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Live from the 15:17 to Newport

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I’ve never done a live blog post before. I usually craft them several days in advance. But not this one; to mark the occasion of my 60th post this one is coming to you ‘live’.

The fact that you are reading this means that it’s uploaded okay, but as I type I’m hurtling south on a rickety Arriva Train through Wales from Ludlow on the 15.17 to Newport. From there I have a quick five-minute platform dash to jump the train to Paddington and the Heathrow Express to Terminal 5.

It’s then early to bed before I board the noon flight to Austin, USA. The 10-hour flight gets me in mid-afternoon Texan time tomorrow (Sunday) so I have the evening free – jet lag permitting – to explore what the city has to offer.

As state capitals go, Austin is the self-proclaimed ‘live music capital of the world’. One of my favourite ensembles performed there several times last week and it would have been lovely if it coincided with my visit. Never mind though, I’ve got tickets for May. (Google ‘Brassneck’.)

According to Austin’s own tourist board website it’s also a city that prides itself on embracing alternative cultures, hence the ubiquitous bumper stickers that I’m determined to search out that read ‘Keep Austin Weird’. It sounds like my kinda place, although we have been warned to not be too concerned at the fact that almost everyone carries guns (which at home I don’t) and wears huge cowboy hats (which I do). Most importantly though – and apropos to nothing – it’s the state that bears the name of the opening chapter (‘The Texan’) of probably the greatest book ever written, Catch-22.

But here’s to the point of this post – Austin is also known as ‘Silicon Hill’ on account of the many technology companies that are based there. In the 1990s, more than 400 high-tech companies, including IBM, Dell, Motorola, and of course Texas Instruments, made the city their home.

Apple have recently moved in as well, opening a brand new ‘flagship’ store in northside Domain and it is to here that I shall be first heading.

During the next week or so, I’m joining a number of UK colleagues on an international leadership study visit organised and led jointly by Apple and SSAT.

The main aim of the trip is to ‘give education leaders unique insight into the work of one of the world’s most successful organisations and learn leadership lessons to apply to their school context.’ When I was first invited to take part, I didn’t need a great deal of time to think about it. It was an opportunity to good to miss for an old hack like me.

The 15-strong delegation meets up in Austin on Monday morning, kicking off with a session called ‘Engaging with Intention’. We then have the honour of visiting the Eanes School District that, according to Apple, will ‘raise your expectations for technology and the role it can play in your schools’. We then debrief before flying up to silicon valley and spending the next three nights in California where hopefully I can bag a load of Apple freebies.

I love California. I’ve had the privilege of going there a number of times and have driven up and across most of the state, including San Francisco to LA and down to San Diego and across to Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon and up to Yosemite. I’ve never been to Cupertino (San Jose) though, a short drive from San Francisco, so I’m looking forward to this, despite it being strictly for business. Even more so as we are based at Apple Park, the international headquarters of Apple Inc. It only opened last year and is the fifth most expensive building in the world coming in at a cool $5 billion.

Known as the ‘spaceship campus’ the new HQ replaces the previous ‘One Infinite Loop’. With almost 15,000 employees based there, the 175-acre site, is impressive indeed. And although it may seem extravagant at five billion, in real terms this knocks barely 2% off the company’s gargantuan annual cash reserves. By means of comparison, to a small SME in the UK worth £100k (10-50 employees), this would be the equivalent of building a new office for only £2,000.

Sessions for the rest of the visit look like this, spread across two days:

Why mobility matters (understanding the role of a leader in a rapidly changing environment)

The importance of culture (how Apple make it stick and lessons to be learned in education)

Managing change (discovering how Apple approach the complexities of change)

Implicit Promise (intriguingly billed as a ‘special session’ with Apple University)

Apple in enterprise (how as leaders we should approach rapid transformation)

Productivity with Apple (reducing workload and saving time with tech)

Evidence and impact (how to measure your vision for learning, impact and teaching.

Elements of learning and leadership (what Apple have learned about innovation and change)

I shall remain as cynical and optimistic as ever as we get to grips with each of these, using a number of diagnostic digital leadership tools developed exclusively by Apple.

