WANTED: A school system teachers are desperate to stay in.

I know that Ofsted are no longer interested in viewing the internal data that schools routinely collect (because they are sure Ofsted will ask for it.) I know that they are all about the intent and the implementation these days, and not just the impact. But will their apparently good intentions mutate into strange forms in schools, and will the impact of all of that be that we are all left in a worse place than the one we started in?

While their efforts have been focused on the bright future of their new inspection framework, Ofsted may have failed to notice the increasing calls for their summary demise.

“We would abolish Ofsted and we would replace it with a different system,” Angela Rayner told The Observer before the Labour Party conference. Mary Bousted of the NEU has called the inspectorate ‘a weapon of fear and terror.’ Recently, in the Tes, Frank Coffield called for its replacement by an Education Improvement Agency, whose remit would be to‘shift the focus from blaming individuals to improving systems by restoring trust to professionals.’

In my 22 years of teaching, the call came seven times. I am not an expert in inspection, but I do know a thing or two about being inspected. I have had the content and delivery of my history lessons criticised by people who have never taught a history lesson. I have had people sit expressionlessly behind a clipboard and fail to be moved by the quality of the discussion around them. I have co-observed lessons with inspectors, second-guessing the grades I assume they have in their minds (and I have reported back ‘Satisfactory’ to one science teacher whom I know to be great at what she does.) I have consoled colleagues who felt they let the team down because they were not observed, and others because they were and they crumbled under the strain. Every school I ever worked in was good, but Ofsted did not always agree.

I now work with dozens of schools, mainly in London but also across England and further afield too. Every week I meet dozens of teachers and leaders who are passionate, creative and almost superhuman in the lengths they will go to improve the life chances of their students. They have one other thing in common: they have Ofsted on their minds.

It does not take an expert to see the peculiar leadership behaviours which are driven by the ‘fear and terror’ of Ofsted. Unsustainable expectations of staff that drive so many out of the profession; the mad search for an extra 0.2 on their Progress 8 scores that persuade some schools that it is ethical to off-roll their GCSE students: these are not the values that draw idealistic young adults into teaching, but it’s where many of them end up under the perverse pressure of Ofsted. It is plain to me that very many school leaders behave in ways they know to be counter-productive in the long term, because there might be some short-term boost to progress.

I want Ofsted to go. Whatever replaces it should have a minimal remit. My list is short.

  1. Schools must be safe for children to be in. Behaviour should be excellent, bullying should be driven out. The highest standards for safeguarding should apply. Good mental and emotional health should be a top priority.
  2. Schools must spend public money wisely. There is not much of it, it has to go a long way and schools ought to be able to account for it all.
  3. They must teach a curriculum which meets their students’ needs and prepares them for exams and the world beyond. And they should be helped to get ever better at it.
  4. Schools must be fit places for adults to work in, free of bullying, unethical practices and cultures which overburden staff. All too often this is not the case now. We need only consult the figures for staff retention.
  5. Inspection should not discourage – should in fact encourage – experimentation, cooperation, community engagement, cultures of professional development and enquiry.

If inspection were fair, non-threatening, conducive to sustainable improvement and light-touch, we might then get schools that good teachers were desperate to stay in.

We can rebuild it

As I write this, I note that Dr Rebecca Allen’s Caroline Benn memorial speech on teacher workload has received 60 Retweets and 107 Likes on Twitter. If you haven’t read it, do. Even if you are overburdened with your own workload.

Citing DiMaggio and Powell, Allen explains the isomorphic pressures which have resulted in schools becoming more alike, and how this has contributed to increased expectations on teachers. She points two fingers: one at reforms of Ofsted; the other at increased school funding under Labour. These are classic cases of unintended consequences, for I recall the little cheers we uttered when we heard the inspectors would come in smaller teams, and when we realized for once that we had a government that believed in investing in public services.

What went wrong?

Smaller teams and shorter notice meant that headteachers became a sort of chief inspector-in-residence. Schools engaged in continuous self-evaluation, so that they would be in a permanent state of Ofsted readiness. Heads looked across their boroughs at other schools to see how they had survived inspection, and concluded that they must do the same. They already had data on summative outcomes for pupils, and they already had a box full of policies, but – when asked to describe the quality of teaching and learning – how could they do that? They did what we often do when stuck for an answer for quality: they reached for quantity. They increased the frequency of data drops, the amount of marking, the numbers of boxes to be ticked on a lesson plan. They did this (I stress), not because they were bad people, but because they were good people being asked to do something they could not do. How many outstanding teachers do you have? What is the proportion of outstanding lessons taught in your school? These are Alice in Wonderland questions, particularly when we agree that we have not agreed on what outstanding actually is.

If ‘small Ofsted / big SEF’ was the cause of the change, a rapid increase in schools’ spending was the means, says Allen. Leadership teams mushroomed, and rather than let their hands be idle they were put to work on gathering, sifting and analysing all this data, inventing interventions and trackers to shift the data, and creating performance management systems  to hold staff to account for the data they had themselves fed in. This part of Allen’s speech makes for uncomfortable reading for some of us: this is the part that Ofsted did not force on us, the part we (i.e. those of us who were SLT) inflicted on ourselves (i.e. those of us teaching the lessons). How often did I demand information from colleagues in a certain format, by a strict deadline, for a purpose clear only to myself? How often did I conduct learning walks from which I learned little, and after which I shared even less? How many weights did I add to the wrong side of the work/life scales?

I don’t think Allen mentioned it, but I would point a finger at a third culprit here: analytics technology. We can now know how many homeworks the music teacher set last term, and at what point in the week year 11 students are more likely to access it online. We can now identify eight different types of disruptive behavior, and say which ones are favoured by the white boys, or the Greek girls, or the summer-born. We can now measure the rate of progress of every child, in every year, in every subject at any point in time. We can because, as with the Six Million Dollar Man, ‘we have the technology’. And, because we can, we must. And, because we do, we also have to do something with all the data we collect. We have to address the underperformance of the music teacher not setting the right amount of homework, and of all of those teachers (that is all of them) who have students not making the progress the flight path demands. We have to – we tell ourselves – because, if we have this knowledge and do nothing about it, we are letting down the students, the school and the profession.

bionic woman 3

We can rebuild it. Allen makes her own important suggestions about slowing the rate of curriculum change and rethinking teacher contracts. I make my own. With Amanda Spielman in charge, Ofsted have made many encouraging noises about investigating the consequences of their existence – the messages they communicate to schools about the sorts of things they ought to prioritise, for example. Justine Greening at the DfE has published excellent guidance on increasing flexible working. These follow reports and the poster on reducing teacher workload. I cannot fault this messaging, and I note also that the Department is tendering for bids through the Teaching and Leadership Innovation Fund to address workload. They recognise the problem, but I am not sure they yet recognise the causes of the problem. These are undoubtedly the twin devils of external and internal accountability. We can address the inadvertent pressures school leaders apply to their staffs, and we can congratulate those who are ‘brave’ enough to run their schools as if Ofsted were not there. But, so long as Ofsted is there, there is a limit to how far that courage can take us. I doubt we will ever arrive at the day when the top line of an inspection report reads: ‘This is a great school because it ignores everything we say.’ School leaders do load too much on the backs of teachers, but they do so because of the load which is on them. Ofsted, were it to follow its own logic, would not just stop grading individual lessons: they would stop grading schools. Then, perhaps, schools could get back to the business for which they were built.