specific area of psychology and the exact definition continues to be debated. Our attitudes can be based on different types of information:

  • Affective – feelings and emotions.
  • Cognitive – beliefs, thoughts and attributes.
  • Behavioural – past behaviours or experiences.

And our attitudes are formed through:

  • Direct experience.
  • Frequency of exposure.
  • Evaluative conditioning (how we can come to like or dislike something through an association of ideas or stimulus).

Beliefs and attitudes are highly resistant to change. People defend their attitudes by avoiding the information that is likely to challenge them. Through anchoring and adjustment, initial attitudes and beliefs are likely to remain.

Family and society play an important role in assisting individuals to form their attitudes. People are influenced by others and are affected by social pressures and persuasion. Ideas, values and perceptions all have a part in determining the positive or negative attitudes that people hold.

The link to behaviour

Our attitudes are played out by the way we behave. If a child’s attitude to learning is a negative one, it is likely that their behaviour will reflect this. The teacher may address the behaviour for an immediate solution but in the long-term it is the attitude that is the real source of the problem.

Although the links between attitudes and behaviour may be strong, it is not simply cause and effect. In a recent article, Arnie Skelton points out that the two can be separated (Skelton, 2019). You can learn to behave in a different way to how your attitude would suggest that you should. He advises that to do this you will need to have:

  • Self-awareness: knowing what your attitude is and how you are behaving.
  • Self-control: the ability to manage your behaviour whatever your attitude might be.
  • Commitment – the wish to keep the two separate.

We might recognise that we have a negative attitude to something but know that this is not in our best interests and work to behave in a different way. For example, it might be that a student has a negative attitude to homework but recognises that it is in their best interests to do it well to make the teacher happy, prevent sanctions and perhaps get better marks.

How can inspectors judge attitude?

The attitudes that inspectors will be interested in are those of learners towards their education. Inspectors will want to see that learners:

  • Are motivated and have positive attitudes towards their learning.
  • Are committed to their learning.
  • Know how to study effectively and do so.
  • Are resilient to set backs.
  • Take pride in their achievements.

Under the outstanding description in the inspection handbook, it states: “Pupils consistently have highly positive attitudes and commitment to their education. They are highly motivated and persistent in the face of difficulties. Pupils make a highly positive, tangible contribution to the life of the school and/or the wider community. Pupils actively support the wellbeing of other pupils. Pupils behave consistently well, demonstrating high levels of self-control and consistently positive attitudes to their education.”

Of course, it is relatively easy for inspectors to report from what they see in a school about how pupils behave. But they cannot be witness to their attitudes in the same way. The only evidence we are likely to see as an expression of attitude is behaviour and what pupils say themselves when asked for their opinions. Attendance analysis might provide us with some idea of what pupils think about the school but this is only a proxy indicator.

Inspectors will talk to and observe pupils in a number of different situations outside normal lessons in order to collect evidence about their attitudes. These discussions might help clarify what pupils feel about their learning and the views they hold. However, this does not mean that the school has sole responsibility for how these attitudes have been formed.

A person’s attitude to learning is formed by experiences collected over the course of their life and is not reliant on the situations presented at school. Although school culture and practice will have an important impact, children will also have been influenced by the beliefs that the family and the community hold about education.

However, whatever our uncertainty about schools’ level of influence, creating the right culture where positive attitudes can develop and flourish is what many schools already consider to be an important part of their role.

One school’s approach

Encouraging positive attitudes to school is considered to be at the heart of Michael Drayton Junior School’s strategy for improvement. With its goal to improve outcomes, the Warwickshire school identified pupils’ attendance and attitude to learning as a key element in the process.

As can be seen in the diagram below, the senior leadership team worked back from their ultimate goal of improving outcomes and identified the attendance of pupils and their attitude to learning as the foundation. In order to develop the enthusiasm and motivation of their pupils they wanted to find out more about what pupils thought.

Clear link: Michael Drayton Junior School identified attitudes and attendance as key to improving pupil outcomes

Headteacher Diane Compton-Belcher said: “The senior leadership team recognised that each area was of equal importance but also that there was an order that needed to be in place for the knock-on ‘domino effect’ to work.

“The leadership team discussed the starting point further and it was decided that it was not just getting the pupils to attend school that was an issue – it was their attitude to learning once they were in the classroom.”

The leadership team decided to imitate effective committee models that were already working within other areas of the school. They recognised the strengths and value of the existing School Council and the Eco Committee and decided to adapt the approaches used to other areas.

They also investigated what committees other schools had nationally and which had maximum impact on developing the whole child, learning attitudes and as a result of both, raising standards. Pupils were given more of a say and felt more in control.

Following consultation, school council members fed back that teaching needed to be more active and teachers needed to talk less. Pupils enjoyed cross-curricular learning and wanted “fun” lessons. This feedback prompted a review of the curriculum and development of a more inclusive topic approach to learning – allowing the pupils to input into planning and suggest outcomes.

Ms Compton-Belcher said: “Cultivating attitudes to learning, improving the quality of teaching and developing the curriculum enthused pupils. The majority of pupils enjoyed their learning and savoured their valued roles. Attitudes were developing; pupils were enjoying their learning more.”

More than just schools

Some schools, such as Michael Drayton, have already taken on board the importance of attitudes and are actively working to improve and develop them in their pupils. They have listened to their students and followed up the feedback with more ways to make the learning engaging. These were actions they were taking before Ofsted’s new framework came along and as one of their starting points for school improvement.

Not all schools, however, have identified attitudes as such an important catalyst in their school development plan. For some schools, where the community and family culture is already strongly focused on learning, there may be less need to do so. As with all aspects of education there will be schools with some distance to make up while others will already be well ahead.

Perhaps it is time for more research in this area and recognition that schools do not have sole responsibility for how attitudes are formed. With more interest in the curriculum and concerns about the impact of testing, it could be an opportune moment to focus on this key component that is extraordinarily slippery to define but universally recognised for its importance.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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