Saturday, 14 April 2018

Ofsted: crucial – even life-changing – but, fundamentally, unimportant

Requires improvement
Requires improvement

The Ofsted ratings of the three schools I have worked in read somewhat like the fates of Henry VIII’s wives - admittedly, if one of them hadn’t made her infamous trip down the aisle and, of course, if the outcome was an Ofsted judgement and not a decapitated head.

However, having now worked in schools in every category, I am aware that an undesired judgement can feel like an amputation of sorts. Indeed, I have been through an inspection where it certainly felt like the school was being slowly severed, limb from limb.

When I started teaching 12 years ago, I already had some inkling of the crucial nature of Ofsted to teachers. My parents were both senior leaders in local schools and I still remember the glint in my dad’s eye when he told me that his school had been awarded Outstanding for ‘Teaching and Learning’. It was clear that of all of the judgements that led to that overall ‘1’, he held that one as being the true mark of success. I also remember the crushing blow of RI almost immediately before his retirement.

I’d be lying if I said that my own first school’s Outstanding rating didn’t influence my decision to apply there. Sure, it was an easy commute and its status as a comp with a relatively average intake appealed to my socialist sensibilities, but I also remember feeling impressed by that branded Ofsted logo and the idea that surely I would be working there with THE BEST.

As it turned out, my department was led by the brilliant Chris Hildrew and I ended up working with a whole host of other talented teachers who indelibly left their mark on the naïve trainee that rocked up at their door. There was even an English Ofsted ‘good practice’ inspection on assessment during the 4 years I was employed there.

But I’m a lot more cynical nowadays about whether excellent teaching plus a solid school leadership team will always lead to the ultimate Ofsted accolade. You don’t have to look very far to see examples where A + B doesn’t always result in C. Fast forward to a very different Ofsted framework and the school in question is ‘Good’ whilst others – like my dad’s – are struggling. But the particularities of the most recent framework are for another blog entirely.

What that Outstanding badge did give every single member of staff was confidence, space, and respect. Confidence in their own abilities, space to develop their practice free from outside meddling, and the respect from others to support meaningful collaboration.

I left that school with the belief that I was a good teacher with the power to work anywhere and be successful. On future dark days, this confidence – almost arrogance – would sustain me.

And so ambitious 24-year-old me leapt to a new school for a promoted post. Looking back, it’s no wonder it instantly felt like ‘home’ given that it had just transferred to a new PFI build literally based on the blueprints of my first school. Ah, the unexpected joy of commodification.

My second school was in an ex-mining community: 98% white British with roughly a third of students qualifying for the Pupil Premium. Its humongous size (1800 on roll when I first joined) coupled with entrenched lack of aspiration in some areas of the local community meant that school improvement was like trying to reroute a cruise liner.

As a semi-rural school, recruitment and retention also added to the feeling of being permanently under the cosh. Having enough applicants to create a genuine shortlist became a thing of distant memory as we began to look to more creative ways of growing teachers internally without them being pinched by the local ‘Outstanding’ SCITT hub.

With one ‘Satisfactory’ under its belt it was not a great surprise that a ‘Requires improvement’ followed shortly after a new Head had been appointed.

As RI grew teeth and the ‘haves and the have nots’ became more sharply delineated so the scrutiny, pressure, and self-doubt grew. Having been promoted to Head of English I felt keenly the pressure to improve results quickly. Green shoots – like a three year trend of improvement at A*-C% in English and top 25% A Level results – gave us some small hope that we’d be given the time we needed to see our headline figures emerge from a consistent flatline. But we always knew that a third ‘3’ was going to be a difficult pitch and the inspection, when it came, was brutal.

It wouldn’t be fair to go into details about the inspection itself - and I’m not sure that I’m ready to pick open that particular wound - but I will say that it doesn’t matter if your individual gradings read 2, 3, 3, 4, 4: you are ‘Inadequate’ overall and to the world at large.

The leaders and teachers at this school cared just as deeply and worked just as hard as in my first. I’m also going to stick my neck out and say that there were aspects of practice that were just as effective, if not more so. With a legacy of ten years of 3s under its belt what there indelibly wasn’t was the confidence of those who have tasted Outstanding or the space to create a plan for improvement free of the whims of external forces.

There was also a serious lack of respect from others. For to work in a school in Special Measures, or even one branded as ‘requiring improvement’, is to be subject to patronising attitudes and pre-judgement. It is to be seen consistently as the poor relation. It is to have little or no autonomy to plot your own course based on the needs of your school community.

