With the publication of yet another version of Ofsted’s Guidance for the Inspection of Schools just prior to the summer break (when the people who are most likely to be affected by it are at their most vulnerable), I was heartened to read Tom Sherrington’s (aka headguruteacher) response to it. He explained the changes in the framework in layman terms and also showed agreement of Sean Hartford’s vision that the best way to prepare for an Ofsted inspection is to run a “good school.” However, a number of recent social media observations coupled with actions from the DfE and Ofsted itself have raised me to question as to whether this institution, that teachers of my age have grown up with, is past its sell-by date?
For as long as I can remember, Ofsted has been a Voldermort-like word that has evoked nothing but fear and contempt from everyone who seemed to utter its name. A positive inspection could mean up to five years of breathing space, a negative one, well, we don’t even like to talk about what life could be like after the number 3 or 4 darkened your door! However, have schools and school leaders been complicit in making the judgements of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate more weighty than they should have been? After all, numerous judgements (and arguably more important ones) are placed upon schools on a daily basis. The opinion of students and parents, that of the local community which the school serves and the outcomes gained for students (not just examination grades but the character and well-being) are but a few of the ways that we, as teachers, use to measure our school’s success. Arguably, they are judgements which happen on a far more regular basis and with much more rigor, yet they pale into insignificance when the team of five HMIs descend on the school for their two day visit. The ones whose outcome is decided by your Data Dashboard, much before their Deathstar ominously approaches the coned area on the staff car park at 7.45am the morning of that first day.
Ofsted as the bogeyman
Those poor Ofsted inspectors, hated by all for simply doing their job. Why, oh why, is this so? Teachers near and far look down with indignation upon these soulless ones who have chosen to turn away from the light. We should not forget that they too are mere mortals. Before casting our own prejudiced judgements, maybe we should try to see things with a different perspective? Perhaps these inspectors joined the ranks with a view to helping people, making a difference to schools or challenging what they believed was a flawed inspection system? All of which some feel you can only do from the inside. Even if you are in utter disagreement with all of this, please hold on to your fear and loathing for a little longer. Consider the thought that, if you are a leader of strong moral fibre and running a good* school, then does life change following the verdict? In some cases it may be so but in most the answer is probably not. Having had experience of numerous inspections with a variety of outcomes in my career, I look back and see what a waste of energy it was being angry and feeling wounded at judgements which never actually changed the way I worked as a classroom practitioner, or for that matter, as a senior leader. What has made me modify and refine my practice is self-reflection and the reflection of the teams that I have worked with, a tool that teachers and schools themselves use on a daily basis, as is the nature of our vocation.
Equally, what I have been unfortunate enough to observe is that of some leaders in schools, local authorities and private companies using the threat of the “O” word as a vehicle to drive their own personal agendas forward (sometimes well intentioned, if not misguided). A complete misinterpretation of the Guidance for Inspection some years ago laid the foundation for schools across the country to adopt a corporate three and four part lesson approach in every classroom (I don’t disagree that this works for some teachers but I do feel that it should be a choice). As well as many other ludicrously disenchanting concepts of what Ofsted want to see –remember showing “progress every 20 minutes? It seems that the fear of Ofsted (much like the threat of sending me to the naughty girls’ home that my parents used on me as a child) is enough to terrify most teachers into submission and the acceptance of ridiculously inhibiting practices without question. In addition to this, do those leading schools feel that the mention of this supreme being serves not only to admonish them from the guilt of how they treat staff but also from the responsibility of their actions? It saddens me that people would choose to use scare mongering folklore to introduce ideas rather than being transparent about their intentions. Perhaps it is their own fear and lack of confidence to question “the powers that be” which fuels it? After all, as a senior leader a single mistake made could cost you your job, your pension or more importantly, your sanity!