Finally, on day four, we wrap the whole thing up in a strategy session identifying how best to work through specific tasks, formulating actions and next steps for back in our schools. It’s then the San Jose to LHR redeye on Thursday, hopefully arriving in time for tea on Friday evening, 25 hours of flying time later.

So, dear reader, although I don’t expect any sympathy from you, I am going to be working hard whilst I’m out there in the sun. Don’t forget as well that I’m losing a week of my holiday also, and whilst it’s a great opportunity on my part, I am going to miss being with my family. (And if any of my two boys are reading this, “Get back to your GCSE/A-level revision now! You’ve got exams in a few weeks!”)

Whether I get to blog whilst I’m out there depends on how much free time we get as I’m going to be awfully busy. I guess I can’t blame the dodgy Wi-fi for lack of posts, being in silicon valley. (Heck, the hotel even has its own robotic butler (called Botlr) that delivers to your room via your smart phone!). And, I’m going to miss the Champions’ League second leg as well on Tuesday lunchtime, so I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I’m making for the cause.

(16.07, Abergavenny Station, two minutes ahead of schedule.)

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So here’s to the ultimate Catch-22: Assuming I get no freebies, if I come home with a ton of over-priced Apple goodies, I’m screwed for being a sucker and paying over the odds, and if don’t, then I’m screwed because my kids will kill me as I assured them that me and Tim Cook ‘are like that’.

Anyway, I’ll worry about that later. Next stop Cwmbran, so I’d better start packing away as Newport is looming and I have only 3 minutes at the station to get the connection so I need to be lively. Despite having only one bar of 4G, I’m going to hit ‘publish’ now and hope for the best. Here goes…

 

(PS The guard has just told me someone has cut through the power on the Swansea – Newport line and all trains are cancelled. So I guess I really am screwed, good and proper.)

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Hands up for Ofsted!

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There will come a time when we’ll all look back and ask ourselves, how on earth did we allow it to go on for so long? Ofsted have been around now for over a quarter of a century and still the debate rages on about their role.

There can’t be many organisations who, during a 25-year period, have changed their ‘product’ quite as much as Ofsted. Apple iPhones come to mind as do premier league clubs and their football kits. But with Ofsted, despite the continued conveyor belt of new-and-improved frameworks, it’s still the same old beast. One of these days, I like to think the inspectorate will finally get it right. I’m reminded of Trigger’s old broom, the same one he’s had for years with 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

What we need though is a new broom, one that we get to sweep ourselves. Unfortunately, Ofsted remain as resolute as ever, despite not seeming to be able to agree for longer than two or three years at a time as to what our schools should look like. We do though; the best school leaders know exactly what a great school looks like, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to count.

I’ve worked with and met dozens of brilliant leaders across the country who are so expert at education that I feel unfit at times to tie their boots. People who have a track record to die for, who have created fabulous learning environments for children from all four corners of the world. Teachers and leaders, that day-in-day-out, continue to transform the lives of young people in the toughest of communities.

These people give their lives to the job and represent the most creative, passionate and inspirational people I know.

So here’s something controversial. Why not just let these people have a go at evaluating how good our schools are, perhaps through an accredited national peer-review model? Why not trust them to visit our schools and tell it how it is? We learn this weekend, following a FOI request, that Ofsted would rather fast-track 25 rookie inspectors to go into our schools on a short inspection than reach out to experienced school leaders who can tell how good a school is with their eyes closed. I know who I’d rather have in one of my schools.

Here’s the funny thing: If NLEs or experienced school leaders were given the reins it probably wouldn’t be any better than Ofsted. Any system that relies on people’s opinions will always be flawed. But with no grades, or high stakes, at least the system will be authentic, kind, purposeful, relevant and humane. I can just about live with that. I’m sure you can too.

So who out there really and truly believes that Ofsted in its current form adds value? By value, I mean thirty million pounds a year worth of value. I’m talking value that makes a real difference to the children in the classroom. We all know of teachers who are highly proficient at appearing to be discharging a duty i.e. teaching. But does it lead to anything? Does it add value? Are the children learning anything? Possibly not. So as much as Ofsted fulfil a mechanistic role that requires them to spend a few hours in a school in order to assign a series of numbers from 1-4, does it make a difference?

