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Pot and kettle: A letter to HMCI

pot-kettle-black

This post appeared in the TES here.

Dear Chief Inspector,

I went to visit a new school last week. As I drove in, I could tell from the houses and the front gardens that it was an area starved of prospects. Term hadn’t started yet and the streets were awash with the detritus of a long barren summer holiday; make-shift goal posts, punctured footballs, broken tennis rackets. I’d arrived a few minutes early so decided to park up and check my phone. As I did, I noticed a group of young children tentatively approach the car. They were about six years old, unkempt and in need of something to do.

Emails checked, I was about to leave, the engine still running. The children had lost interest and had moved on so I put the car in gear, checked my rear mirror and was about to pull out when I heard giggling. I looked around but couldn’t work out where it was coming from. My first reaction was that a ball had gone under the car. I noticed movement and saw a small group of children – no more than three or four – crouching behind the vehicle.

I was about to jump out, convinced they were going to pinch my number plate. But then I noticed what it was they were actually doing. They were taking it in turns to crouch down and suck in the fumes from my blowing exhaust. As each child gulped in a lung-full, they’d turn to their mate and giggle hysterically, presumably getting some kind of kick out of the sensation. They were creating quite a stir and so more children were now beginning to come over.

It reminded me of a scene out of the TV series The Walking Dead, me surrounded in a car with a load of walkers outside. Do I turn off the engine and stay put, hoping they’d get bored and leave, or do I drive off? I was worried that if I drove away the surge in exhaust fumes might prove too strong or hot and burn the children. Besides, what if I accidentally had it in reverse and ran over one of them? I decided instead to turn off the engine and go and talk to them in my best teacher voice. I needn’t have bothered. As I opened the door, the children turned and scarpered in all directions in a move clearly well-rehearsed, laughing heartily as they went.

The following day, these very same children turned up at the school for their first day of term. They will continue to do so every day throughout the year, high on fumes, low on food and completely out of aspirations. The class teacher will think nothing of it, for it is what she does. She will welcome them with a smile and give them the love and attention they so crave. The teacher will not think twice about the extra work that goes with the job, for she understands that in choosing to work in such a challenging, demanding and all-consuming school, it goes with the territory. It’s par for the course.

I’m telling you this because I don’t think all of your inspectors will ever really understand or appreciate how much extra work teachers in these schools have to do. It’s not as simple as the headteacher being mean or nasty and abusing his or her authority. It’s far more nuanced than that. What is doubly difficult, is that these teachers who work so tirelessly just to stand still get no credit or acknowledgement for this because it’s likely that the next time an inspector calls he or she won’t think that the children are making enough academic progress compared with other schools.

Not every school is the same. I’m sure you know this, but again, I don’t believe all your inspectors do. Too many of them have never worked in tough schools where deprivation is high (and children pass the day sucking in exhaust fumes). Context is King. Unfortunately, your current framework does not acknowledge this. This is why I’m deeply troubled by any attempt at evaluating workload, because teachers in some schools have to work so much harder and longer than others. This is no-one’s fault. It’s just that some children are more needy than others. They need a lot more attention.

If you want to find a school where workload is off the scale, head for the nearest school that one of your team recently put in special measures. The school I visited above is one of those. The teachers in these schools are working exceptionally hard, and even though they may not always be doing the right things, what they are doing is ensuring that the children stay safe, remain secure and are nurtured. Unfortunately, the existing framework means that your inspectors will never get to see this because the focus is entirely on outcomes and progress, regardless of context.

You see, the teachers in these types of school have so much extra work that needs to be done. Things like running a breakfast club or a walking bus to get their class safely into school before the working day even begins; attending safeguarding meetings and maintaining detailed child protection records for the many children at risk in their care; constantly analysing the progress of each of the many groups in their class because Ofsted or HMI expect and demand it; producing countless reports showing the impact of the many children in their class eligible for sports’ or pupil premium funding, again because the government and yourselves require it; writing personalised risk assessments for trips and visits, especially for those children who never get to go outside their house and are likely to dart across the road to suck in fumes at a moments notice.

Most of this additional work has been created by the government. Not schools or headteachers. We’ve been telling ministers for years that workload has reached breaking point, mainly as a result of unnecessary bureaucracy and demands. This may well be why there is a recruitment crisis or that nobody wants to be a headteacher anymore. So you can imagine the irony when we learnt that the very body that has perpetuated the situation over the past quarter of a century now has the temerity to ask us what we intend to do about it. The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ come to mind.