Life after Ofsted
Having worked in schools who have been on the receiving end of both good and bad Ofsted reports, life after the inspection changes very little for most teachers. In my previous school, over monitoring, endless red tape, continual lesson observations were the norm. We received a “good” judgement in our 2009 inspection which was well-deserved because of the dedication teachers showed to the deprived community that the school served. This was achieved despite of all the bureaucracy that was enforced upon us. Following the judgement did our lives get any easier? No. In fact, the monitoring and box ticking worsened, in the head’s unreasonable and unattainable (based on data) desire to become outstanding. In the summer term of 2012 the school was inspected again under what was the “new framework”, this time staff thought they were to receive a requires improvement judgement, which became inadequate when the report was published based on the data of a particularly bad year group at that time. This was incredibly near-sighted as the year group in question were a blip on what had been a four year upward trend (and one which is still improving) but nontheless the devastating judgement was cast for the world to see. A judgement which marred my colleagues and friends, the children they taught and the community they served. As I no longer worked there, I could only offer a sympathetic ear to their front-line stories of disbelief and despair, my words of support and encouragement being a futile attempt to offer any solace. In the short term, the reality of the result for the school was incredibly personal, it affected the professional self-esteem of staff as well as their personal well-being. It left a community reeling and the hundreds of hard working young people who were currently studying there wondering what they had done wrong. However, did this judgement actually change anything? Well, just as the sky didn’t fall in for Chicken Little, neither did it for the staff and students. There wasn’t any more lesson observations, monitoring or box ticking that could be done because they were already being monitored within an inch of their lives before “the visit”, so that didn’t increase. They already did as many meetings and after school clubs/classes as was physically possible so there wasn’t any more hours left in the day to beat themselves any further about their failings in the eyes of the inspectors. The staff just kept plugging away and working as hard as they’d done before, knowing that their actions made a difference to the lives of the children that they taught. The head reassured the students and staff that it wasn’t their fault and they should carry on regardless, which they all dutifully did.
My current school suffered a similar judgement, moving from a 2 at our previous inspection to a 3 in 2013. The approaches of the two headteachers in question could not have been more different to the way the schools had been run but both of them believed in staying true to their principles and working for the greater good. Incidentally, both have since come out the other side, having been deemed “good” in their most recent inspections.
A poor judgement at the hands of Ofsted does offer a number of opportunities for unscrupulous HMI trained individuals. In the aftermath of requires improvement or worse, local authorities are all too eager to enforce the services of such characters on schools in an effort to drive up standards and wave that magic wand. These people seem to descend on the school equipped with a tool bag of quick fixes and this is what the inspectors will want to see, which, as we know, is all smoke and mirrors. Quite often, the findings of the inspection report tends to fit with the data in a school’s RAISE, with very little else proving to matter. I do like to think that there are a number of consultants who believe in the greater good and genuinely want to help, however, to accept a payment of up to £600 per day from schools whose funds are bleeding out should be grounds for their morals to be questioned, should it not?
Following our requiring improvement grade and in an effort to further understand the basis on which inspection judgements were made, my current school sent both myself and another senior leadership colleague on an Everything but badged course ran by an ex-HMI. The premise of this course was to train us in the dark arts so that we would be fully equipped to beat Ofsted at its own game for a princely sum. It was certainly a revelation, giving me both reassurance and support for what I already knew. In turn, fueling my synicism further and making my righteous indignation more prevalent than before. The HMI started the training with the disclaimer that all thoughts were his own not those of the agencies for which he served. This was quickly followed by a number of anti-Ofsted fuelled headlines filled with the usual angry rhetoric from disgruntled headteachers arguing that judgements made by inspection teams were driven purely by the data. He explained that it was our job over the following days to decide whether or not those claims bore any truth. Within the first two hours of the course, the members of the group were in unanimous agreement that data was in fact the only factor on which a school’s judgement was placed (which we already knew but was now being confirmed by someone “in the know”). It also reminded me of the old adage: all that glitters is not gold. We had gone looking for a quick fix and paid the price, walking away with a handful of magic beans and gaining no further knowledge to beat the system. It did reaffirm our belief of staying true to our principles, trusting in our staff and students and knowing that once the data was more positive we would come from under our black cloud.