If we abolished Ofsted tomorrow would parents be bothered? I have yet to meet any prospective parent who has decided to send their child to any one of my schools because of the Ofsted grade. By and large, parents simply don’t do this. All they want is a school that is close to home and that their children are safe, happy and cared for.

In my 12 years as head of Victoria Park Academy in the West Midlands, I have never shown a parent round who was thinking of attending the school and was comparing it with another. If there was a vacancy, they were in, regardless of the Ofsted grade.

Even the DfE’s own data confirms that less than one-third of parents take an Ofsted report into account when choosing a school. Almost three-quarters of them instead rely on gut feeling based on visiting the school. In a 2014 survey by NASUWT, only 39% of parents were persuaded by the latest Ofsted report when choosing their child’s school. Location came top, with two-thirds listing this as their main priority. Interestingly, in the same survey, the school’s league-table position was in the bottom five with only 21% of parents being swayed.

Even worse from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2012: On a scale of 1-10 (10 being high), parents were asked which from a list of 15 factors influenced their decision when choosing a new school. Once again, location was ranked top (a mean score of 7.2). Ofsted only managed 11th with a score of 5.5.

So it seems that those people whose well-earned taxes are paying for the Ofsted reports clearly don’t read them. Neither it seems, do teachers when deciding where to work.

In a highly scientific Twitter poll earlier this week, I asked: ‘When applying for a new post, what most influences you when choosing where to work?’ As with parents, location came out top at 48%. Next came pay/promotion (38%), with the Ofsted report/grade coming last at only 5%. I am concluding from this, that for a whopping 95% of you, Ofsted add nothing of value when choosing a school.

So, if neither parents or teachers care much for Ofsted’s view, why do we need them? In this week’s Guardian, I once again made the claim that Ofsted need to scrap the grades. Given that the majority of schools are all G2 anyway, what’s the point? It tells parents nothing; there is a world of difference between a G2 that is barely RI and a G2 that is knocking on the door of outstanding.

Once again, what is the point? Being good means nothing. As I said in the article, I can live with Ofsted separating the 4s from the rest, based on accountability measures and safeguarding etc. It’s only right and proper that these schools get picked up by HMI.

But as for the rest of the schools, please, please for once, trust those that lead them and give them the credit they deserve. Have faith, that as a profession we can continue to build world-class schools, without the need for a national inspectorate.

If we scrapped inspections tomorrow, would the whole house of cards come crashing down around us? Would standards go into meltdown? Of course not. Who knows, we might just be able to cope without Ofsted. Now wouldn’t that be controversial?

(With thanks to @Mktadvice4schls for signposting the surveys referred to above.)

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Read. Talk. Write.

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I’ve come to the conclusion that Sir Francis Bacon may well have been on to something here. In the late sixteenth century he inadvertently defined what the three key qualities of a really good leader are. I first came across them in the US Library of Congress several years ago, on a bookmark no less in the souvenir shop. Taken from an essay called ‘Of Studies’, the philosopher and former Lord Chancellor said this:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

There is so much to behold in this, a single sentence of only 14 words. Not only does it nail to the mast the importance of reading, talking and writing, but also that if you do them well, you are likely to achieve a greater sense of fullness, readiness and precision (or ‘exactness’, to be exact).

All six of these merit worthy discussion, as they are as relevant in life as they are at work. For the sake of this post though, it boils down to the three: Read. Talk. Write.  It may sound like a nod to Ross McGill’s next book, but as mantras go, it’s up there with the finest.

I wonder how many of these you do on a daily basis? Probably all of them. I suspect you talk an awful lot and I can’t really see how it’s possible to get through a day without doing so. I remember once as a teacher attempting to teach my class for an entire day minus a voice (laryngitis), using only written signs, hand gestures and expressions. It didn’t work, although I’ve never known a class so quiet and well-behaved. As teachers, our voice is often our greatest asset and so it’s something we are skilled and confident at using.

