Ofsted: Differentiation requires improvement

At the moment, I feel a little bit like I’m between a rock and a hard place when it comes to commenting on Ofsted. Anyone who has been bored enough to read some of my recent blogs will possibly have picked up on the fact that I had a few issues with my recent lead inspector and the way in which she carried out the inspection. However, I do not want to come across as churlish, arrogant or unaccepting of the fact that my school isn’t anything else apart from amazeballs. So, whereas I am happy to critique the manner in which my school was inspected – as well as the particulars of some of the judgements made in the report – I do not want to diminish my professional voice for the sake of spiting my critics. I stand, resolutely, behind the sentiments in my recent Ofsted posts but there comes a time when you have to move on.

In fact, Ofsted is also trying to move on. @HarfordSean seems to be attempting an Ofsted face-lift of BBC proportions. As the beeb obsessive-compulsively wash and re-wash their hands clean of the sexist/racist/politically incorrect/unaccountable/bullying buffoonery of Jeremy Clarkson, so is Sean attempting to recalibrate Ofsted’s practices in the hope that rogue inspectors are a thing of the past and school leaders do not become slaves to Ofsted’s cliff edge inspection regimes.

Ofsted recently launched their own blog through which they will be updating us all on the various changes within the inspection framework. What’s more, you can comment and, if my experience of Mr Harford so far is anything to go by, I reckon they’ll listen. I want to be part of this debate and I don’t want my own negative experience to taint the validity of my opinions – let my voice be drowned out by the waves of better opinion, by all means, but I don’t want to be silenced by my own past vitriol. I’m a lover, not a fighter.

I have been thinking long and hard about what I would do if I were in charge of Ofsted. In conversation with Sean Harford at a recent meeting with other Twitter cronies, I expressed the opinion that I would rather see Ofsted become more supportive. Come in and judge us by all means, I graciously said, but if the school has weaknesses, why doesn’t the lead inspector come in, the day after the inspection, sit down with the Head and work on writing a plan that would sort it all out. That way, the school is being supported by someone who knows the context and has a (preliminary) relationship with the school already. If they know that their time is not restricted to the initial inspection period, it could encourage all lead inspectors to act responsibly and with respect.

It didn’t take Sean that long to reply. He promptly said that this wouldn’t work and for a pretty obvious reason: Ofsted cannot be seen to be prescribing or recommending particular approaches or practices. They are the diagnosis, not the remedy. I understand this. I think it’s a shame though, especially as there is now a commitment for more inspectors to be HMI, but, maybe my idea misses the point of Ofsted, or, maybe Ofsted has gone too far into the judgemental side of education to evolve that drastically. Either way, let’s just accept the fact that it ain’t ever going to happen.

Earlier in the aforementioned meeting, we learnt about the prospect of what ‘good’ schools could expect from September. They will get a visit from an HMI around every three years. This would be akin to a check-up: time for Ofsted to check the pulse of the school. A highly important point to remember is that the visiting HMI would not be coming in to judge the school from scratch. No, they would be assuming that the school was still good. So, whereas schools might not be too cock-a-hoop at the prospect of the visit, at least they will not feel as though they have to prove that they are good all over again. Of course, if the HMI decides that the school is not good (RI or outstanding – it works both ways, remember) they can trigger a full section 5 inspection. Hurrah! Well, interestingly, the HMI will continue to stay on for the inspection, so, similar to my idea, there will be someone who already has some real knowledge of the school to guide the subsequent inspection.

This is a big evolutionary step for Ofsted: Differentiated inspections. However, I think Ofsted could do better.

So, if my proposal of the lead inspector judging a school to be RI and then hanging around to help write the SDP is a couple of Minis short of the Italian Job, well, hang on a minute lads, I’ve got an idea.

Good schools get their own special Ofsted, so why shouldn’t RI schools get something different too?

You see, I have a problem with the way in which RI schools get inspected. RI schools are under too much pressure. Not only do they have their tailor made Ofsted improvement plan, but they are under pressure to get a multitude of other ideas and initiatives off the ground as well. Take the last two years: as well as, most likely, having to improve some serious issues around achievement, teaching, behaviour and leadership, RI schools have also had to implement some additional national changes: sports premium, British Values, 2014 National Curriculum, life after levels etc.

‘But so has every other school?’

