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Why it’s time we all grasp the Ofsted nettle

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Following the publication of the recent Public Accounts Committee findings, Amanda Spielman finds she suddenly has an awful lot to do. And it might just sting.

There is no doubt that Amanda Spielman knows she’s in a job. As Her Majesties Chief Inspector, she is very welcome to her in-tray. It currently looks something like this:

#1: Write to the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) with thoughts on the main risks to schools’ effectiveness along with ‘the systemic causes of poor performance, including the impact of funding pressures’.

Many an academic would dedicate several years’ research on this. Ms Spielman has until next month.

No sooner has she fired this one off, she then has these four to deal with:

#2: Correct the misreporting in the 2017-18 Ofsted annual report 

#3: Write a report on the rationale for exempting outstanding schools from inspection

#4: Write another report on how Ofsted can gather better evidence, including from parents

#5: Write a further report on the most appropriate model for school inspection, ensuring all alternative models are evaluated, including costs and benefits

These are all due by December. Not December 2019, but the one at the end of this term. If she had planned to consult widely, then she will be disappointed.

Once these reports are duly dispatched, Ms Spielman then needs to swiftly turn her attention to explaining to MPs why turnover of inspectors is high and to account for the discrepancy between actual numbers of HMI and those budgeted for. It’s not due until next April, presumably because March has been designated ‘full’ in MP’s diaries.

The reason for HMCIs sudden additional workload is in response to the damming recommendations in the recently published PAC report. When you read it, it does appear as if Ofsted have had a bit of a mild ticking off. To an outsider reading the report – someone perhaps who has never heard of Ofsted or HMI – it may all seem rather odd, especially for an established century-old organisation funded to the tune of £151m.

You would not be forgiven for asking why it is not in a much healthier position given the number and urgency of the recommendations. This is a very good question, one Ms Spielman may struggle to answer.

It all seems as if the regulator has lost its way and is in need of a major reboot. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Ofsted; it can only work within its prescribed remit. That said, Ofsted appears to be slowly turning into one of the behemoths of the High Street, akin to a Woolworths or a British Home Stores that failed to adopt more modern ways-of-working in response to an ever-evolving landscape.

Unlike Ofsted, Woolies was a bit of a national institution. At the time of its demise many people were angry that such an established and well-respected company was allowed to go down the pan. As tempting as it may be to wish the same fate on Ofsted, we mustn’t.

In much the same way as supporters rally round an ailing local football team to prevent the administrator from stepping in, we must do the same for Ofsted. Whether we like it or not, a national regulator is here to stay. With that being so, the challenge that we now face is, what should it look like and why?

Accountability is essential in any successful ecosystem. The issue as I see it is that the school ecosystem has largely become unrecognisable compared to a decade ago. Even a high-tech social media company would struggle to keep pace, given the rate of continual change.

Add to the mix the fact that we can no longer agree on who is accountable to whom and why, it becomes blatantly clear that we need to take drastic action. I cannot remember a time when the DfE and HMI have been so divided.

What we need therefore is a moratorium. We need to pause and take a long hard look at the current landscape. Only then can we make a considered and collective response.

Rather than rush through a load of knee-jerk reports, Ms Spielman needs to be given time and scope to consult widely on what an intelligent, holistic and purposeful accountability system looks like in the modern age. Above all, it needs to be fit-for-purpose and take into account different contexts.

Schools are far more complex than they were a quarter of a century ago when Ofsted was born. We need to create a model that is intelligent enough to take this into account. A one-size-fits-all approach is too simplistic and lacking ambition.

To really understand the situation, Ms Spielman needs to talk to you and me, the children that you teach, the staff that you work with, the parents and communities that you serve. Her team need to sit down with governors, trustees, unions, professional associations and the finest researchers, both at home and abroad.

If Ofsted really do see itself as being a research body of note, then it needs to embrace and acknowledge all of the international research that is already out there in regard to the most successful systems of inspection and intelligent accountability.

It then needs to align this with the many levers and forces that impact on schools, many of which are beyond their control: Funding, poverty, recruitment, testing, workload and mental health, to name but a few.

Most importantly, once this has all been completed, the chief inspector then needs to tell the secretary of state exactly how it is, without fear or favour, a phrase much loved by the inspectorate.

I’ve got a lot of time for Ms Spielman. I want her to stay and see the job through. She needs to be given the freedom to make the changes that are required, root and branch. I suggest she starts by writing to MPs asking them to use some of the £44m that would be saved on school inspections to set up a year-long national task group. Once established their remit will be to design a contemporary accountability system that will see us in to 2020 and beyond.

In the meantime, whilst we continue to consult and debate on the matter, we have more than enough expertise in our schools to keep the inspection process ticking over. The system won’t come crushing down around our ears.

Between us, we can ensure our children remain safe without the need for grades or high stakes. The RSC budget alone is in excess of £30m so we have the cash as well. On top of that we can add the remaining £100m or so in Ofsted’s budget.

A small senior team of HMIs can continue to provide oversight and quality assurance. It surely can’t do any worse than the existing arrangement given the damming comments by the chair of the committee: ‘If the level of inspection continues … its credibility will evaporate’. I’m sure this is something that Ms Spielman would not want to happen on her watch.