I’m sure also that you read lots, even though you probably never actually sit down and ‘read’. If like me, you spend far too much time hunched over a screen reading through emails or glancing at social media feeds, you probably read a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Then there are the policy documents, reports, evaluations, statutory guidance documents etc. In a single day you probably read thousands of words, equivalent to a chapter or two of a novel. You are of course currently reading this, so that’s just over another 1200 words consumed in one hit.

And what about writing? Again, I bet you write loads. In a single week I must knock out close to an entire novella*, although granted, far too much of it is taken up by emails, reports, blogs, tweets, DMs etc. In his memoir, ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King writes that, as with physical exercise, we should set a daily writing goal. He suggests we aim low to start with and that it should be at least a thousand words a day (about a side-and-a-half of A4, typed).

Now, I know only too well that when I was a teacher I would not have had the time, desire or energy to do this, so I understand that for some of you this is unrealistic. So if you do have a class, don’t worry about this bit too much. However, if you do find yourself with some spare time, use it wisely by reading Mark. Plan. Teach. instead.

For now then, let’s just indulge ourselves with one of the three, the one you use the most: Talk. I know I’m taking liberties here slightly, because strictly speaking Sir Francis refers to it as ‘conference’. But it means the same thing in essence. A quick dash to the dictionary and I’m reminded that ‘to confer’ requires an exchange of ideas resulting in some kind of discussion taking place. The irony of course is that this tends to be the last thing that happens at a conference.

To confer with a colleague therefore means that you need to talk with them as opposed to at them. In Latin, ‘confer’ literally means ‘to bring together’. All the best leaders are highly skilled at doing this, even with those colleagues that are the hardest to reach. In fact, talk is the only meaningful way to engage with such people. Sticking with the US Congress theme, it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” I’m sure he didn’t mean by sending him an email.

If of course, as a leader, when talking with someone you intend to engage with the person then the ability to listen with intent is as equally important. It also requires plenty of integrity and openness and the willingness to genuinely understand. Steve Radcliffe, in his brilliant book Leadership Plain and Simple, unpacks this perfectly in his Future-Engage-Deliver model:

“Engagement is central to a leader’s ability to build alignment, involvement,  ownership, unity and team. Crucially, it is absolutely distinct from              ‘communicating to’, ‘presenting at’, or ‘telling.”

To assume that because you’ve told someone something, or sent them an email, or sat them down in front of a PowerPoint, that they will immediately jump up with glee and merrily go about their business implementing it, is a mistake that many of us I’m sure have made in the past. I’ve certainly done this – and quite possibly still do – especially when bringing new sponsored schools into the trust where one assumes engagement is taken as read.

I am always very mindful that it’s less about what you say and everything to do with how you say it. If you get this bit right – day-in, day-out – the results can be spectacular. Or as Radcliffe puts it: ‘What’s possible for a group or organisation when people are really engaged can be immense.’

In Radcliffe’s book he defines a leader as being someone ‘who is up to something‘. There are few definitions of leadership better than this, for if you are not up to something then you cannot possibly be in a position to engage meaningfully with someone.

The next time you really want to talk to someone in a meaningful way try asking them what they’re up to. If you are in the presence of a true leader, you will invariably see their eyes light up, as if to say, ‘Sit down. I thought you’d never ask‘. So you find yourself sitting down with them and sharing what you’ve both been up to and before you know it, the engagement leaves an indelible mark on you both and something happens. The best leaders know that it is the artful synergy and alignment of these ‘things that happen’ that create deep-rooted systemic change. All from a single conference.

Read, talk, write. As tempted as I am to call these my new year resolutions, I’m going to resist. This is because it would be wrong of me to revisit them only once a year for the first few weeks of January, only to have forgotten about them entirely by time the clocks change. These three simple behaviours need to remain my mantra at all times, something that I try to work hard at developing every day, providing of course they are rooted in quality. Having it emblazoned on my bookmark helps me no end, so long as I remember to read.

*’A short and well-structured narrative, often realistic and satiric in tone’, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. A novella can consist of as few as 7,000 words.

