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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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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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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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Reflections on #ILConf17

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I think this must be my ninth or tenth Inspiring Leadership conference at the ICC in Birmingham. Previously known as Seizing Success (and run by the National College), the three-day annual event has always been eagerly anticipated by leaders across the country.

This year was no different, and the range of speakers was as eclectic as ever. Particular highlights for me included Margaret Heffernan who skilfully weaved a narrative around horse manure, super-chickens and Adele, Pasi Sahlberg and his dad-dancing and air guitar, Alistair Smith blatantly sniffing drugs on stage in front of a hall of headteachers, and the wonderfully esoteric BBC arts editor Will Gompertz. Oh, and Roy Hodgson, who was basically, well, Roy Hodgson.

But perhaps the stand-out session for me, and the one I was looking forward to the most was one of the masterclasses. It was called ‘What do inspectors think they are looking for and what can they really see in schools?’ It was set up as a debate chaired by Ed Dorrell from the TES and featured Sean Harford and Becky Allen. Both sides were given ten minutes to put forward their case, for and against, and then thrown open to the floor for discussion. Even though I’d worked as an inspector for a number of years, I’d never heard Sean Harford speak before in the flesh and so was looking forward to it.

Harford was up first. You could immediately see why he has such a following on Twitter and that many of us are keen to #HelpSean. Amenable, down to earth and above all, human, he immediately sought to reframe the question stating that the focus needs to be more about what inspectors are looking ‘at’ than ‘for’. He then went on to remind us of the difference between sections 5 and 8 and how inspectors come to make their judgements.

One aspect though that caught my attention was the notion of ‘unconscious bias’. The National Director of Education was keen to distance himself from the fact that inspectors won’t ever get it wrong. ‘I’m never going to stand on a public platform and say that inspectors always get it right, no more than you as Headteachers can guarantee that what goes on in classrooms will always be of the highest quality. This’, he concluded, ‘is the human side of the process.’ In other words, according to Harford, the system understandably has it flaws and is a necessary trade-off if we are to avoid judging schools simply by banding them into four quartiles based entirely on test results and a laptop.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I got in a spot of bother once as a serving inspector for daring to allude that the process of inspection was flawed. But it was, still is and always will be flawed all the while unconscious bias exists. In a low stake system, I can live with this (such as SATs moderation), but when schools are closed down and people lose their jobs on the back of such bias there simply must be a better way. The paradox of course, is that all the while humans are making subjective decisions – not driven by measurable and quantifiable data – human bias will always exist and so the system will continue to be flawed.

The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been, a point not lost on Harford. When questioned on this, he quite rightly reminded us that it’s not Ofsted’s job to set the bar (it’s the sectors). Ofsted’s job is to judge how a school is doing, not to decree what should happen as a result. Subsequently converting a school into an academy is a matter for the RSC and should not be taken into account by Ofsted when making an inspection judgement (the ‘fear or favour’ effect).

Dr Becky Allen, Director of Education at Datalab and an expert at large scale analysis and research was up next and did a fine job of trying to make a case for this ‘better way’. She quoted a number of studies and research that suggested inspection was unreliable and flawed. We need to lower the stakes, she said, associated with a volatile and unreliable human-error-led system. In short, inspections are based on opinion and divergent data and not on facts or certainty. The weakness in her discourse was the fact that – just like the rest of us – she knew the system was broken, but didn’t have an alternative solution.

We then had a brief bout of sparring where the chair, the two protagonists and members of the jury could cross-examine each other. Both Allen and Harford were compelling, gracious and convincing in their arguments and there were no clear winners. For example, on the question of whether or not it’s harder to be judged outstanding in deprived areas, both sides conceded that it probably was. Certainly statistically it’s a lot harder, but that’s most likely a result of other factors such as the difficulty in recruiting teachers and a whole host of other situational variables.

The point was well-made though that leaders in these schools are often recognised as doing a good job in challenging circumstances. And even in schools that were less than good, Harford reiterated that in the case of RI, more than a third have good leadership.

