Inspection – ‘Requiring Improvement’

We live in a pot noodle society where everything is instantaneous and not always that good for you.  School leaders are caught up in this, often frightened to speak out for fear of being labelled, so they stick to the easy, quick solutions.

In education, we have been looking continually for ‘quick fix’, cheap solutions to long term societal problems.  Years of austerity and underfunding with the looming threat of Ofsted judgements permanently, insidiously held over you, the Head, your school, your community.  Ofsted matters and even as a Head of 16 years’ experience, despite my protestations I spend an inordinate amount of time worrying over and preparing for the future pot noodle one day inspection (see previous blogs: Ofsted – The Million Pound Game, “Coasting, My Arse!” and “Coasting, My Arse!” – Part 2).  Inspection is a thriving industry employing thousands with a cottage industry of CPD, some oily snakeskin salesperson advising how to prepare for inspection, data analysis or my personal favourite, surviving Ofsted!  Ofsted will not go away and appears to be strengthening its stranglehold over education and education policy.  The new inspection regime will undoubtedly see but not ‘require’ self evaluation forms, data captures and a change in inspectors’ terminology, i.e. ‘interleaving’, if not a change in headteacher focus.  Outcomes of students will still rightly be a huge school priority and will lead to a school grade that leads to those instantaneous judgements, no matter what ‘tweaks’ Ofsted may make to the framework.  Poor outcomes and an inability to show progress will lead to a school grade.

‘Oh, you work in that Ofsted outstanding school’

and

‘Oh, they are from that inadequate school that is struggling’

were two comments from respected colleagues about prospective applicants for a recent MFL post.  These professionals and their schools are given labels, judgements that they have limited ability to affect, judgements, grades that affect their status and job opportunities.  Judgements made instantaneously and last permanently.  Ofsted is about traditional human judgement and is flawed.

I was an Ofsted inspector, completing 10 inspections personally rated outstanding or good – (see I’m doing the badge wearing bravado) and although I felt that all the inspection teams I worked with cared and were fair, they were massively restrained by inadequate, restrictive inspection criteria and by their personal professional experiences and cultures.  I believe to have a team of inspectors with no serving Head is an inconsistent flaw that Ofsted had briefly tried to avoid.  A lack of experts eschewed the reports into areas of inspector priority, not school priority.  Judgements made were out of inspector comfort, not school development or school context.

The recent decision to continue, for now, with grading schools is an ‘inadequate’ decision, another mixed message for the education systemInspection and their beleaguered leaders.  Ofsted is inconsistent and unreliable.

During training, 200 inspectors would assess lessons and would always arrive at four separate grades.  Why would the grading of the school be any different?  Different teams will grade a school differently.  The schools are therefore at the whim of inspector experiences, personal preference and that human trait, personality, if you make a relationship with the lead inspector – not easy when under pressure.  I felt it could influence the grade.  The respected education think tank, EDSK, as recently as April 2019, highlighted the ‘lack of reliability and validity’ in inspection judgements and that undermines Ofsted’s credibility – ‘Requires Improvement: A new role for Ofsted and school inspections’ – https://www.edsk.org/publications/requires-improvement.  If we are serious about reducing exclusions, off-rolling, gaming the system, a narrow curriculum and retaining our leaders, we will trust them and take away the grades.  Why would I risk my family and my career to join a school labelled inadequate with potential job insecurity and non-stop Ofsted scrutiny, overseen by an expensive CEO?

At a time when we are struggling to get and retain school leaders, with mental wellbeing of all our staff rightly at the forefront of our thinking, this snapshot traditional judgement that dominates school life is out of sync with what we require.  Ofsted, in my opinion, is a major barrier to school progress, risk taking and the new approach that our complex young people desperately need.  A more nuanced, braver approach to inspection, a twenty first century approach, is now required.  One that builds the educational community not segregates and labels it!