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Bloggers of the world, unite and take over

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As critical as I am of the inspection process in England, I am entirely at ease with the fact that inspection is here to stay. Indeed, I’d be concerned if it were ever abolished. An independent inspectorate is essential if we are to continue to have faith in our education system. I think all schools should be inspected regularly, outstanding or not, and that outcomes should be publically reported.

I just don’t agree that schools need to be graded. It should be black or white: Either they are ‘good’ schools or not. They either meet minimum standards or they don’t. Children are safe or they are not. Your car is either roadworthy or it’s not. Leave the rest to the experts – practising headteachers – to provide the shades of grey. This way, we all have a say – HMI included – and the whole thing comes in millions of pounds cheaper.

But of course, this will never happen for one simple reason: As a profession, we are not trusted.

If we had control of the remote we’d simply seek to change channels if we didn’t like what we saw or delete things that we’d previously recorded because it was rubbish. It is such a shame that this may be the perception, given the vast amount of expertise out there in the system that currently exists.

That said, I remain eternally optimistic for the future. I am encouraged by what I read and hear from Sean Harford and Amanda Spielman. As HMCI, she seems to be doing a fine job building bridges and being open, honest and actually listening.

There appears to be a wind of change in the air, albeit a slight breeze. Take for example a recent inspection report, as tweeted by @johntomsett: ‘This is one of the most important paragraphs in our new Ofsted report… (and) for the system as a whole’:

The curriculum reflects the leaders’ integrity because it is designed to match pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance measures.

How refreshing and encouraging is this? It sets the bar at a whole new level and should give all school leaders the confidence to at least take risks. However, and it’s a huge ‘however’ indeed, because this is very much at the heart of the whole problem and why it needs fixing:

Not all inspectors are as good as the one that wrote that report. Not all inspectors get it. Not all inspectors are as willing to leave their baggage at the gate. 

This is precisely why the system is flawed, for it’s possible that another inspector is just as likely to visit John’s school and take a different view. If the stakes weren’t so high, then ordinarily this wouldn’t be such a big deal. We could live with it. But they are not. The stakes have never been higher.

As pleasing as it is to see such a comment in a report, the question we must all ask is ‘why has it taken Ofsted over a quarter of a century to realise this?’ Surely schools have been building values-led curricular for years that we’ve desperately been trying to get inspectors to acknowledge, but to no avail.

I hope this has now trickled down to the entire Ofsted workforce and it becomes the rule rather than the exception. It’s all well and good Ofsted tweeting about debunking myths, but unless this filters through to every single inspector out there, the flaws will remain.

We as school leaders would not be allowed to get away with this. Consistency is King, so say Ofsted. It doesn’t matter how many times you tweet it, say it, email it, shout it from the rooftops. Unless every single member of your staff are on point, you are only as good as your weakest link.

It’s such a shame that this rule does not apply to Ofsted. It’s simply not good enough that only some of the links are strong, because chances are one of the weak ones will walk through your door and you are doomed. And there’s nothing you can do about it. (Am I causing your anxiety levels to rise? Am I creating a culture of fear? If I am, then I apologise. Simply don’t read on.)

However, as I said, I remain encouraged, especially as Ofsted continue to reach out via twitter. Not all of you would agree. There are many of you out there that find it refreshing and appealing – endearing almost – that Ofsted are doing all they can to break down barriers on social media in order to become more accessible. Others, less so. You like your regulators to stay detached and out of sight, only to come out when duty calls (a bit like HMRC). At least you know where you stand.

Perhaps though there’s room for both. In my opinion, the efforts of Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford to engage on Twitter can only be a good thing, surely. It’s certainly something I never imagined I’d see under previous regimes. They deserve much credit for attempting to break down the barriers and to use social media to their advantage. Besides, what can be wrong with using such a populist platform to convey your views?

The answer of course, if you believe what was reported last week, is when you are a blogging headteacher. Now look, I like to think that Spielman never spoke the words she was reported to have said. Even if she did, she is probably right to say that a ‘culture of fear’ has built up over the years as a result of headteacher blogs.

But we all know where that’s come from. Not us. Abolish Ofsted in it’s current form, reform inspection, and the problem goes away. It’s really very simple.