Yes, but those schools have the luxury of time. Good or outstanding schools are not being chased up as regularly or rigorously by the local authority, HMI or Ofsted as their RI counterparts. As well as under seeing their own improvement measures, RI schools are expected to put in place any national change in policy or any rushed through government agenda at a pace that you will not find in good or outstanding schools. That is not to say that good or outstanding schools are resting on their laurels, but they do not have the same pressures as the RI school to get these things in place, working and evidenced ready for scrutiny.

So when Ofsted arrives, the RI school is not judged on what it was they needed to improve last time round. The inspection begins from scratch and everything is up for scrutiny. The previous report may get a look-in but so does everything else. This means there is less time for the inspection team to gain a full understanding of the school’s journey of improvement. Without taking the time to understand the context within which the school leaders are working, or the extent to which RI schools have put in improvement measures to tackle the overall quality and consistency of securing pupil achievement, teaching, behaviour and leadership, no Ofsted team can make a valid judgement on how far that school has moved forward.

So what I would propose is that for RI schools, rather than the midday phone-call and the SEF getting emailed the night before Day One, the lead inspector should visit the school. Maybe the day or week before. They should have a proper meeting with the Head: sit down with the old report, the data, the SEF and the school development plan and really attempt to gather as much information and context as they possibly can before they come in to judge. I think this process, in itself, would prove invaluable to the lead inspector as it would help shape the two days ahead. It would also make the school feel that they were getting a fair deal.

Day One would therefore be a tough scrutiny of progress since the last report. Day Two could then lend itself to either exploring weaknesses or things that weren’t adding up, or moving on to how the school was making progress within additional areas – including new government policy and initiatives. This differentiated approach would surely help RI schools move on, as well as diminish the power and possibility of a rogue inspector. If some of you are reading this and thinking that it all seems a bit like giving RI schools an easy ride, I have to say that I think just the opposite: your evidence will be under greater scrutiny. If you haven’t made progress, then there will truly be nowhere to hide.

So what do you say @HarfordSean? Is this a possibility? Or is it just the ranting of a Head who has been burnt and can’t move on?

Rank me, Yank me.

Vitality Curve. Sounds kind of sexy doesn’t it. I don’t know if you’re meant to have a big one or small one, but either way, I want one. As I sashay down the corridors of power, I want people to stop and literally gawp as they are overcome by my mighty vitality curve: ‘Phwoar,’ they’ll say. ‘Check out his vitality curve.’

That was until I actually realised that a vitality curve is a leadership construct akin to forced ranking. Those of you familiar with the story of Enron, the energy company behind one of the biggest corporate scandals in living history, may know it by a different name: Rank and Yank. In terms of sexiness, I’d have stuck with vitality curve. A rank and yank sounds like something a teenage boy would do whilst skimming the pages of Nuts magazine.

In reality, Rank and Yank is as unpleasant as it sounds: a form of corporate triage. Through evaluations, you reward the top performing 15% of your workforce, do nothing to the average 70% and get rid of the lower 15%. The thinking is, that by relentlessly firing the underperformers and incentivising everyone else by rewarding the top performers, you will magically ensure that the overall performance of your workplace improves. Anyone who has run an organisation, and has had to judge individuals’ performances as a consequence, will know that this is a dangerously over simplistic and crude model with which to make a long-term and sustained impact on overall effectiveness.

When performance related pay was introduced to the teaching profession, it was the possibility of this model being deployed by every Head and Governing Body in the land that set teachers’ teeth on edge. And, although I have in the past been upfront about how I do consider the ‘cost’ implications of every asset and resource that I hope will raise pupil achievement, I don’t believe in a rank and yank system for human beings. I do believe in nurture and support. Holding people to account, especially those that are ‘failing’ is a delicate and difficult task. If you are to do it properly, and sleep at night, you need to make damn sure that you, yes you, have done everything you can to enable that person to improve and develop first. You have to properly invest in people; as the saying goes: You get out what you put in.

And so I come to Nicky Morgan, who, rather bizarrely, blames the media for putting people off teaching. Yep, the person who bangs on about ‘coasting’ schools without properly defining what the term means; the person who insists that forced academies are the answer without acknowledging the number of failing academies out there; the person who plans to send in ‘hit squads’ to replace failing Heads, is complaining that it’s the media, rather than her own choice use of vernacular, that is causing hard working teachers to leave the profession.

This is like the big bad wolf blaming the little pigs for being too delicious rather than acknowledge his own rather rigid dietary requirements as the cause of the reoccurring demolition of property in the local area. It’s daft, ignores the real problem and shows a staggering lack of self-awareness. I mean, Gove was an evil genius but at least he knew it was ‘him’ who was winding the profession up.