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Becoming Speed Aware

At 7.30am, I slouched into my speed awareness course like a disengaged year 10 student who was already in a defensive mood for his lack of homework.  Having sprawled into the seat in the furthest corner, I started to share my crime with my neighbour.  36 mph in a 30 zone in Trefor, a little village in North Wales where I believe there were more sheep than cars.  The class was becoming mutinous as we began to elaborate on our speed crimes; caught at 1.00am on empty roads, cameras hidden behind bushes and a general muttering that this was a pothole tax.  My mood was not helped by Mrs C, mother of Chloe, also a disengaged year 10 student, who plonked herself down next to me and announced, “this is my daughter’s headteacher” and “I’m surprised you did not follow speed rules”.  My last conversation with Mrs C had been about Chloe’s flouting of uniform rules, body piercings and the importance of all in a community following rules.  Her surprise was, I believe, an ironic observation of our situation!

I was therefore prepared for a very long four hours with the first four questions being predictably asked of ‘Headteacher Neil’.  No stereotyping or hatred of teachers there then.  However, what ensued was fascinating, skilful control of a mutinous, defensive group with a range of abilities and ages.  Over the course of the next four hours, all were cajoled, nudged and persuaded to be more speed aware.  The instructors managed the four hour lesson skilfully, ensuring all knew the purpose, controlling interaction and immediately showing up our lack of knowledge.  I was a great help in this, getting two of my four public questions wrong, though even the ‘smug’ professional lorry drivers also got them wrong.  The skill of the instructors, like any good teacher, was in persuading us that this was worthwhile, an investment of our time that should be taken seriously.  They did this in a variety of adept ways:

  • Immediately showing us the value for money. £88 fine with no points and no insurance premium increase as opposed to £100 fine and three points on the licence.
  • Allowing us a controlled time to moan – one minute of ‘show and tell’ than move on to why we’re there.
  • Immediately showing us, despite some obvious skill and experience, that we did not know all the rules and regulations. Their knowledge and the fact that they had clean licences to run the course, straightaway gained my respect as did their flexibility in keeping the lesson moving with controlled questions and answers.
  • A variety of tasks, from Q&A to realistic frightening videos of the dangers of speed and the skilful use of the updated Highway Code, last seen thirty years ago when I undertook my test!

Reflecting on the course, I learnt something and am now driving better with an increased knowledge and awareness.  30 mph equates to third gear, 40 mph to fourth gear, i.e. take off the 0 to have your chosen gear, was a clever soundbite in response the question ‘how do you control the modern fast cars?’, or crucially, increasing speed rarely saves time but increases danger.  The comparisons with successful mixed ability teaching are numerous and worth consideration:

  • Good preparation, knowledge and a variety of tasks always pays off, keeping the lesson on track.
  • Rushing to get there is dangerous, unfulfilling and is a negligible gain for too big a risk. How often do we rush through a course, rush to get there and have to revisit the route as we have got lost on the way, would be my analogy.
  • Reviewing past papers, the rules and the handbook are always productive. How many staff keep producing beautiful new PowerPoints, new resources and forget to review the past, the rules and the exam specification on which they are going to be judged and appraised on?

Human nature is always to seek to deflect and blame others, when perhaps when caught, personal honesty and honest reflection are the most productive, educative ways forward.  All were on that course because they had driven too fast for whatever reason.

This last point was not one I mentioned to Mrs C, her own body and facial piercings a sharp morning reminder of possible reasons for Chloe’s choices of uniform defects.  Somehow, I have to sell the rationale for school rules and uniform rules to Mrs C.  Perhaps a school rule awareness course for parents, costing £88, is a productive way forward, a means of communicating rules and improving our dire finances.  I am surprised Lord Agnew has not included this in his cost cutting advice for schools but that’s for another blog.

Back to Basics – Back to Teaching

The England cricketer Jonny Barstow has gone back to basics to stop a fundamental batting flaw.  He kept getting bowled, partly due to being pushed back by balls hurled at 90mph by six-foot plus giants.  His solution was a minor correction of his head position, pushing it towards the ball.  Sports people at the top of their profession often reflect on and review their craft to ensure their performance does not dip.  A minor tweak can make a major impact on outcome.