Passionate headteacher blogs may well have led to increased levels of anxieties. But so what? We can all read between the lines. We know that emotions run high and that sometimes when we write it might make for uncomfortable reading. But I’m okay with that. Ofsted need to take the rough with the smooth.

Perhaps blogging is the only way that colleagues feel that their voice can be heard. We all know that the complaints procedure is a complete dead end. Consultations have counted for nothing over the years and it’s par for the course that Ofsted continually chose to ignore international research on the negative effects of a punitive inspection regime.

So can you really blame headteachers when they turn to a blog, given that it’s the only way of them telling their story to anyone prepared to listen?

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If you do blog, don’t give up. For me, blogging doesn’t come easy but I know it makes for fabulous professional learning and development so I stick at it. As Picasso once said, ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ For me, blogging is a selfless, personal act, and not something I necessarily set out to do to please you, dear reader.

I think it’s that vulnerability when posting a blog that makes our profession so open and accessible; the fact that teachers are willing to expose themselves to criticism from others and write freely without fear or favour. I can’t imagine lawyers or librarians blogging in the same way, uploading tortured pieces on the frustrating idiosyncrasies of penal reform or the Dewey system.

As a profession we must continue to tell our stories. In fact, I urge you to go out there and write something now, this minute. If it causes people to feel uncomfortable, then fear not. Providing it is truthful, considerate and kind you’ll be fine.

Personally, I’d love to know how you feel about a burning issue, even if it may cause mild hysteria. At least it gets the attention of certain people. So please encourage as many of your staff to do the same and be sociable by sharing it with others on social media.

I did this once as an inspector. I wrote a blog post almost two years ago to the day about the process of inspection. It was actually a supportive piece, once again reflecting how positive I felt for the future. (It was called ‘Doing good as you go’.) It was a balanced post I felt, although Ofsted clearly didn’t like it because I dared to be critical. I suggested that the process of inspection was flawed. Not Ofsted per se as an organisation, but inspection itself.

Despite Ofsted’s repeated requests, I refused to take it down and so was left with no choice but to resign as an inspector. I was gutted. I’d like to think that under Amanda Spielman’s watch, that won’t happen now. Or at least if it did, she’d have had the decency to reply to my letters.

I no longer inspect but I continue to blog, although from September as a MAT CEO. I’m technically no longer  a ‘headteacher blogger’, so I guess I’m free to carry on writing as hysterically as I want about our deeply flawed and troubled inspection regime.

 

(Thanks to @PrimaryPercival and last year’s brilliant ‘The Ladybird Book of Edu-Twitter’, pictured above.)

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Please Ofsted, stick to your brief

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Two particular tweets caught my eye last week. One was from Ofsted and the other a leading academic. The Ofsted one was in relation to them wanting to do some good by conducting research. The other was based on research about how Ofsted do more harm than good. I had to read on.

Let’s deal with the Ofsted tweet first, not least because the timing of its release appears to coincide with their 25 year celebrations at Westminster. Maybe this was deliberate and that they are in an ebullient mood. It may be that they feel the time is right for them to divert from their core purpose and to venture into pastures new. We know that their five-year corporate plan is currently in draft form and so perhaps a bit of kite-flying is inevitable.

As the national independent regulator and watchdog, I was surprised to learn that Ofsted even had a research department. I’d certainly never come across it in my time as an inspector. It was never referred to as part of our ongoing training. For example, it would have been useful to have reviewed and understood the implications of international research on how the process of inspection is flawed. This would have led to an improved framework that was fit-for-purpose for all schools.

According to Ofsted themselves in a subsequent tweet, the research arm is part of their in-house team. Presumably their budget is such that they now have sufficient time and money to conduct research on behalf of the profession. I assume that it was this team that put out last week’s tweet –  apostrophe, hashtag and all:

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Ofsted have continued to retweet it on a daily basis and it has since gone on to generate almost 800 replies. They probably wish they had never asked. Suggested research areas include all the usual suspects, such as teacher well-being, retention, governance, SEND, parental engagement, curriculum, ITE, funding, and so on. Perhaps the cheekiest suggestion was this particular tweet: ‘How Ofsted have got away with wasting over £200m a year for 25 years without demonstrating any improvement in education.’ Ofsted need not bother with this one though as the National Audit Office are already on it.

