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Pin the tail on the donkey

It has been a long time coming, and finally this week we got to see what the deal was. It will be discussed, debated and consulted on in the coming months before they finally deliver the will of the people later this year.

It has divided the nation. On social media it has created all sorts of uncertainties and anxieties about what it looks like. For many of us, ‘no Ofsted’ is better than a ‘bad Ofsted’ and I have to say I’m in the leave camp. I shall remain so until I receive the necessary assurances over the coming months that the final agreement represents a good deal for the British people, children included. I fear not.

A flawed process

I loved my time as an Ofsted inspector. There, I said it. I took part in almost 50 inspections whilst serving as a headteacher. I’ve also been on the receiving end of them as a chair of governors and CEO. I enjoyed the Ofsted annual training and found it particularly useful when applying it to my own schools; I knew the rules of engagement.

When on inspection, I was always made to feel welcome by fellow heads in the knowledge that I was a serving headteacher. Lead inspectors also seemed pleased to learn that they had a serving head on their team, especially when it came to assigning someone the job of inspecting early years, community cohesion, SMSC or doing a book scrutiny. (For some reason, no-body wanted to do these.)

But although being a serving head may have been a good thing, it also brought with it many problems, not least the leaving of personal baggage at the school gate. This was drummed into us by Ofsted – not just to those of us working as heads but everyone, SIPs and consultants included.

Leaving the baggage at the gate is very hard. As humans, our default position when having to make difficult decisions is often to rely on gut instinct. Our behaviours are determined by our own values and what we believe is right, and so we dig in. Ofsted call it ‘professional opinion’ and it provides inspectors with the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card and leaves the likes of you and I completely out on a limb.

A belief is simply one person’s perception of reality. It’s neither right nor wrong. That, in a nutshell, is at best what inspection is: One person’s perception of the reality of a situation at a given moment in time. As humans, we all have different beliefs and so it is highly likely that another person may perceive the reality of the situation in a school completely differently, especially when hanging on dearly to their baggage.

Once we’ve become aware of the things around us (intuition) we then make sense of it all and come to a conclusion or judgement. This is what makes us human and what ultimately renders the current high-stakes inspection system useless. It is no more reliable than pinning a tail on a donkey.

We are only human

Human beings always make mistakes and sometimes get things wrong. I understand and embrace this entirely. I’m very mindful of this when working in schools. When a new academy joins the trust in special measures, we all take great care not to judge the school too soon. We watch, we observe, we dive deep, we linger longer. And then we do it all over again.

Of course, if there are safeguarding or compliance issues that need addressing we’ll tackle that immediately. But getting to grips with how well pupils learn as a result of the things that teachers do is a highly complex process that only reveals itself over a period of time. It cannot be done in a matter of weeks, and certainly not in one or two days, however expert or well-intentioned the individual claims to be.

So why do we continue to kid ourselves that we can still turn up at a school and judge accurately what is going on? And even if we could, what is it about Ofsted inspectors that allow them to be able to do it, when us mere mortals cannot? Has the training for inspectors improved so much since I last trained that it now provides them with such sorcery? If so, why isn’t it available to all of us, as I for one would love to know their secret. 

A little but woolly

When it comes to making changes to Ofsted, I’ve always been cautious about what we wish for. The moving away from data to a focus on curriculum may appear seductive but it’s not. We must not be lulled into a false sense of security. As flawed as it was, at least with data, you kind of knew where you stood. You knew what was coming and where the battle lines were drawn.

Now though, with the focus being on the curriculum, all bets are off.  Who knows what an inspector will be looking for when judging the quality of education. How on earth am I going to get that onto a spreadsheet or a graph? Cue massive swathes of workload for all our leaders.

That said, I hated arguing over worthless data and am glad to see the back of it being used as the yardstick. Not everyone is though. I listened on my way to work to an interview on the radio mid-week with Amanda Spielman.

She was as passionate and articulate as ever. She is by far the best HMCI in my lifetime. But when she outlined the reasons for why she wanted to move away from performance data and focus instead on the curriculum, the interviewer cut her off and said, ‘Well forgive me, Amanda Spielman, but doesn’t that sound a little bit woolly?’ There was a brief moment of silence and I suspect for a split second she knew she had a point.

That’s what I call talent

The fact that Ofsted will now be asking inspectors to evaluate the impact of the curriculum worries me deeply. I have many questions, mainly around an inspector’s credentials.