Morgan needs to seriously consider the very real implications of the words flowing from her ministerial thesaurus, as well as the political ideology she is applying to raising standards of education across the country. She is in danger of putting in place her very own rank and yank system and it is this that is turning the profession against her. Not the media.

As more and more members of our profession consider embarking on that awfully big adventure away from teaching, Morgan would be better served rethinking her rhetoric rather than laying the blame at the press’s feet. Imagine if she came out as our saviour rather than our destroyer. Imagine if every time she was on the telly she was waxing lyrical about how she planned to improve education with us rather than claim it was something to be done in spite of us? What if she gave clear clarification to existing terminology rather than inventing new woolly and yet strangely menacing jargon with which to go hunting? (Just take RI. It actually means Requires Improvement but, after listening to Morgan’s Queen’s speech on the education bill, you would be forgiven for thinking that it actually meant Raid Imminently.) Would so many of us be feeling like leaving if she came out and said that education was a damn tricky business and what was required was time and joined up thinking and not a single, foolhardy, dangerous and daft strategy such as forced academies? Probably not.

I wonder if Morgan worries that, post-election, we would consider such a volte-face a sign of weakness or that we would consider her to be a harbourer of low standards? If that’s the case then I’d like to reassure her that no, of course we wouldn’t. I mean, I’m sure she (unlike Gove) is against the death penalty; that doesn’t mean we all think she’s soft on crime. If she came out and talked with sense and sensibility, she wouldn’t need to worry about the press’s influence on teachers, she’d have us in the palm of her hand. She could stand before us, with all her vitality curves swinging in the wind and we’d clap and we’d whoop and we’d declare her the Minister for Education that we’ve been waiting for.

Alas, I fear we may never experience such a euphoric moment. I fear that as we continue to be ranked, more of us will be yanked. We can only hope that when the school of cards comes crashing down, the press – those that at present Morgan blames for the latest teacher disappearing act – will sharpen their quills and let her have it.

True Ofsted conversations #2

Like peeling away the layers of an onion, the results of talking to Ofsted, often make you cry.
Warning: like peeling away the layers of an onion, the results of talking to Ofsted can make you cry.

There’s nothing I like more than a robust conversation with someone who knows their onions. The opportunity to engage and participate with an Ofsted inspector therefore, should be the allium equivalent of downing a pint of French Onion Soup: a prospect that, in theory, I heartily relish the thought of. How disappointing it is then, that in my career, after certain conversations with lead inspectors (or the ‘head chefs’, if I’m going to run with this onion/cooking metaphor), I’m usually left with a rather unpleasant taste in my mouth. Not because I’m afraid of challenge but because, well…they’ve tended to be a few onions short of a dopiaza.

Take this recent exchange between myself, a lead inspector and their team, on the subject of pupil behaviour.

Lead Inspector

They’re very confident your children aren’t they?

Head

Well, it’s nice for children to have a bit of confidence, don’t you think?

Lead Inspector

Your children seem very confident though don’t they?

Head

I’m not sure I follow. Has something happened?

Lead Inspector

No, but in the playground, I could tell that they’re very confident children. Sometimes confidence can become arrogance.

Head

Sometimes, yes.

Lead Inspector

We all know communities like yours.

Head

Come again?

Lead Inspector

This is a very middle class community, sometimes these families can be rather challenging of authority.

Head

Well, any school community can be challenging. This school had suffered from instability with regards to the senior leadership in the years before my appointment and I think that this may have made some families not trust the school. But I think we’ve come a long way since then. The children’s behaviour has certainly improved over time.

Additional Inspector 1

In what way?

Head

Well, I think for many pupils, especially the older ones, they hadn’t experienced a consistent approach for most of their time here. It wasn’t surprising that they didn’t buy into our new whole school approach to learning and behaviour from the very start, because, for all they knew, it could all change again at the drop of a hat. But, over time, systems have been embedded and they’ve gradually become more effective as the children saw that they were staying and that more importantly they were working.

Lead Inspector

But you’re saying the older ones challenge authority?

Head

No I think you’re saying that.

Lead Inspector

They seem very confident. Sometimes this can come across as arrogance, or even rudeness.

Head

Yes, so you keep saying. Is that your way of telling me that some children have been rude to you?

Lead Inspector (to the other inspectors)

Have any of the children been rude?

Additional Inspector 2

Well, I was talking to some children on the playground and I got the impression that they could become rude.

Lead Inspector

I see.

(Lead inspector starts scribbling something down on her EF)

Head

Sorry I don’t see. Are you saying that some children were actually rude to you?