As teachers, especially post successful Ofsted, a school often requires a return to the basics.  The behaviours that got them a good report.  Behaviour of our students and teachers is a habit and staff can get into good and poor habits.  Headteachers always want more, sometimes unreasonably quickly but there are some fundamental habits that cannot be abandoned if we want to be called a profession, on time to lessons and marking that leads to preparation and support of colleagues whatever their status.  This last category is essential.  We have all worked in schools where fabulous, conscientious staff, whose standard is consistently high, are undermined by the ‘sniping’ of colleagues who poke at and ridicule their work, ‘no one could be like Mr or Miss…’ is the oft heard cry, the plea to stop work or ‘we have to look after staff’s mental health agenda’.  I believe mental health is a critical area, rightly now promoted, especially with the plethora of external changes that the educational profession has undergone and unreasonable demands of heads, government and parents.  However, it cannot be used as a mask or excuse to hide teaching laziness of these few staff who let down the majority.  There are fundamental basics that are non-negotiable, that underpin any teacher’s role.  These can range from:

  • Being on time to the lesson
  • Smiling at the door
  • Being prepared beyond the confines of a restrictive PowerPoint with work which appropriately challenges and is not a monotonous diet of the same material.
  • Having books that are thoughtfully marked and acted upon.

Those colleagues who get the best outcomes, a bit like the cricketer Barstow, reflect, review and prepare to ensure all students whoever, whatever, make progress.  Teaching is unremitting and demanding.  It not only requires charm and talent but high level energy is needed at all times.  All need to buy into these demands, all of the time, not some of the time, when appraisal or reviews are occurring.  We all know frustrating, talented colleagues who turn it on for the SLT/Line Manager, not for their students.

There again, the government would now be wise to stop league tables, stop Ofsted judgements and consider long term real life developments of a teaching profession for a country that is in desperate need of proper educative habits that work.  An education system that we are proud of not used as an area to deflect from government Brexit ineptitude.  Thankfully, that’s for others to blog about.

Eternally Optimistic

The perspective in January is often one of nostalgia and remembrance.  A yearning for the beloved past, lost loved ones and the vitality and optimism of younger days when your knees did not betray your hopefulness.  You only have to listen to radio talk shows that yearn for football from a bygone era or the so called panacea that was national service or the education system where teachers were respected and old fashioned discipline was to the fore.

There is a Brexit like love of the past when Britain apparently was Great and the world was simpler, kinder place.  At times, it is too easy to ‘moan’ and fall back on the easy cliché that societal standards are slipping.  Football in the 1980s was played on atrocious pitches, the clawing mud of Derby’s Baseball ground with British players whose only knowledge of dietary requirements was to have a pre-match ‘half’ rather than a pint.  Each team had an ‘enforcer’ like Alan Little, my moustachioed, long haired, potbellied Doncaster Rovers hero, or Gary Megson whose despairing manager Brian Clough stated ‘he couldn’t trap a bag of cement’.  Football was a tribal, attritional, horrid, male only experience that has improved dramatically with the introduction of innovative educative coaching that has taken it into the twenty first century, with space age stadiums to match.

Similarly, education and our schools continue to improve at an astronomic rate.  The schools of the late 70s were horrific, barbaric places ruled by violence and fear.  My secondary experience at Adwick School in Doncaster, now a housing estate, was a brutal place where daily caning left irrevocable scars.  Before the soothsayers produce the usual cliché of it appearing to not have done me any harm, I would argue that all I learnt at school was to fight, to survive and loathe many of my male teachers.  I survived but many talented students did not, and this for them and for society was a lost opportunity.  My fabulous Worcester school is better than it was five years ago.  We exclude less, attendance has increased, which is a significant statistic to indicate students are happy and value school.  Teachers and all staff are working so much harder than in previous eras, determined to make a difference for those in their care, determined to ensure the plethora of new courses and new initiatives work.  Our curriculum offer is broad and balanced and results and progress are excellent.  The positive growth mind set of our industry needs to be lauded, not provocatively challenged by politicians looking to deflect from inept national educational policy.  Schools and teachers are working collaboratively, determined to ensure every child matters and we need to not be distracted by Daily Mail type hysteria regarding school and society challenges that have always existed, always will exist.  So, entering 2019, I would expect that we do it all again with relish.  Our crucial challenge being to always remain eternally optimistic.  This is a ‘good’ job, a good place to work.  We need to consider:

  • How to ensure passive, arrogant boys are challenged and not allowed to dominate! What are the courses that ‘switch’ them on?  Where are the practical courses that produce our engineers, our craftsmen of tomorrow?  Mapping the curriculum skills is essential to know where next.
  • How do we ensure that our unique student processes cope with the demands of parental popularity? We have increased in size dramatically and will be the target 11-18 school in Worcestershire?  How do we ensure that our pastoral house system remains central to this with all involved in the many experiences offered?  How do we productively manage students’ free time?  Ensuring the data comes alive and is used in directing their studies, not simply managing their behaviour is a challenge for all but in particular for those who run our pastoral system.
  • How do we productively manage our system of staff meetings to ensure they are a professional developmental guide that allow all a voice?
  • How do we embrace causes that make a difference and matter? Worcester Food Bank, Worcester homeless and becoming plastic aware/efficient are three causes for the school.  As a teacher, what are your house/personal causes?  Do we know about them?  Do you passionately believe in them?

I am sure there is much more.  We will do this with relentless optimism and will ensure that the school students and crucially staff are in better place in 2020 than before.  As headteachers are apt to say, this is an exciting journey, a privilege that cannot be rushed, especially with this inept funding system.

As the Liverpool fans know, ‘walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart’.  After all, in teaching you can only walk not sprint and this is a marathon that you need to embrace with intelligent, professional passion.  See, we can all do football like clichés.  Good luck – enjoy the journey.

Stop Posturing and Listen

The latest lemming-like government minister to roll out a pre-prepared script on school funding is the Department for Education’s new National Schools Commissioner Dominic Herrington, who insisted that schools had received ‘record levels of funding’.  He went on to announce that he disagreed with the accountants. Qualified accountants such as ours, who despite our exemplary financial management, described our budget as ‘tantamount to teetering on a cliff edge’.  This is Trump-esq logic and follows such distinguished luminaries who felt emboldened to comment on education and funding, such as:

  • Philip Hammond, whose patronising budget that gave schools ‘little extras’, yet to be seen, and hardly going to fill the holes created by the pensions fiasco or years of underfunding.
  • The publicity seeking Lord Agnew, who challenged a magnum of champagne to headteachers if they could prove that schools are not wasting money and could not make efficiencies. A ridiculous, provocative challenge.

Teachers’ average hourly pay is now lower than both nurses and police officers according to the recent NFER report!  So not much money wasted on our teachers and perhaps an area of efficiency that should not be gleefully highlighted!

My expectation is that Lord Agnew will provide me, and every headteacher, with champagne for the basic efficiencies I can find at the DfE with my easy identification of where savings for schools could have occurred and perhaps where proper planning of public funding could be more thoughtfully developed.  These improvements would lead to better funding, more schools with proper facilities, proper buildings and satisfaction at a lack of wasted public money.  For example:

  • The gift that is free schools, which has in five years cost £863 million for 175 free schools, 20% of which have been built in an area not requiring basic needs. £13.8 million has been wasted on free schools opened and now closed.  These are staggering figures and are basic inefficiencies that key ministers have allowed to occur.