How many inspectors out there have ever designed a curriculum from scratch? How many have ever worked in a school as a leader on curriculum intent and then successfully implemented it? How many of them have then had to evaluate its impact within the context of everything else that goes on in a school? How many inspectors understand deeply the learning sequences in each subject and the relationship with the cognitive domain, relational learning and associated behaviours in the context of challenging schools?

Can they look us in the eye and say, yes? If they can’t, then the system remains as flawed as it ever was.

Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt: They turn up in a school they know nothing about. How will they even begin to scratch the surface of what a really powerful curriculum looks like in such a short time? How will they possibly get an understanding of the extent to which ‘pupils successfully learn the curriculum’ and that ‘delivery is equitable for all groups’? Not just in one subject, but expert enough to be able to do so in the core subjects, art, music, PE? 

Good luck with that one, I say. You may as well just pass them the donkey.

Any human being that can do that, alongside everything else that they have to look for, whilst under great pressure, all the while ensuring that every judgement they make is objective and consistent with every single other judgement made by every other inspector at every other school, week in, week out, is one talented individual. 

If I was still inspecting, the best I could probably do is take a stab in the dark, hope for the best and then leg it. They’ll never see me again.

Ofsted must also remember that as an employer they have a duty of care to their workforce. To send them out on such a mission, one that is fundamentally impossible to do with the time and resources available to them, is unfair.

Ditch the grades

Which leads us to the farce that is the grading of a school. That lovely little exercise where an inspector takes your life’s work, and after a few frantic hours wondering round your school like an extra out of Birdbox, eventually takes a punt and plucks out a number based on nothing more than an urge, a whim or a fancy. How’s that for your well-being?

In a low-stakes system, where inspection is more to do with school improvement and development; where inspection reports highlight the things schools do well and need to improve; where any areas of non-compliance or safeguarding are made clear; where inspectors really do ‘do good as they go’, then I can live with that, not least because that’s what most intelligent school systems do in the world.

But not here. We ignore the research and instead carry on regardless with grades as if our schools are nothing more than a pack of Top Trumps.

If Ofsted really do care about our well-being and workload then they’ll convince the government to change the law and ditch the grades, especially in a high-stakes system that can make or break communities and people’s careers. To shrug this off by conceding that human error is acceptable collateral damage is simply not good enough.

Grading is unhelpful, unnecessary and serves no purpose. It is toxic and has got to stop. The government will claim that it’s what parents want, but they are wrong. Parents in the leafier suburbs may be able to choose to drive their child 20 miles or so to the nearest outstanding school, but not round here.

In fact I can’t remember a parent ever choosing to send a child to any of our schools in the West Midlands on the back of an inspection judgement. Even when in special measures, parents still send their kids to their local school because they have no alternative as all the schools are full (the nearest outstanding one especially).

The people’s vote

I hope that when you do respond to the consultation, you’ll make it clear that whilst we are happy to be inspected with rigour, the grades aren’t helpful and only add to the pressure and stress. It contradicts entirely the rationale behind caring about teacher well-being. You might also like to mention the following:

  • That expecting a headteacher to be available at the drop of a hat to meet with an inspector as part of the ‘pre-inspection’ meeting is condescending. Heads don’t just sit in their offices all day idly awaiting a call from Ofsted. They have schools to run and children to teach.
  • Book scrutinies are pointless. They tell you nothing in isolation and the amount of stress and workload required to make a case to an inspector in half an hour is just not worth the effort. Again, you are better off passing them the donkey.
  • It is impossible to judge curriculum impact during an inspection. Any attempt at claiming to be able to do so suggests a lack of understanding as to how the curriculum works. It’s taken us 7 years to build and construct ours. It’s highly complex and takes about 18 months to introduce and implement in a new school so that staff and pupils understand it. Deep impact will come through after about 3-5 years. I simply don’t have the words to be able to articulate it to a stranger in such a short time.

Open goal

So as pleased as I am about the general direction of travel and all-round culture-shift coming out of Ofsted since Spielman took the reigns, they have missed a massive open goal.

Ofsted claim to listen to research but they evidently don’t, choosing instead to be selective when it suits. When the new framework lands in September, it’ll remain in place for several years to come (or until the next HMCI). We are unlikely to have an opportunity as good as this for some time to finally get it right, after almost 30 years of trying. Let’s not blow it.

The rhetoric of claiming to be mindful of teacher well-being and workload counts for nothing if at the end of the process schools are graded, using criteria that are as watertight as the open goal net.

All the worthy intentions coming out of Ofsted will be rendered meaningless if we continue the charade of kidding ourselves we can pin the tail on the donkey.

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