He then went on to remind us that in the 25 years of inspection, we’ve come a long way. Those of us around in the mid-90s will remember that a typical secondary school inspection consisted of 17 inspectors spending five days in school and then writing a 60-page report published about three months later. A similar inspection today will consist of just two inspectors and one day. At last, suggests Harford, we seem to have have a system fit-for-purpose at a cost per school per year equivalent to that of a fifth of TA. (At which point Ed Dorrell asked the audience of heads what would they rather have, Ofsted or a fifth of a TA. I’m sure you can guess the answer.)

So there we have it, a system that has improved over the years, is much slimmer, but awash with human error and understandably so. It is flawed and will continue to be so, hence the continued conveyor belt of new inspection frameworks, each one ‘much-improved’. At one point we will hopefully finally get it right to the point that we won’t need to keep changing it. (The next framework will be published in summer 2019.)

By now, every school in the country has probably been inspected during Ofsted’s lifetime at least five or six times and we have a system in which 90% of heads are good or better in terms of their leadership. Never before have we had so much expertise and experience within our profession. We spend hours, days, weeks and months in our schools trying to work out exactly what it is that we are good and not so good at. And still we don’t always know because what we are looking ‘at’ and what we are looking ‘for’ are both so damned illusive.

Relying on a system therefore that requires one person popping in to a school every few years for a couple of hours in an attempt at telling us the answer simply won’t wash. I just hope that we don’t waste another 25 years trying to find the answer.

 

(Postscript: The painting at the top of this page is The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1781. Its significance is that it appeared in two unrelated slide decks on days one and three respectively: Steve Munby’s when comparing headteachers as Philosophers, Architects and Surgeons, and then by Will Gompertz on thinking like an artist).

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Hoops, hoops and more hoops

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We’ve had the inspectors in. The new term was barely three hours old and we got the call. So in they came – days two and three – and they were all over us like a rash.

I’m still scratching, hoping the itch will go away. Those of you who have been through Ofsted know only too well how it can get right under your skin to the point that it feels tattooed on your soul. Perhaps a tad melodramatic, but you’ll know what I mean.

Let me tell you this. Nothing quite gets the blood boiling and stress levels bulging like an inspection, no matter how well prepared or experienced you are. I’m convinced that there’s only so much a person can take during their career. I guess that when I feel I no longer have the fight, it’ll be time to quit.

It’ll be Ofsted that finishes me off. Not the lack of funding, testing or recruitment crises (you know where you are with these and are in control). Thankfully there’s still fire in the belly, so it’ll be a while before I throw in the towel.

The inspection took place at our first ever sponsored academy. The stakes were therefore high. The school was in deep special measures a few years ago. But we’ve worked tirelessly to bring about change in a period of great uncertainty.

We’ve ditched grading our SEF, have no previous inspection report to gone on, we’ve got no two similar years of assessment data to compare, we are skint, have no idea what expected progress looks like and we didn’t have a clue how the inspection was going to go. Even as late as early afternoon on day two. I obviously can’t share anything with you about the outcome at the moment, but the fact that I’m writing this means I came through relatively unscathed. I’m not so sure I can say the same about the teachers who on the day performed stirringly.

I did something strange though on the eve of the inspection. I read my book. In much the same way as hearing your own voice on record, or seeing yourself on video, I’ve stayed away from it since publication. But I did dip into it. Not very far mind as I only read the opening chapter or so. Strange as it may seem, it actually gave me a sense of calm. It reminded me of who I am as a leader and why I’m prepared to continue jumping through never-ending hoops to please others.

This is what I read:

“I love what I do. I’ve had the privilege of working with so many talented people, whose dedication and zest for teaching always continue to amaze me. I feel incredibly proud to be a headteacher. Even now, when people ask me what I do, I love seeing their reaction when I tell them. It always strikes a chord with people. I sometimes half expect them to give me a hug, as if to thank me for singlehandedly trying to save the world. Do you ever feel like this, or is it just me?