There’s been no response from Ofsted yet as to what their research focus (or foci) will be. Apart from a ‘thanks for all your suggestions’ tweet several days ago, we are going to have to be content with checking our timelines on a daily basis.

Despite a number of you asking the ‘when? why? how?’ questions, Ofsted appear to have made it clear that they want to position themselves as players in the already congested world of #ResearchEd. Maybe this is a good thing and that the regulator is simply trying to modernise the brand and endear itself to the profession. If that’s the case, then I’ve clearly missed the point. I just don’t see that it is the regulator’s job to conduct independent research (not least because they are not independent). Best practice reports, yes, based on what they observe. But research? No.

Take synthetic phonics schemes for example. What if Ofsted were to research their effectiveness and to then come to a conclusion as to which one is best? Does this mean we should all go out and use it? Clearly, Ofsted will be stating a preference which is the one thing they have quite rightly tried to avoid doing. The same can be said of almost anything pedagogical, such as intervention strategies, how to give feedback, questioning and so on.

My fear is that some schools will inevitably end up adopting systems merely to please Ofsted based on their research, rather than what best suits the school. This will simply exacerbate teacher workload to the point of implode, leading even further to criticisms being made of unscrupulous leadership teams.

On a personal note, I must add though that I was particularly pleased to read that the issue I wrote about in my recent TES piece came up a number of times as a suggested theme. I’m not sure it will be selected as it will require Ofsted having to research the negative impact that inspection has on those schools in deprived and challenging areas. Their research will therefore conclude that it is not a level playing field. (The term to be used here is ‘unjust’, an adjective that we shall return to shortly.)

Which brings me nicely to the second tweet that caught my eye last week. This one was reported by the TES, based on a blog from Frank Coffield, Professor of Education no less at the universities of Durham, Newcastle and the London IoE (emeritus). According to the TES, Professor Coffield launched a ‘scathing attack’ on Ofsted based on the very thing that Ofsted purport to want to do; namely research.

In his post he writes for the British Educational Research Association (BERA) and so is well-qualified to have a view. Professor Coffield is adamant that the research-based evidence is compelling. This is a flavour of what he says: ‘The clear balance of the evidence made me conclude … that Ofsted currently does more harm than good.’ And if that wasn’t enough, he goes on to state that not only is their work ‘invalid and unreliable’, it is also ‘unjust’.

The professor goes to some lengths to qualify the adjective, referring to detailed empirical evidence that suggests that over time Ofsted judgements aren’t always equitable to those schools that find themselves in challenging circumstances. A one-size-fits-all framework is therefore not supported by the evidence.

According to Professor Coffield, the research suggests that Ofsted are incorrect to claim that their judgements are fair, valid and reliable. As a result, those of us in schools at the receiving end of an inspection ‘are diverted from looking after students to looking after inspectors’. I suspect that this will be even more so if we feel obliged to pander to Ofsted’s research.

Whether it’s the role of Ofsted to conduct research on our behalf remains to be properly debated. I am firmly against it and would urge a rethink. The fact that so many people  responded readily to Ofsted without questioning it must surely give them encouragement.  I appear to be alone on this and so shall forthwith let the matter go.

Instead, I’m going to get myself a copy of Professor Coffield’s new book. It’s all about replacing Ofsted with an alternative model based on a number of key principles, such as trust, growth, support, dialogue and appreciative enquiry. The book is called ‘Will the Leopard Change its Spots?’ I know already that the answer is probably ‘no’. Perhaps Ofsted’s desire to move into research is an implicit acknowledgement that they are indeed attempting to change their stripes. Who knows? I shall though, remain as optimistic as ever for the future – spots, stripes or whatever.

I’ll leave you at this point with one further thought from the professor, that seems, somewhat unintentionally, to serve as a defiant call-to-arms:

‘Ofsted doesn’t belong to the government but to us, and we have a right to call for change.

So there.