The Guardian, 25 April 2018, is charitable when it calls the policy ‘incoherent and wasteful’.  I would be stronger, more Anglo Saxon in my description of this sackable ineptitude. The frustration I and many heads have of the dire, constrictive bidding process to try to get capital builds is that it is a huge process, an inefficient waste of time.  The free schools initiative is an unproven vanity project which continues apace, with the spring budget setting out the plan for 500 new free schools in 2020, an astounding £20 billion budget set aside.  Yet, I and my school continue to struggle to get our ten year old music portacabin replaced or an adequate fire system put in place despite numerous bids that are undertaken in restrictive timeframes, with the clamour from too many schools a clear indicator of the concerns and the basic needs of all our schools.  Where is the careful educative research that demanded this latest free school add-on?  Toby Young, posturing in The Daily Telegraph, is hot air, not relevant research and not really applicable as he is proven to be flawed and another courting publicity.

Then there is the much vaunted, well publicised Troops to Teachers non-graduate programme, because as educationalists know, military training is so similar to a four year Bachelor of Education degree!  Of the £10 million put aside by the DfE, £4.3 million has been spent on 69 teachers who have successfully completed training, hardly efficient impact for resources.  Where has the remaining money gone?  Who has overseen this white elephant?  Who is accountable?

I would agree that further efficiencies could be made by the DfE if they stopped their vanity projects, which are not required and are simply add-ons or attacks on the teaching profession:

  • £600,000 spent by the DfE communicating the change from A* – G to 1 – 9 grading at a time when A-level was also changing.
  • Grammar school expansion of £50 million, despite obvious underfunding of the rest of us.

Therefore, Lord Agnew and his trusted group of privately educated ministers need to listen to those of us in state education.  We have no money, which makes it impossible to do an already difficult job.  We are efficient and need to be heard, not provoked before a crisis becomes reality.

Now, how do I get my champagne?

‘I am just a poor boy from a poor family’

The amazing film ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was not just remarkable for the frightening likeness of the Brian May actor, or the fact that my twenty five year old daughter annoyingly stated that Freddie Mercury had died two years before she was even born, it was a soundtrack to my early life with the central component being Queen’s performance at the 1985 ‘Live Aid’ concert, inspired by the horrific BBC news reports of the Ethiopian famine.  I well remember the incandescent popstar Bob Geldof dropping the ‘f bomb’ and demanding that a civilised western country provide support immediately.  ‘Pay your taxes now’ does not have the same ring and probably would not be the popstar mantra of today!

Like my own children, I doubt if Tom (name changed) in year 8 has ever heard of ‘Live Aid’ or like many in Britain has not registered that a specialist envoy, Philip Alston, had been invited to Britain to evaluate Britain’s response to our social crisis.  This respected lawyer produced a staggering, emotive 24 page report damning the ‘callous policy’ that puts people such as Tom in ‘great misery’.  Tom is hungry.  Like many in our schools, he has a difficult home life, is the subject of casual violence, neglect and overcrowding and has no aspirations beyond survival, often couched in the teenagers’ cliché, ‘having a laugh with my mates’.  He has been arriving at school at 7.15am and is often seen hunting for food in the bins.  We feed him, clothe him and try to show some care for this ‘Billy Casper’ waif like figure (lost boy from ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, the great Barry Hines’ book of 1960s neglect in Yorkshire) who shows no emotion as he is always in survival mode, always moving, looking for the next opportunity, the next laugh.

Yet Tom would not provoke a Geldof like outrage.  He is feisty, swears like a veteran, steals and treats girls as usable commodities, habits learnt from his domineering father.  He is not likely to be a poster boy for some popstar sympathiser.  Yet we should be outraged, should care and focus on Tom and focus on this unbelievably sad report that is a stain on Britain and her politicians.  Some of the emotive language used by Alston should have been a week’s worth of headlines, should have ensured Daily Mail outrage from Surrey, and crucially, should have ensured the policy makers re-look at their budgets for the next five years to establish a planned support for the Toms of every school.  The UN report stated that:

  • ‘Great misery’ has been inflicted on the poor by ‘callous policies’, ‘treated as an afterthought’.
  • Levels of child poverty were not just ‘a disgrace’ but could rise, according to some surveys, to 40% by 2020, a biblical famine that needs more than popular intervention and a serious concern for all involved in schools, with ministers appearing to be in a ‘state of denial’.