When I was in sixth form, I remember going to a careers event and being told that the key to a successful life was to find something you enjoy doing and then get someone to pay you to do it. Even better, if it’s something you are good at and it’s something the world needs. This then becomes your purpose in life. I’ve since learnt that it’s what’s known as having a firm persuasion in your work, and is – according to the poet and author David Whyte – one of our greatest and missed opportunities: “To feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time.” It is, he says, “one of the great triumphs of human existence.” It’s what allows us to move mountains…

…But as much as I love my job, there are bits I really don’t enjoy anymore. More than anything, I’ve had enough of being judged on how well I jump to other people’s tunes. The relentless pressure, for example, to become ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, to come top of the league tables, to be in the top 10% of this or the top 1% of that. And all based on somebodies tune. It’s about time I started to jump to my own again.

I’ve now come to the point where I’ve realised I can’t see out the rest of my career, continually trying to incrementally improve test scores; to eke out a percentage point here and a percentage there. Marginal gains are all well and good, but not in the context of test scores. I find the thought of this entirely unedifying and certainly not the reason why I became a headteacher. As goals go, it’s not exactly going to rip up trees. Besides, how could I possibly motivate my staff on the basis that this be the sole purpose of our being? Would you want to come and be a part of this magical journey? Of course not.

So there needs to be another way.

If you read this book from cover to cover you will find out how I had the privilege of being a part of some great teams that transformed several schools to outstanding. The highs and the lows. The trials and tribulations. The sleepless nights and nagging self-doubts, especially when inspectors tell you that what you’re trying to do is not good enough. Even though deep-down I always knew my school was great, there was always that fear that others won’t. And unfortunately, it’s their view that counts. Not mine. So if I were to tweet what the #ArtofStandingOut is all about, this is what I’d write: ‘How to transform your school in a way that is meaningful, courteous and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted.’

Perhaps then, this is the ‘other way’. To no longer get hung up by others, Ofsted included. It goes much deeper than this though. What if we could still continue to improve our schools, with or without an inspectorate, but do so in a manner that focuses on a holistic education that is both wholesome and worthwhile? Let us not get hung up on the notion of ‘outstanding’, whatever that may be, but instead, look at it a different way. We need to redefine outstanding to suit our own agenda. We need to be brave enough to drape banners across our gates on our say-so and not on that of others who only step foot in our schools once every leap year.

For too long we’ve been stymied by Ofsted rhetoric and their ever-changing proxies for what they believe the best schools must look like. The Art of Standing Out is about setting us free from the shackles of Ofsted so that we can examine our schools through a fresh new prism, one that allows us to filter out and see only the things that matter…

… This book will hopefully challenge your perceptions of what a great school looks like. When you’ve finished reading it I want you to go back to your school and look again at how good you really are. And when I say ‘you’, I really do mean ‘you’. As a person, with deep-rooted and honourable beliefs that have served you well. Not ‘you’ in comparison to me, or another colleague that you know. It’s you versus you. The only true and meaningful indicator of your success as a leader comes from within. It is your school, your tune.

 No matter how ‘good’ you believe yourself to be, I can assure you that if you know where to look, you will be amazed at how much better you really are. The Art of Standing Out allows you to look at your school, not through the tunnelled vision of an inspection framework, but through a set of lenses that helps you make sense of how great your school really is…”

So, Amen to all that. Determined to stay true to the principles of the book, I flicked through the section on the Lenses of Perception and made sure I had a set to take with me to school. And when I did, and put them on, I realised exactly how jolly good the school really is, regardless of what the inspectors may think. In particular I kept my Calibration lens firmly in place to ensure that I stayed true to my moral compass and beliefs. You can read more about the lenses here via @teachertoolkit.

In a few weeks’ time, when the report is published I’ll take you through what happened on the day. If you’ve never been through an inspection before as a leader (and I’ve experienced over 60 on all sides of the fence) I hope that it will reassure you. Or not.

In the meantime, if you are expecting the call, don’t have nightmares.

 

A rallying cry for the arts

pinata-cake-2

One of the more pleasurable elements of my job is my role as a strategic board member (and chair) of a regional Arts Council Bridge Organisation. Based at the mac (formerly the Midlands Arts Centre) in Birmingham, Arts Connect is responsible for the delivery of the arts and culture offer across the region. Although it is operated by The University of Wolverhampton, it is entirely reliant on funding from Arts Council England. Without the funds, schools across the region would be unable to participate in Artsmark, Arts Award or enjoy any of the experiences provided by local Cultural Education Partnerships.