The danger of the data
The key message from our two-day insight into the life of a HMI was it’s all about the data. If your data suggested your school was outstanding, it gave carte blanche for whatever practices you saw fit, if your data said you were requiring improvement then even the sight of miracles in front of them would do little to change inspectors’ minds. Herein lies the reason why so many schools go to unethical measures to get students to pass exams, leaving those schools who work on a more moral high-ground at odds with the system. The greater the emphasis given test data above everything else, the more likely schools are to place their efforts on this as their end goal rather than the lifelong learning and character education of the children in their care. Thankfully, the government does seem to be aware of this and is taking steps to address it, although, with their love of league tables and performance related statistics perhaps their stance is questionable? Could it be that Nicky Morgan’s continual orations about importance of the arts and character development are just platitudes in a sea of “good GCSEs”, Progress 8 and “coasting” school measures?
Casting aspersions on itself
I was glad to read that Ofsted itself is cracking down on those inspectors who contribute to school “mocksteds” in exchange for princely sums of money. The DfE will also be challenging the schools that spend chunks of their budgets on these pointless exercises. This is more disheartening. Rather than holding these schools to account, they should be looking at why senior leadership teams are desperate enough to spend ridiculous amounts of money from an ever-shinking budget in the hope of keep the wolves at bay, rather than on provision for the students. Arguably the government should be creating a supportive, co-operative environment which nurtures excellence for all. This doesn’t mean a lack of accountability, this means more opportunity for the experts, who are doing the job day-in-day-out, to challenge and improve each other’s practice through school to school support. James Croft in Tuesday’s edition of TES observed that “even the DfE has given up on the Ofsted reform“, adding further support for the argument that Ofsted has become a dinosaur on the verge of extinction. Nicky Morgan herself, who has less eloquently sold the definition of “coasting schools” to the general public, is posing her own threat to this outdated and antiquated body by giving further credence to threshold figures (albeit flawed ones). An increase in performance measures will see the need for inspectors become redundant as schools will be judged solely on the data they produce. Ironically, most teachers believe that data has been the starting point (and overwhelming judgemental factor) for inspections over the last few years anyway, so Ofsted itself seems to have been complicit in its own demise.
Could the removal of Ofsted mean taking the humanity out of school inspections?
I’ve used this blog to shine a light on the irrelavance of the judgement that Ofsted makes on schools and to cast aspersions on the very institution of Her Majesty’s School Inspectorate itself. However, it is with a furrowed brow (in utter bemusement at myself) that I now argue for their input into the quality assurance of school provision. Admittedly, I am not at the point where I have decided what form that would take, I only know that the current system doesn’t work. I do however feel that an impartial body can offer perspective and sometimes an opposing point of view is good for headteachers to reflect on. That’s where we, in schools have gone wrong, we’ve taken advice and given it more credibility than it deserves.
Taking an inspection at face value and moving forward from it
An Ofsted inspection for many schools becomes an overwhelming and overarching judgement, with parental bodies and leadership teams placing emphasis on little else. Rather than using it among a number of resouces to form a balanced and reflective approach to continually improve our evolving education system, it has become our nemesis, but it is one of our own creation. So what can we do to address this? Is it right to place more emphasis on the scores on the doors and less on these humans who can be variable in their observations? Could this be a fatal error on our behalf? Are we to become even greater slaves to the data? Surely life after levels has given us the opportunity to become free of this burden to an extent? Perhaps we need to change our perspective, to be less afraid of the outcome and in turn more open to hearing the inspectors’ recommendations? As Tom so very elegantly put it, the best way to prepare for an Ofsted inspection is to be a “good” school. In essence, keep doing the right thing and don’t make knee-jerk reactions to a bad set of results or a shift in goal posts. As I alluded to before, the practice of *good schools doesn’t change based on a damning or resounding judgement and life for teachers in those schools remains the same regardless. In the schools where the practices do change in the wake of an inspection then perhaps they needed to or maybe the leadership of those schools needed to consider a change their approach? It’s evolution not revolution that is needed for continual improvement, an organic and supportive process driven by a person-centred approach. In the same way that removal of lesson judgements has been a welcome epiphany for staff, enabling them to better digest feedback about their teaching and therefore improving students’ learning, the removal of gradings for school inspections could mean a more collaborative and effective approach for all. It is up to us at the chalk face to make it happen.
*good in the moral sense of the word not the Ofsted grade