I strongly suspect that it is often not the actual working in the school itself that makes it so tough for teachers and school leaders at schools like these, but instead this persistent, exhausting denigration.

As part of my work with Teacher Reference Group, just a week after receiving our ‘4’, I met Sean Harford at the DfE.

I should state now that I have a lot of time for Sean who has gone out of his way to address teachers’ concerns about Ofsted on social media thereby providing a human face to a government organisation. I’ll also state that my most recent experience of inspection was of a team taking great pains to understand the complexity of a school context far from the norm which, in my mind, is a credit to the reformed training of Inspectors. But when we met I was battered, bruised, and looking for empathy. His response?

‘Inspection isn’t an effort grade.’

And he is right, at least in part. Ofsted is not about school improvement – it is an inspectorate whose role is to judge. At best, it will award that judgement in a way that is fair, accurate, and impartial. Whether you can make such a judgement in so short a space of time again is for another post, but I will say that - like capital punishment - if future evidence proves you wrong then you will not be able to retract the sanction. It is dark humour (but horribly apt) to say that Heads will have rolled.

However, I also know that it is the profound effort of the teachers at this school that will see it move forward – now under even more intense pressure than they were before – and my friends and former colleagues don’t deserve just my respect and compassion, but that of every teacher in every school, as well as every parent and every politician.

But Special Measures is not the end of my Ofsted story.

After a year in an Associate Senior Leader position, I had applied for a substantive AHT post prior to the inspection but had not yet been interviewed. Post-Ofsted, I was heartbroken to think others might perceive me as jumping ship. I was therefore perversely proud of revealing to colleagues both my appointment and my new school’s P8 score of -0.8. This wasn’t about me copping out by seeking somewhere I’d have an easy ride.

With students hailing from 51 countries at the last count, my new school is in a very different context. To me, it’s a return home – in fact, it’s on the exact street where I bought my very first flat. We’ve got a higher than average percentage of students with EAL, SEND, and who qualify for PP. Our attainment on intake is in the lowest quintile, we’ve got a highly mobile school population, and we are all-through 3-18. It is a truly glorious place to work.

Perhaps due to the complexity of the intake, the Headteacher has had to plough a furrow that doesn’t have ‘success’ in Ofsted terms at its core. When over 40% of your school intake doesn’t have matched data, it could be argued that national performance measures aren’t necessarily the best way to measure your performance.

What removing Ofsted from the immediate eyeline of staff has fostered is a school community that has an individual identity that radiates with confidence. I wasn’t surprised to hear that students had spoken to Inspectors unprompted about their pride in their school. It is that type of place.

When we were inspected before the Easter break, I had to put my own recent memories of inspection on the back burner and allow myself to be once more the confident practitioner of inspections past. When the judgement came it was with both a sense of pride and catharsis I shed tears.

Crucially, our ‘Good’ judgement now means we also have a bit more space to continue on our path of school improvement. Having only been in post for two terms, I don’t yet feel like I’ve fully made my contribution to the school and I’m genuinely excited for what comes next. Not least because I also know that my colleagues will start to receive the more immediate respect of others that comes with shedding the shackles of RI.

To me one of the most heartening lines in our report is the recognition that ‘This is a school with much joy.’ It captures perfectly the feeling that reverberates down our corridors. But then, if I’m honest, I have never worked in a truly unhappy school and have often felt joy whether it was in the classroom or staffroom. In an age when teachers don’t seem to be staying in teaching very long I’m not sure that every teacher can say that.

So what have I learned from my relationship with Ofsted over the years? What wise words can I pass on? To teachers, I would ask hold on to the idea that:

Ofsted is utterly unimportant. Cast but a fleeting glance at the latest report. Make your decision about where to work based on the school’s culture, the children in front of you, and your faith in the Headteacher. Be prepared to work hard regardless of the school’s Ofsted grading. Focus on the school’s next steps and how you can be a vital cog in the machinery that gets it there. If you happen to chance upon an Inspector in the corridors – or, in fact, any visitor – smile, talk about what you love and why you work there, and how you’re contributing to making the school even better.

And, to Ofsted inspectors I would say:

Remember inspections, to teachers, can feel utterly crucial, life-changing even: when inspecting a school, take the time to look beyond the last report or outcomes data. Make your decisions based on the school culture, the children in front of you, and the Headteacher. Be prepared to show empathy, understanding and compassion regardless of the school’s Ofsted grading. Focus on their next steps and how your report can be a vital cog in the machinery that gets them there. If you meet a teacher in the corridors – or, in fact, any member of school staff – smile, ask them what they love about the school and why they work there, and how they’re contributing to making the school even better.