But I fear for our future; not so much for Arts Connect as an organisation, but the arts in general. It can’t have escaped your attention that the future of school funding is perilous to say the least. For the first time this millennium, heads are going to have go through their budgets line by line to make savings, and significant ones at that. Across our MAT alone (6 schools) we anticipate a shortfall in the hundreds of thousands, and that’s just for starters. Factor in the increased pension contributions that we all face and the future does not look rosy.

Never before has the need to issue a rallying cry to save the arts been more apparent as it is now. When it comes to making difficult budget issues, because the arts are often seen by many as icing and not cake, there are no prizes as to what’s likely to get the chop.

Figures shared at today’s board meeting show that across the West Midlands (14 local authorities covering 2600 schools), less than one in ten are involved with Artsmark (8%). Across the country the figure is close to 15%, almost double. Compare this with Arts Council England’s target of 50%, and we have a very long way to go. Factor in the new National Funding Formula, and you can see why that target is looking increasingly unlikely.

At the heart of the work of Arts Connect is a fundamental belief that arts and culture can enhance learning and transform lives. I believe in this and I hope you do too. I sincerely hope that as a teacher or leader in your school you will fight tooth and nail to protect the arts as well. Unfortunately, when it comes to the pressures of accountability – Ofsted included – the arts can be the first to be marginalised. I say this gingerly because I don’t actually believe it to be so, although sadly, in reality the pressures of inspection invariably mean that the arts end up taking a back seat. The lead performers will always be English and maths, with art and culture playing very much a supporting role.

The curriculum that we offer our young people must be riddled with art and cultural experiences. Without it, we cannot make sense of the world or ourselves. How can we expect children to embrace cultural diversity for example, if we don’t provide opportunities for them to engage with the world through arts and culture? (I feel at this point that I should take a moment to extol the virtues of the arts, but if I had to do that then the battle is already lost. We may as well all go home.)

School leaders are under ever-increasing pressure to show return on investment (ROI). This can only be demonstrated through impact in terms of outcomes and achievement. It’s the ‘So what?’ question. The problem primary schools face of course is that it’s very difficult to demonstrate how the arts (as opposed to art) have made a difference to young children’s lives because it’s almost impossible to measure in a meaningful way. I’ve always believed that if you stumble across something that is difficult to measure then it’s probably a good thing to do. Take SMSC, character education or social and emotional aspects of learning for example. The arts are the same; the minute we start to test it… well, heaven forbid.

Unfortunately, the very fact that it can’t be tested is often the reason why it gets marginalised and may ultimately be its downfall. Unlike with maths and English, it’s very difficult in a SES or headteacher’s report to governors to produce charts and tables that show how pupils are achieving in the arts. Even if we did (and a number of schools are doing exactly that with increasing aplomb), it would only be a matter of time before we’d then be expected to show how we compare with other schools.

Over the years, schools have learnt to play the game. Heads know only too well that a positive inspection outcome can be achieved without any arts, so long as outcomes are strong. I recall on several occasions as an inspector under previous frameworks, examples of schools that we’d graded as good or outstanding without seeing an ounce of arts, despite the children telling us that they were crying out for it. It was extremely frustrating, but our hands were tied by the inspection criteria, attainment especially. That said, the current framework is much-improved, particularly in regard to how well pupils thrive. The difficulty of course is how you go about proving it on the day in such a short space of time. (This is why I am a fan of peer review as it allows colleagues – in the words of Mary Myatt – to dive deeper and linger longer.)

I urge you to stand up for the arts. I urge you to resist the pressure of ditching the trips and visits and partnerships you may have with existing creatives and arts organisations. Rather than see them as inevitable victims of austerity, instead be wise, be brave and build your curriculum around them. If you haven’t already done so, contact your regional Bridge Organisation and see how they can support you, perhaps through Artsmark. It’s a much-improved beast to what it once was and is now based very much on whole-school self-evaluation and improvement.