The 24 page report, https://ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Poverty/EOM_GB_16Nov2018.pdf, the end to two weeks of independent wide-reaching investigation, needs to be read by all who lead our schools.  The lengthy title gives a clear guide to Alston’s perspective of disdain and dismay that the fifth richest economy in the world and its policy makers could have allowed this situation to occur.  Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, has a huge powerful title and damning message to match and should be listened to.  Do not be put off!  He has, after all, much more than a huge title and has given a report, a bit like the Michael Buerk’s BBC Ethiopian news footage, that should shock policy makers into immediate action.  Yet, this has not seen widespread reporting, perhaps because those who are hardest hit, the poor, women, racial and ethnic communities, the Toms, do not have a voice.  They need a Michael Buerk, a Bob Geldof and are in survival mode.  As headteachers, it is time we spoke up for those who need our support and try to scaffold support packages to ensure, as the report concludes, ‘as the country moves towards Brexit, the government should adopt policies designed to ensure the brunt… is not borne by its most vulnerable citizens’.  As you walk around your city, your school, the Toms (in every sense of the word) of this world are becoming more prevalent and we cannot allow this to happen, whether we remain or leave, we are a part of the civilised world and need to ignite a positive response, preferably before June when he delivers his final report.

Minister of Magic

I have grown. I used to ‘stalk’ the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow.  His pompous pronouncements and waste of public money on replenishing his personal government apartments gave me Tourette’s.  His understandable lack of replies to my questioning letters has led me to a new public figure of scorn, though Boris Johnson, that ‘wolf in teddy bear’s clothing’ is always a reliable source of ire.  Sadly, I now find what little time I have is spent following Nick Gibb, the omnipresent Minister of Schools, a title that sounds like a departmental post in a Harry Potter book.

Our erstwhile Minister of Magic’s recent vacuous announcements have seen him:

  • Defend the grammar school expansion… “they will significantly help disadvantaged children”.

The fact that our bean counting, ex accountant has provided £50 million annual funding for this expansion based on no research and the announcement he made at Research Ed conference, would be funny if it were not a serious proposal undertaken at a time when Worcestershire schools are wondering which course to cut, where redundancies should occur.

  • Not accept the argument that:

“the EBacc is driving the arts out of the curriculum”

I suppose if you follow his point, he is correct.  It is the chronic underfunding that is driving the arts out of the curriculum.  Arts/DT based subjects are more expensive to run than classroom based subjects such as history, therefore schools have the unpalatable decision of marginalising these key subjects.

Mr Gibb has been around education half of my headship, 8 years in his post and in every reshuffle I hope we will see him move to a department more suiting his qualities, Brexit?  My fear is that his ‘scattergun’ announcements are becoming more provocative, and with an alarming lack of real evidence.  It is almost as if they ‘test’ the educational water, assessing the reaction before moving to policy.  However, as the profession emerges from yet another year of enormous change, unprecedented exam reform, 20 new GCSEs, new grades, new requests to manage mental health of staff and students, government announcements are lost or appear to be a lower priority than Brexit or Boris’ latest indiscretion.

 

My return in September has seen a determination to inoculate my school and lovely students from the fads and foolishness of educational ministers who are beginning to ‘bob’ up and down for prospective attention.  I do believe that at times we get it right.  We are an oasis of calm, laughter and kindness.  We are already preparing for our first Foodbank donation and the European Day of Languages, which will see staff in bizarre outfits and European food on offer.  The PE department continues to offer opportunities for all sports all abilities, all aptitudes.  The maths challenge, photography, film and hair and beauty clubs are just some of the experiences offered during the last week of this half term as teachers keep going, work harder, care continuously and are relentlessly reasonable, unbelievably optimistic.

I believe headteachers do need to challenge.  I so admire the ‘WorthLess?’ campaign that has highlighted how many schools are facing chronic underfunding.  As leaders, we care passionately about our schools and are best placed to guide and challenge – hopefully we will be listened to!

Now, it’s time for me and my family.