Additional Inspector 2

No, but they definitely had the manner of children that could become rude.

Head

But they weren’t?

Additional Inspector 2

No. But I could see how they might challenge authority figures.

Head

But they didn’t challenge you and they weren’t rude?

Additional Inspector 2

No

Lead Inspector

I see, but it was clear that their behaviour could tip into rudeness – I must write this down.

Head

Hang on, hang on. You see this mug here?

Lead Inspector

Yes.

Head

Well, I could, I ‘could’, pick it up and throw it at you. I might even look like I’m going to pick it up and throw it at you. But until I do pick it up and throw it at you, you can’t actually say that I picked it up or that I threw it at you.

Lead Inspector

Your point?

Head

My point is, that until one of my pupils is actually rude to you, I don’t think it’s fair for you to judge them based on what you think they might, could, possibly, maybe, slight chance that they will, would, may do.

Lead Inspector

Let’s move on to learning behaviours.

Additional Inspector 1

Ah, now I have to say that all the pupils I saw were really engaged with what they were doing.

Additional Inspector 2

Yes, they were really keen to talk to me about what it was their teacher was teaching them and what they had learnt.

Head

Oh, that’s really good to hear. We’ve really worked on –

Lead Inspector

Were they challenged?

Head

Pardon?

Lead Inspector

It sounds like they were completing tasks that were too easy.

Head

Where did you get that from?

Additional Inspector 2

Hmm, I suppose they were explaining tasks.

Lead Inspector

Exactly. Not describing the learning. Were they easily distracted?

Additional Inspector 2

Well they were very keen to talk to me.

Lead Inspector

(Writing) So…easily…distracted…from…simplistic…tasks.

Head

Hang on a second here folks, children showing off their work to an inspector is not the same as children being easily distracted.

Lead Inspector

But they were explaining tasks. Because they weren’t being taught anything.

Head

I’m pretty sure the tasks were allowing them to either acquire a better understanding of something relatively new or consolidating their learning. You don’t learn if you don’t get a chance to practise.

Lead Inspector

But they’re not being moved on swiftly enough. That’s why they’re getting bored.

Head

Who said they were getting bored?

(pause)

Additional Inspector 2

I did see a child look out of a window.

Lead Inspector

Oh dear.

Head

What?

Lead Inspector

They’re not being challenged, that’s why they’re switching off

Head

Switching off? Maybe they were thinking?

Additional Inspector 2

And one child, just got up, in the middle of the lesson, and tapped the electronic whiteboard that had just gone to sleep.

Head

So, he used his initiative to wake up the whiteboard so he could carry on with his work.

Lead Inspector

There’s that over confidence again though, don’t you see?

Head

No. I don’t see.

Additional Inspector 2

It was like he didn’t have to get permission from the adult. He felt he could just get up and make a decision that impacted on everybody else.

Head

Yeah, it did, it made sure they could get on with their work. Good on him, I say.

Lead Inspector

And this is the problem. You just don’t seem able to see the poor behaviour in your school.

Head

I can’t actually believe you’re genuinely claiming that a child looking out of a window, a child tapping a white board and children excitedly talking about their work is proof that behaviour is poor.

Lead Inspector

Oh I’m not just saying that it’s poor. I’m not even saying that it requires improvement. I’m saying that, combined with the rudeness, it’s almost inadequate.

Additional Inspector 1

Just to play devil’s advocate here for a second. The children we’ve spoken to say they enjoy school, they enjoy their lessons and they’re keen to please their teachers. The children I’ve observed have really enjoyed getting stuck into their lessons and have been really engaged. The children all talk positively about the behaviour policy and they seem to think that behaviour has improved over the last couple of years. They say that there aren’t any bullies although there are some naughty children but that the school is helping them with their behaviour. All the children have talked consistently about the standards of behaviour expected of them. ParentView is broadly positive about behaviour. I guess what I’m wondering, the question I want to ask is: are we really saying that the examples of passive learning we’ve highlighted is enough evidence to say that behaviour across the entire school is inadequate?

Head

Thank you. At last. Some common sense. I like you.

Additional Inspector 1

Thank you. I just think it’s worth us having that discussion.

Lead Inspector

Well.

(pause)

Lead Inspector

Shall we agree RI?

Additional Inspector 1

I can live with that.

Head

What?

Additional Inspector 2

Agreed.

Head

I think you all better leave now.

Lead Inspector

Why?

Head

I’ve got a horrible feeling I’m about to pick up that mug.