You can find more information on how to find your nearest Arts Council Bridge Organisation here. All ten are currently putting in bids to Arts Council England for funding for the next four years and it’s unlikely that it will continue beyond that. There’s £10 million up for grabs each year, divvied up amongst the ten and so I urge you to fill your face and have your cake whilst you still can.

 

My latest book, The Art of Standing Out, is available on Amazon.

 

Judging the judges

Earlier this week I wrote a piece for the Guardian with the headline ‘A message to the new chief inspector of schools: on your first day, scrap your job’. You can find the digital version here.

It received encouraging support on Twitter, and I am grateful to those of you that found the time to retweet it or engage with the debate. I received some lovely emails as well, many from people that I’ve never met.

One in particular came from a retired teacher of forty years. He said, ‘the point of view that you express is precisely how teachers have felt about the lottery that is an Ofsted inspection for some years.’ He continued by summing up the general consensus of feeling when having been on the end of an inspection:

‘I never found the experience one that inspired me or made me want to pursue avenues that would significantly improve my practice, rather I was just relieved to see the back of the whole affair… It is approaching the point where it is becoming both repressive and inhibiting the creative energies of young people. No wonder so many are leaving the profession.

The irony of course, is that only last week the chief inspector was raising concerns about the fact that so many teachers were choosing to leave teaching and work abroad. The solution was to offer them golden handcuffs. You may have heard the Radio Four interview on the morning of his announcement. The presenter was quick to remind Sir Michael that there was nothing ‘golden’ about them. They were just handcuffs.

If you have followed my blog recently, you will know that I was forced to resign from being an inspector after 7 years. Ofsted wanted me to take down a blog post I wrote but I refused and so resigned. I resolved that I’d much rather be remembered as a headteacher who writes, than a headteacher who inspects.

You can read the offending blog post here along with a follow-up here. What saddens me most about all of this is the fact that Ofsted have still not bothered  replying to my letter. As a leader myself, I’d like to think I’d never be like that. I’d at least thank the person for their loyal service, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with their views. Instead, I received a nice one-line  email from someone in head office saying I’d been deleted with immediate effect. Class.

I’m very grateful that Ross McGill @TeacherToolkit has taken up the cause. He put together a brilliant summary of all of the above, within hours of the Guardian article. If you don’t have time to read any of my posts above, then go here and read his summary.

In the meantime, here’s a very brief extract from my forthcoming book, ‘The Art of Standing Out’. It’s from a chapter called ‘Judging the Judges’, where I lament (and celebrate) my experiences of inspection over an 18 year career as a headteacher and more recently an inspector:

I loved working for Ofsted. I felt I was making a difference in some small way. It was fabulous professional development for myself, as it was always a privilege to be able to have access to the intimate workings of a school. Strange as it may seem, I always felt a sense of pride wearing the badge. It was also a great experience to see first-hand some truly brilliant headteachers operating in the most stressful of circumstances. You really do see the real leader emerge when people are under pressure, and boy there are some superb people out there.

Magnanimous, humble, uber-passionate and always fiercely determined to fight for their school, heads very, very rarely went down without a fight. Despite having to maintain a professional front whilst on Ofsted duty, I can’t deny that under my breath I’d be egging them along. “Go on my son…Get in there!” I’d be doing exactly the same as a headteacher myself if I was in the same situation. Likewise, as inspectors, we’d expect nothing less.

I can’t say this was always the case, and for some of my colleagues the experience was simply too much to bear. It was tragic to see decent, honourable headteachers unravel before your very eyes. It was car-crash. At times, I just wanted to take them to one side and put an arm around them, but I knew I couldn’t. They were broken, crestfallen.

The fear of failure is ever-present when on an inspection. It’s so tangible, like cordite hanging in the air. Over the years, as headteachers we’ve come to accept this as being an acceptable occupational hazard. We’ve become boiled frogs.

You may or may not be aware of the boiled frog analogy. If you don’t, then may I suggest you buy the book, as all will be revealed in chapter 4. I believe in fact you can pre-order a copy here at a bargain price of only £15.

I hope to post further extracts from the book over the coming months, so I’d love to know what you think.

‘The Art of Standing Out: Transforming your school to outstanding and beyond’ is published by John Catt later this year.