“Ofsted should not inspire us”

So said @steve_munby to a packed hall during the Inspiring Leadership conference last week in Birmingham. He went on to clarify that Ofsted are regulators and have a clear and important purpose in ensuring standards are met by schools but they should not dictate school development plans. That, implied Steve, is what Headteachers get paid for. The strategic direction and the overarching vision that drives a school forward should be the work of school professionals not school regulators.

I agree.


…before I attended the conference I was having a professional chin-wag with @PrimaryHead1 (and it was professional; we didn’t talk about game of thrones, vinyl or what he wanted as a leaving present from his school (he wants money, no gift, just money so he can update his ‘assembly book’ collection-I’ve never heard such nonsense. Trust me, Threshers will do very well that day)). Anyway, we were having a professional conversation and I was saying that what this country needs more than a no notice inspection is a system of education that considers itself RI.

Yes, I said it. Consider yourselves all requiring improvement.

Why do I say this? Not because I’m lonely being an RI head. Not because I’m jealous of all you good and outstanding swines. Not because I have a Govian mind-set that we’re all rubbish until we’ve proved that we’re not completely rubbish. Not because I’m not creative. Not because I’m negative. Not because I don’t think my teachers are good or that my pupils achieve.

No, I think this because sometimes being RI is great. It’s liberating. It focuses the mind and forces you to go back to basics:

  • Make sure the primary experience is brilliant.
  • Get the teaching of English and maths tip top.
  • Make topics fun and interesting.
  • Get children to love learning.
  • Show them that positive behaviour works and is easier than being an aggressive, rude little grumpy boots.
  • Help out the disadvantaged so they have a fighting chance in life.
  • Enable the staff to lead and enjoy the challenge of working hard.

See, easy. Nice and simple ain’t it.

The best thing is that when you’re RI you’re allowed to ignore stuff. Well, I don’t know if you’re actually allowed, but I have, on many occasion, ignored emails, hit delete, replied ‘no’ and told people to just leave me alone. I have freed myself from gubbins and trust me, it feels good.

If it isn’t on ofsted’s ‘what this school needs to do list’ I’m not interested. So far, I seem to be getting away with it too. More importantly, the school is improving and, in case you’re wondering, it’s a nice school to work at and it’s a lovely school to be educated in. We’re not boring. I’m not a SATS dragon. I just want to focus on great teaching, achievement and making the school a really, really, really good school.

Occasionally another head will ask me: how are you preparing for this or that. At this point I normally pop on my shades, put a matchstick between my teeth, smile and say ‘Don’t bother me Daddio, I’m RI’ then I hit the duke box and we all start jiving.

Imagine if we could all do that? British Values curriculum…behave, we’ve got children to teach. An Olympic legacy plan…um no, that’s just silly. Nonsense word phonic test…I think I’ll just get them to read normally thanks.

We wouldn’t have to put up with the reactionary nationwide initiatives that come about because something not good happened to one school somewhere in Britain and the government think the public expects them to make us all do something new so that it doesn’t happen to us. Being RI gives you the strength to pick and choose and be bloody minded – that isn’t going to help raise my standards so I’m not going to do it, sorry.

So my SDP is gleefully littered with Ofsted inspiration. What would Steve say? What will I do when we get judged ‘good’? I don’t know. And that’s why Steve Munby’s speech has made me think. At the moment I am using Ofsted; they are my weapon for getting the school where I want it. What happens when I get there is another issue. I will no longer be able to hide; I’ll have to join in with all the other schools and do as I’m told. More importantly, I’ll have to think for myself and come up with some grand vision for the school that, at the moment, is mysteriously out of my reach.

Hey, maybe I’ll have greater capacity to improve so I can bolt these initiatives and expectations onto my SDP and it will be fine…or maybe that will cause me to take my eye off the ball: I’ve failed to make floor targets but on the other hand the school does now have a solar panel roof.

I want to have grand visions. I want to create a school that is a shining example of 21st century education. I want to go to outstanding and beyond. But I’m scared. I’m scared that just wanting a really good primary school isn’t good enough, and soon I’ll be powerless to stop myself from getting overblown and overstretched.

So please, can we all decide to be RI and get on with teaching and learning? (Sorry Steve)

#ILConf2014 The good, the bad and the beautiful


The Beautiful

Returning from the Inspiring Leadership Conference (#ILConf2014 to you) I realised that I really like Birmingham. This is a nice thing to feel, especially considering how the city’s education has been represented in the media recently. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a city full of Trojan horses, indoctrinated children and extremist nutjobs skulking in the shadows trying to convert me when all I was trying to do was to find the damn car park; but I also wasn’t expecting to (whisper it or Bristol will get jealous) love the place.

