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Ofsted and the arts: Glass half-full or half-empty?

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Earlier this month I was invited to attend a consultation session with Sean Harford, Ofsted’s Director of Education, on behalf of Arts Council England. In this post I explain why – for now – I’m prepared to give Ofsted the benefit of the doubt.

About 20 of us attended the session from across the education, arts and culture sector, held at the Museum of London. I was invited primarily in my role as chair of a local bridge organisation (Arts Connect) responsible for delivering the arts and culture offer in the west midlands region. Our trust schools have also recently all been awarded Artsmark and I joined a number of other heads in a similar position.

In the past, I’ve not always found Ofsted consultations to be particularly edifying. You tend to leave feeling that it was a done deal and that minds had already been made up, regardless of what was said. This time however, it felt different. Ofsted genuinely appeared to be listening, so much so that we ran out of time because Harford only managed to get through a handful of the slides.

Not to worry though, as most of us that were there had seen the slide deck before and so welcomed the opportunity to use the time instead to ask questions. Harford was very willing to answer them, even though at times it was difficult to discern whether his responses were the official party line or his own. (I took the view that whilst on duty, all views expressed are those of your employer.)

Yes, at times, it got heated. Frustrations were shared from both sides of the camp. Us, regarding the accountability pressures and the inevitable ‘what gets measured gets taught’. Them, regarding schools narrowing the curriculum and teaching to tests.

The usual suspects all raised their ugly heads:  Ebacc, grading, hothousing, off-rolling, exempt schools and inspector quality assurance. At one point – when unpacking the rationale behind the proposed PD and behaviour judgement – Harford conceded with a wry smile that, ‘We’ll probably end up having an argument about it but don’t worry, we’ve got time.’

A number of other concerns were raised as well, several of which are summarised below. You may find them useful when completing your response to the #EIF2019 consultation that closes on 5th April.

Workload: It seems that the DfE have at last realised that the single biggest risk to the profession is not funding but workload. There is a real fear from government that the issue is driving teachers away and so the inspection framework needs to be mindful of this. The irony wasn’t lost on the group that the single biggest drain on workload and retention is of course Ofsted.

Outcomes: Ofsted are determined to ensure that only schools with a broad and full curriculum can be judged outstanding. In essence it becomes a limiting judgement and will mean that high-performing schools that don’t provide for this (as opposed to ‘offer’) may no longer be outstanding, even though their outcomes remain stellar.

Arts pupil premium: There was a strong view that an arts pupil premium grant should be introduced so that schools could use it to remove barriers e.g. music provision etc. Some of those around the table were understandably keen to see this happen (as providers of arts/cultural services). With this in mind, the much-maligned definition of ‘cultural capital’ was also discussed and why it has any place at all in an inspection framework.

More outstanding schools: There is a possibility that the current 20% of schools graded outstanding may actually increase. Schools that previously were penalised because outcomes weren’t where they needed to be can now attain the highest grade if their curriculum has sufficient depth and impact. The new challenge for school leaders, is how best to go about proving this. Harford confirmed that there are no quotas in place or desire to maintain the normal distribution curve.

Exempt schools: Outstanding schools will continue to remain exempt from inspection unless there is a change in the law. There is currently no political will to remove the top grade and so the status quo remains. It was clear that Harford (and the heads, to be fair) remains frustrated by this but that his hands are tied.

Double-edged sword: Ofsted are convinced that their inspectors will not be influenced by data and that headteachers need to be encouraged ‘to tell their story’ and to trust inspectors to talk to pupils, see the school in action and come to the right conclusion. This is the trade-off: That by ditching data (and workload), inspectors instead will go with their gut. I feel like I’m a turkey voting for Christmas on this one and so we must be careful what we wish for. According to Harford (and nobody disagreed with this), ‘If the curriculum is right, the school will do okay.’ The issue here of course is the extent to which we can be convinced that we can trust inspectors to get this right in a few hours. At least with data, we knew where we stood.

Narrowing the curriculum: There was lots of discussion around curriculum narrowing. Quite what this means is difficult to determine as each individual school context (and improvement journey) is different. Narrowing compared to what? A hosepipe or the channel tunnel? Both are fit-for-purpose. Is it to do with core knowledge, skills or breadth of coverage? Academies are not required to teach the national curriculum, and so by choosing not to do so, does that make the curriculum narrower? What was made clear was that primary schools that only teach art, music and PE etc. once the SATs are over will have to think again, even if across the course of the year the pupils receive a broad and rich curriculum.

The three-legged stool: Inspectors will look at your school as if it were a stool with three legs, typically made up of curriculum, teaching and outcomes. If all three are broadly of similar length the stool won’t fall over. But if one of them is too short (the curriculum for example), the stool is likely to topple when sat on. Ofsted accept that too many schools with wobbly stools are being judged outstanding due to the over-reliance of only one or two legs.

Since attending the session, the existence of Ofsted’s subject curriculum groups have emerged. In a recent blog post by Sean Harford himself, he refers to the five groups – history, MFL, English, mathematics and science. The aim of the groups are to help Ofsted ‘think through the issues at hand’.

Despite my reservations around Ofsted’s need to do such a thing, for the sake of balance and fairness, I can’t help but feel that an opportunity was lost to incorporate a sixth when we attended the session. This can either mean that Ofsted already has a strong grasp of the concepts related to the arts and that they don’t need help to think them through. Or, that they simply have no plans to think them through at all. Either is a rock or a hard place.

Despite this oversight, I remain cautiously optimistic about the future direction of travel. (Or is it optimistically cautious? Probably a bit of both). Don’t get me wrong, there’s still much to dislike about the proposals. There are a number of ‘deals on the table’ that need to be removed before we can even begin to take it seriously: Ditch the grading, get rid of EBacc, don’t extend to two days, scrap the ridiculous ‘on-site no-notice’ notion, to name but a few. Then we can talk.

That said, for now at this very early stage, I am willing to let Ofsted continue to kick the can down the road. Spring has sprung, the weather is warm and today I’m feeling good. I am prepared to give the inspectorate the benefit of the doubt, especially if they really are genuine about the consultation and that we see real and tangible improvements to the final version.

If we don’t, and the status quo prevails, Ofsted will have lost all credibility and we may as well all pack up and go home.

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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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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.