Education · Politics

The Big O

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Michael Wilshaw is currently Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education and, I would argue, the most powerful man in education today. Consider him the evil sidekick to the Education Secretary; the Richard Hammond to Nicky Morgan’s Clarkson.

It was my partner who first said to me “only teachers and Olympic athletes are judged entirely on their performance once every four years.” A bizarre but true fact. Over the last five years I’ve worked in two schools and been through two Ofsted inspections. Both of those inspections took the school from “Good” to “Outstanding” (which is not something I’m taking credit for.) I think it’s important to have some sort of regulation and once upon a time that’s exactly what Ofsted used to be. You’d run your school the way you believed was best for the children, Ofsted would come in and check that what you were doing was OK (or better.) What Ofsted didn’t control was how you taught, how much work was in your books and how you gave feedback to children. This has changed in the last three years.

For the last couple of years in particular I have felt as though I’m working FOR the benefit of Ofsted. It’s a dangerous approach for schools to take because I know very few teachers motivated by an overwhelming desire to assist Michael Wilshaw and far more motivated by an overwhelming desire to improve children’s lives. I’ve seen schools create policies, displays and introduce initiatives off the back of documents Ofsted have released. I’ve seen leadership teams await new announcements as if they were awaiting their next orders. There’s been a dramatic increase in the publication of books such as this one offering schools advice for their next inspection. This shouldn’t be necessary because the expectations should be clear and fair.

One of the problems is that any document Ofsted resleases is almost completely open to interpretation. Ofsted are looking for “consistent practice” in schools. Some schools have, quite sensibly, interpreted this to mean teaching needs to be consistently effective. Sadly many schools have taken this to mean “everyone has to teach the same way and at the same time.” I’ve heard of some schools taking this to mean everybody has to have the same displays on the same board (English first board on the left, adjacent to Maths.)

The irony being the Ofsted themselves are notoriously inconsistent in their own practice. Inspectors vary from power tripping, orange women to supportive, fair, gentle well meaning types. Schools are completely at the mercy of whichever particular team that walks through the door and, if an inspection isn’t fair, there is very little schools can do about it. In my experience feedback is hugely inconsistent too. One teacher is told there is too much teacher talk another told there is not enough. One teacher was criticised for “just staying with a Guided Group” and another for not having a Guided Group. Last year Ofsted stopped grading individual lessons, a fantastic move in my personal opinion. However in my most recent inspectiont the feedback after the first day was:, “we need to see more Outstanding lessons” which suggests, even if they’re not writing them down, lessons are still being graded. If there was a consistent approach schools would have less to fear but at the moment schools have to be ready to meet the individual preferences of the inspectors that walk through the door.

The latest Ofsted framework focuses far less on the teaching they see on the day and far more on evidence in books. Whilst I agree that it is not fair to judge a teacher on a twenty minute performance this intense scrutiny of books has brought a whole host of other problems. Ofsted say they wanted to see next step marking and  “a dialogue between pupils and teachers.” Quickly schools produce detailed marking policies and invested in coloured pens and highlighters. The sign of a well-marked book is how much of the child’s work resembles a Rothko painting. Howeve, I know of a school that doesn’t mark any work in books and has not dipped lower than “Outstanding” in over 15 years.

So what is going on? Is it Ofsted’s ever-increasing demands or just the fear of Ofsted that is causing the damage? Ofsted, recognising that teacher workload had increased as a result of schools reacting to their policies, released a document outlining what “they aren’t looking for.” (Some might argue a clearer “what we are looking for” document might have been more helpful.) So are Ofsted entirely to blame? If it is schools’ interpretations of the policies creating the problems can they be held responsible? Whilst I think schools need to focus on doing what they believe is right and not sit awaiting instruction I understand why they do: fear. An Ofsted inspection can make or break a headteacher’s career.

A school is being graded “inadequate” can mean the head teacher is be removed, the governing body is dismissed and academy status is thrust upon it. Academy status means the school are independent of the local authority and the services it provides for example SEN, disability and behaviour support, emergency contingencies, advisory services, staff training and professional development. Academies have to fund these services themselves.The pay structure and terms and conditions of staff contracts can be rewritten without consultation. It is probably worth mentioning at this point that before he was appointed Chief Inspector of Education, Michael Wilshaw was the director of Ark Academies – a rapidly expanding brand of academies.

grim-reaper

A poor inspection can be the death of Head Teacher’s career

One thing we can all agree on is the focus on data. A school’s grade is narrowed down to two categories before Ofsted even turn up.  A headteacher is only a safe as their last set of results. If you have a bad year, it doesn’t matter what other improvements you have made to your school, your data will be a cause for concern. Equally, a strong set of data can cover all manner of sins. This could lead to school leaders choosing “safer” schools. Schools where the majority of children arrive already speaking English, where there are books at home and parents engaging them in conversations about the world around the. Sadly this means school leaders will choose to work in more affluent areas as, to put it bluntly, children growing up in poverty are less likely to do well in school. So why risk it? What incentive is there for school leaders to put themselves in the firing line when they could find themselves a “safe seat” as it were?

So what is the solution? How do we ensure children in Hastings get the same offer as children in Hackney or Hertfordshire? Things are changing: Ofsted is due an overhaul after an increasing number of complaints of poor judgments and conflicting messages. One suggestion is that within education we develop our own assessment and accountability mechanisms and work on “peer-to-peer” school improvement. Another idea is make being an Ofsted inspector like jury service: all experienced teachers would be put into a pool and selected randomly to be part of a team of inspectors. So the people inspecting are currently working in schools themselves.

What should they measure? A school inspection should be assessing how well the children in that school are equipped for life in 21st Century Britain: how critical are they? How much do they understand about other cultures and beliefs? How adaptable to change are they and are they resilient? We all agree that young people are leaving school ill-equipped for the working world but a system that only measures progress in maths and English is not going to address this problem. Ofsted need to talk to children, talk to staff and really understand a school. If school’s were involved in peer assessing one another they would have a genuine understanding of the barriers that school was facing and could suggest practical, useful ideas for overcoming them.

In the meantime I hope school leaders will be brave and have the strength do what they know is right for the children in their school. Inevitably there will be things schools HAVE to do to appease Ofsted and in those cases, school leaders should be honest with their staff. Staff would respect hearing: “as you know, the vision for our school is A and B and to continue to be able to do this we need to stay open and that means also doing X and Y for Ofsted”.

Too often I hear of schools trying to convince staff they aren’t doing something for Ofsted in the vain hope they’ll be believed. Of COURSE you’re doing things for Ofsted! We all have to. Just be honest about what those things are and show that you are only doing to be able to achieve your own vision for the school. Don’t let the Ofsted grade become a vision in itself. When I was looking for Assistant Headships I went to look around a school that had recently come out of Special Measures. I really liked the idea of a school that had nothing to lose; it’s a blank slate and you can pretty much build it up from scratch. I asked the Head Teacher what her vision and she said “to be Outstanding.” As a result, I didn’t apply for the job.

Shortly the time will come for me to put my money where my mouth is. To not allow the ever increasing pressures from Ofsted to compromise what I believe is right. Ofsted need to grade us Good at the next inspection but I hope we can prove that doesn’t mean we have to spend the next two years dancing to their tune.

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