I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about why OFSTED should stop making 1-4 judgements of schools.
Cartoon by Stan Dupp
“Schools with good judgements can be brave and develop their curriculum in a principled way. If you’re Requiring Improvement you can’t…”
– Colleague head teacher in a conversation with me last week
When I talk to interviewees for a vacancy at Huntington at the beginning of the day, I say this, verbatim: ‘I refuse to compete with other schools. If you take pleasure in being “better” than another school, then you are actually taking pleasure in your young people doing better than the young people in another school and I think that, as an educationalist, is morally corrupt.’ When I say those words, I am met with smiles from around the table. My stance is at the heart of our school’s culture. We are not mugs, but we try our damnedest to help other schools perform well, even in a world of normally distributed comparative outcomes which means helping other schools logically disadvantages our school’s outcomes.
And whilst my colleagues in our Research School work tirelessly supporting other colleagues in other schools, there is one thing which makes school improvement so much harder which the DfE could do something about tomorrow: the OFSTED 1-4 grading of schools. If we accept that the quality of teaching and the quality of leadership are the two main factors affecting the quality of education our young people experience, then we have to bring an end to the OFSTED grading system. Once a school is judged to be Requiring Improvement or Inadequate, recruiting and retaining good teachers and school leaders becomes incredibly hard, within a school system which already has a teacher recruitment crisis, where MATs are advertising for teachers from any subject discipline to work in schools located in socio-economically deprived areas, promising to turn PE and Food Technology specialists – as if the MATs are human alchemists – into science teachers.
There is no logic in retaining the OFSTED 1-4 grading system if the DfE wants every school to improve. The threat of being judged Requiring Improvement or Inadequate merely breeds a culture of fear throughout our school system. It means that fear-soaked school leaders do things which make the culture of the school more penal, which, in turn, drives teachers out of the school, and, often, out of the profession all together. School leaders disappear and fearful replacements are installed as though that will be the great panacea to eradicate our schools’ ills.
I argue for the end of the OFSTED 1-4 grading of schools from a position of some strength. In November 2017 we were judged to be an Outstanding school by OFSTED. Our experience of the inspection process enabled us, first-hand, to see how flawed the inspection/judgement process has become. We did not challenge the original judgement of Good, but, after a third day of inspection which the inspectorate itself insisted upon, the final judgement was that Huntington was an Outstanding school. It was not a judgement we pursued at all costs. Rather, when the notification call came at 11.40 am on Tuesday 10 October 2017, I had not uttered the word OFSTED once that term. Since the inspection we have just got on with getting on, knowing that we still have a lot to do to provide the best possible education for our young people; the world is for the discontented.
Indeed, it is rare to find a school which does not strive to be the best it can be, day-in, day-out. An Inspectorate which has school improvement at its heart – and under Amanda Spielman there have been signs that things are moving in that direction – would have the courage to end the 1-4 grading of schools. Such a step would mean OFSTED’s leaders accepting a certain level vulnerability – there is no courage without vulnerability.
School leaders and teachers accept vulnerability on a daily basis, when they walk into their schools and teach. It is about time our colleagues in OFSTED followed suit, embraced vulnerability and did the courageous thing by ending the crass practice of labelling schools with destructive judgements.
I am leaving headship – can’t put myself or my family through another inspection when previous ones (threatened SMs which we challenged and became RI and Good two and half years later) have left me with no confidence in the inspection system. Ofsted need to do an enormous amount of self-reflection and make significant changes, maybe press the pause button for a while – I hold them responsible for good and dedicated teachers and leaders leaving the profession in droves, myself included.