The task though is huge, which is perhaps why over the years nobody has ever really wanted to grasp the nettle. It must be incredibly frustrating for HMCI that the matter has never been tackled before by previous incumbents. Instead, it’s been allowed to continue to a point that may now be beyond the point of no return.

With Ofsted seemingly stranded at a very large crossroads, the time is now right to act. We may never get another opportunity like this again. Ofsted in its current format is in urgent need of reshaping, rebranding, call it what you will. It cannot be allowed to continue to drift.

If the Public Accounts Committee really are committed to ‘providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need’ then ministers must realise that unless radical changes are made to the way we scrutinise our schools, the future of Ofsted – and indeed the integrity of the inspectorate –  remain in considerable doubt.

 

The Art of Standing Out by Andrew Morrish is available to buy here

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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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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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Why I fear for our curriculum

Art palette

One of the things that we’ve done really well across our trust has been the curriculum. And now I fear for it because Ofsted want to get their hands on it. With their relentless pursuit over the years of teaching, outcomes, standards and compliance, the curriculum has been left alone by and large. This has meant that we have been able to quietly get on with taking risks, being innovative and by and large enjoying ourselves. Stealth is a wonderful thing.

What I’ve learnt more than anything is that Ofsted crave consistency. They love similarity and sameness. Conformity is King. In lessons and books and on the walls they want to see that everyone is doing the same thing. The fact that it might lack excitement or flair is neither here nor there. So long as everyone is doing the same. As we know, as soon as they find someone – anyone – doing something different, then all bets are off.

During an inspection for example, you find yourself having to justify why it is that Class 4A do not use their teaching assistant in quite the same way as in 4B. You find yourself caught up in a mindless argument about why it was that a TA thought it was right to remain in a chair for a few minutes longer than the one across the corridor.

Ofsted would hate having to operate within the commercial sector. Heaven forbid if they found themselves in silicon valley or the land of the dot.commers. Any new or established tech company craves originality and adaptability – they actively encourage employees to think differently and to apply new approaches and ways of thinking to solve problems. But in teaching, when you get the call, it’s all about conformity; being the same, day-in, day-out, regardless of whether it best suits the needs of the children.

In a recent inspection in one of our schools, teaching and learning was on the cusp of being judged outstanding at the end of day one. We pushed for it but on day two the team appeared to make it their mission to find examples of where the teaching in one class was not identical to the teaching in the other. They found something eventually and so we were doomed. As a result, we were saddled in the inspection report with ‘pupils may not make as much progress as they could.’ Correct: they ‘may’ not, but then they ‘might’. The point is no-one knows so why even bother writing it?

It’s lazy inspecting: Any one of us can go into a school, pick up two different books from two different teachers, see that one has slightly fewer gap tasks per week than the other and smugly conclude that one is better than the other. Still far too often the inspection process is based on the principle that the ‘exception proves the rule’.

It is no surprise that schools are reluctant to move away from tried-and-tested methods for fear of getting caught off-piste. Across out trust, every teacher is undertaking a year-long piece of action research looking at marginal gains. Each classroom is a living research centre in which teachers are pioneering new ways of working. The teacher’s pedagogical palette is therefore rich and varied, each with their own blank canvas. As with all art, we don’t want our paintings to all look the same.

But the minute we get the Ofsted call, all that goes out the window. It has to because at best we’d do well to get an RI. Even if as leaders we proclaim that staff are to carry on as normal, teachers are human after all and in times of stress we revert back to our default position. Better to be seen to play it safe and do it well – and  to not stand out – than get caught doing something risky and wrong. It’s about safety in numbers as no-one wants to be singled out for letting the side down.

So this is why I fear so much for the curriculum. Ours is very risky. It’s risky because it’s based on children’s interests and takes the principles of EYFS right through to Year 6. It’s like Marmite. When people visit our school they either love it or hate it. They ask me how do we measure it and I say I don’t know. I tell them that from experience when I come across something that’s hard to measure, it’s probably a good thing to do. Take growth mindset for example.

Our curriculum is full of elements that we can’t measure and quantify, such as entrepreneurship, critical thinking, meta-learning and play. I have no idea what ‘expected’ looks like in Year 4 or whether or not a Year 5 pupil is making better than expected progress in his ability to think critically. But I’m pretty sure that for Ofsted I’m now going to have to.

When done right, the curriculum is so deeply embedded into the life and soul of the school that it becomes almost impossible to find. At best, all you can do is scratch the surface if you are only popping into school for a day. Anyone who says you can is wrong and has obviously never spent years trialling, refining and crafting a worthwhile curriculum.

A truly great curriculum can’t be boxed up and quantified unless of course the type of curriculum you offer is the boxed-up and quantifiable type. The kind that is formulaic, churned out year after year, is utilitarian and based on what the teachers want to tell the students as opposed to what they want (and need) to learn. In the words of the song (Panic by the Smiths), ‘it means nothing to me about my life’. QCA anyone?

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Reflections on #ILConf17

David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates (2)

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).