Like it or not, it’s the unreasonable demands made on schools due to an unworkable accountability system that gives these teachers loads and loads of additional work to do. This is before they even think about their main workload of marking and planning that takes up all their evenings and weekends. They don’t want paying any more money, they only want a break; an acknowledgment from Ofsted that in these types of school it’s so much harder to achieve a higher Ofsted grading when kids are high on fumes.

These teachers seldom complain, even though they know that several miles away in the leafy middle class school in suburbia (could even be the local grammar), where the children are dropped off by their nanny in the Range Rover clutching a note saying they can’t go to after-school club because of their private tuition lesson, these teachers do not have to do as much extra work.

Throughout my career, I’ve done nothing but work in deprived, inner city, challenging schools up and down the country – Liverpool, London, Birmingham and the West Midlands. It’s incredibly hard and I do get so very frustrated when I know that the teachers in these schools get little credit from Ofsted. More recently, I’ve been involved as a chair of governors and trustee in remote rural schools and I’ve learned how hard these teachers have to work as well. I still don’t understand why a teacher chooses to teach a class of 40 pupils in a portacabin consisting of an entire key stage (no TA mind – have you seen how underfunded village schools are?). This particular teacher may also be the Head as well. And still they have to show the same rates of progress compared with a teacher working in middle-class suburbia with two TAs, shed loads of tech, a PTA listed on the FTSE 100 and a class of only 25.

Please don’t get the impression that the teachers that work in more affluent schools work any less hard. Of course they don’t. This is not an attack on them. In fact in many ways, teachers in these schools face all sorts of different pressures such as over-demanding parents, expectations to continually top league tables, the 11+ and grammar school applications, the performance of higher attainers. I know all this because my first headship was in one of these schools in a very well-to-do area in London. I wouldn’t begin to think how you are going to get your inspectors to reconcile these workload pressures alongside those mentioned above.

I’ve seen it also as an Ofsted inspector. I no longer have the heart to do it any more and so I gave up several years ago. I become entirely disillusioned even though I thought I was making a difference. You can read why Ofsted forced my hand here. But what used to frustrate me more than anything was having to be party to a decision to judge a ‘wealthy’ school ‘outstanding’ when I knew that some of the teachers in the school would never be able to cope in mine, as good as they might have been.

These teachers were fortunate. Their children turned up fed, watered, motivated, loved, cared for, with a head full of cultural experiences and a heart full of hope. On the whole, these teachers didn’t really have to worry about rates of progress for a dozen different ethnic groups, non-English speakers, SEND pupils, traveller families, 60%-plus free school meals, low attainers, CP and Prevent referrals, persistent absence or a revolving door of new admissions due to high rates of pupil mobility. For them, it’s pretty much a case of boy/girl and that’s it. I can think of several ‘outstanding’ schools I inspected where children did well not as a result of good teaching, but despite it.

I know your intentions to tackle workload are entirely honourable and for that you deserve much credit. I’ve worked under every single HMCI since Ofsted began, and it’s really rather refreshing to hear such compassion from the person at the top. The problem you have is that your workforce – as best intentioned as they are – simply are not, and never will be sufficiently skilled enough to be able to assess workload.

Let’s face it, some of them can barely go about their core business of judging accurately teaching, learning, leadership etc. in a way that is both consistent and fair. Take annual inspector training days. There’d be a room full of over a hundred inspectors, we’d all watch a lesson and there’d be a four-way split on the judgement. I got more right by tossing a coin. So why throw something else in the mix? I bet you’ve got more than enough on your plate at the moment, like introducing yet another framework and sorting out the illegal complaints procedure. (Which you really want to get fixed if you go ahead with the workload proposals as it’s certainly going to be put to lots of use.)

So please stick to your remit and don’t get side-tracked. Instead, make an effort to ensure that the next framework really is the last one we’ll ever have because at long last Ofsted will finally agree on what it is you are looking for. And if you really are serious about helping us reduce workload, don’t talk to us. Instead, go and talk to the Department and tell them.

Please don’t get bogged down with focussing on workload. Besides, I always thought it was for schools to decide what they did and how they went about it, not Ofsted.

For the sake of all those thousands of teachers working in challenging schools (and indeed for those that aren’t), please don’t do it.

Yours etc.

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