 

Postscript: 3 hours ago Ofsted tweeted: ‘Thanks to everyone who sent us research ideas: we aren’t taking any more but will consider all suggestions carefully.’

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Pot and kettle: A letter to HMCI

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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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Family first

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During the past two decades as a headteacher I’ve seen well over a thousand year six pupils pass through. In my present school, where I’ve been the head for eleven years, the current cohort weren’t even born when I first arrived at the school. It was especially poignant therefore to see them on their way at their leavers’ ceremony earlier this week.

By this time next year we are likely to have at least 16 year six classes across the multi academy trust, each one as equally as important as the other as we strive for the best possible outcomes. SATs results day feels very different now than it did when we were a stand-alone academy.

As we complete our third proper year as a trust, the pace of the journey that we’ve all been on has been unrelenting. I say ‘proper’ because in the early days four years ago, when we were in the start-up phase, everything was new and scary because there was no one else out there to copy. We are now through this thankfully, even though at times it still feels like a cottage industry as we struggle with cash-flow and ever-diminishing budgets.

As a MAT though with a strong set of values, we’ve managed to stay true to our objective of achieving ‘both/and’. By this I mean that we’ve created a partnership of schools that are both individually unique in their own right and with a strong sense of family belonging, each with a real sense of mission, moral purpose and corporate identity.

If you can’t do this as a MAT, then what is the point? I never wanted to create a MAT that was simply the sum of its parts. The whole purpose was to create something that allows us to do things that we couldn’t necessarily do before when working alone. If we can’t demonstrate how we’ve added value then we may as well pack up and go home.

For me, being able to measure and articulate this added-value becomes our raison d’etre. Quite how we do this is a different matter and must never be as simplistic as the aggregate of test scores. Instead, we’ve worked hard to try and develop a measure that we value and in particular wrap it up within our own core values. These are based around the concept of ‘Fides’, meaning ‘to trust’ in Latin and drive all that we do.

Being able to measure what we value is one of the major benefits of being part of a trust, especially one with a clear moral imperative. There are a number of other benefits of being part of an effective MAT. Some of these include:

1. A strong sense of belonging as a result of shared values, mission, objective and strategy. Our mission is simple: To make people become the best they can be. We do this by creating a transformative family of stand-out schools that has three main strands: Great schools, great services and great capacity.

2. Succession planning and talent management. By identifying our A-players from an early stage (about 10% of the workforce at a time), we can ensure that we have a steady flow of future leaders who are able to access a bespoke CSPD entitlement programme at every stage of their development.

3. Growing our own teachers. The identification of future leaders starts the minute one of our SCITT trainees steps through the door at interview. This year alone, we’ve trained 17 highly-skilled teachers, 11 of whom take up post in the trust in September as NQTs and potential future leaders.

4. Publically celebrating our successes through an annual conference. We are currently organising our third annual conference (#standingout18) where each spring every member of staff joins us for the highlight of the academic year. Always with a strong focus on school-led action research, littered with workshops and inspirational keynotes, the day allows us to articulate in public our values in a way that we could never have done before.

5. A common approach to teaching and learning. Although each school is free to develop its own teaching and learning policy, there is an expectation that schools adhere to our common approach based on our six pillars of pedagogy. The same goes with the curriculum. Every school in the trust is free to develop its own curriculum that is relevant to the local community providing it is based on the principles of our NICER framework for challenge-based learning.

6. Strong and effective governance. This is the hardest thing to do well in a MAT and perhaps the biggest challenge. No matter how good the scheme of delegation, keeping the wheels of governance well-oiled is not easy. New academies have to get used to how local governance operates and in particular the interface with the board. But when done well, with trustees who are highly-skilled in terms of finance, legal, HR, risk and so on, the benefits far out-weigh the challenges.

There are many more benefits, such as the pooling of staff expertise (SEND for example), movement of staff across the organisation, MAT-to-MAT collaboration, distributive leadership, economies of scale, teacher networks, pooling of funding to create discretionary spend etc. But for now, as I head for the hills (and in a few weeks’ time, the beach), I’ll log-off tomorrow for the final time this year in the knowledge that the MAT is in good shape as we continue to put family first.