The contrasting architecture of the equally gorgeous museum and library; the canal, with its gently flowing water, ducks and barges, allowing you to forget you’re in a massive city; plus, the sun was shining (I appreciate this isn’t actually down to Birmingham, but it helps). And then there are the people. The best way I can describe them, apart from being kind, friendly, helpful and nice, is, well the word I would use is: light. Walking around the city it felt light and breezy. There was a positive attitude that permeated the atmosphere of the city centre and made being there feel intimate: quite a feat for a major city.

The Bad

Before I start I should put this into perspective. We’re talking about a major conference with many, many speakers who were brilliant. For every speaker to be successful would be unrealistic and you could call me mean spirited for highlighting the odd one that didn’t quite hit the mark. But what I want to highlight here is a particular type of bad speaker. I’ve seen terrible speakers before and forgiven them instantly because of why they were bad: often at these events talented and successful individuals are invited to appear, but because they’re not used to public speaking they don’t deliver polished presentations peppered with gags. But you don’t mind because you can see they’re nervous and, more importantly, they have something significant to say. The message out-ways the delivery. No, these are not the people to whom I am now referring.

I am referring to the ‘professional speaker’. These are people who have tended to have worked in education for a bit and, I don’t know, maybe they found it too hard, got out, wrote a book and now go on tour. They’re clever, don’t get me wrong; they know how to get re-booked, and their performance is consistent with that of a cruise ship comedian. Experiencing them is like eating a fortune cookie: quite sweet, with a message inside that makes you think for a second, but then you realise that not only are you still hungry but that the message was blander than the cookie. Luckily there are some clues that you can look out for to spot these phonies and ensure you don’t waste your time with them again.

  1. Third person referencing. If someone repeatedly says their own name (especially when acting out a conversation they’ve had with a famous person) then it is more than likely this person is a pillock.
  2. Name dropping. If they continually keep mentioning the famous people they’ve met since leaving education, and if there is no apparent reason for the meeting except for the fact it might help sell the book or dupe you into thinking that they must be wise in order to have met said famous person, then be rest assured that this bit of the talk is drivel.
  3. Stand-up. If the ratio of material is more weighted towards jokes than insightful message, and if the jokes are lame observational comedy about education (‘you know the feeling when you realise you’ve used the wrong mug in the staffroom…’), then you can happily discredit whatever it is they’re trying to tell/sell you.
  4. Number of publications. If they’ve only written one book with a single premise and from that premise they set up a company and now travel around the country talking about this premise, and if during that time they haven’t done anything else that contributes to or evolves the premise in any tangible way, then that voice in your head telling you that this guy’s a bit of a sham needs to be listened to.
  5. Generalisation. If during the talk they make grandiose claims and big statements that everyone agrees with (education should be more than tests….all children deserve to achieve…tomorrow’s prime minister is in our classroom today…walk the walk don’t just talk the talk…breathing is quite good for you) then you can quickly deduce that this person is not challenging your thinking and has nothing of merit to add to the ongoing debate on improving education.

Now I’m not going to name and shame but all I will say is that there was a particular person who displayed much of the above; they were the penultimate speaker of the entire conference and they have written books which, based on what we learnt from their talk, I urge you not to buy.

The Good

The fact that I only have one person in mind when thinking about all that was bad about the three day conference should be a clear indication about how good the whole thing was. What amazes me about conferences such as these is that despite each speaker being completely different there is always a single thread that binds all their thoughts and teaching together. This year the link was learning from research, and using research on a local, national and international level to meet the needs of your pupils and communities. Now, whether this link comes about from similarities in governmental approaches to education on a global scale, or the conference organisers having a clear picture of what all these people are thinking and doing at this particular moment in time, or that maybe all the speakers Whatsapp each other the night before – whatever. It works and I love it.

I am not going to summarise what every speaker said but I will say why they were good.

It’s simple really: they are good. I mean they’re really good at what they do and they have achieved things, often on an international scale, that are way beyond us folks sitting in the stalls. Not only have they achieved but they understand why they have done so. They have vision. But that is almost the smallest part of their success. I mean, we all have vision, we all know what ‘it’ should be like, even the bad speaker. But that is why they are bad speakers: they only talk about the vision and they get applauded because we’re all sitting there thinking ‘yes, that is what it should be like, I think that too. Brilliant!’

The good speakers got where they are today because they realised that vision is not enough. From the vision comes the plan, from the plan comes action, from action comes evaluation, and from evaluation comes an increase in drive: do better and do more. And they keep on going. They’re still at it and they’ll never stop. That is why they inspire us and make us think beyond our vision. And they show us, through their examples and their contexts, that we can at least keep on trying to do better.

The diversity of speakers, many not from education, all had something tangible we could relate to and learn from. I would be very surprised if any single person who attended doesn’t approach their work differently from Monday onwards as a result of what we heard over the three days. Whether it will be a big thing like taking the school development plan in a new direction or a change in personal mindset or a tiny thing like an assembly idea (I intend to do all three), we will all move forward.

That is why #ILConf2014 was a success. We got to learn from the best.

FYI: I am available to give an inspiring and hilarious talk at the 2015 conference so @steve_munby and @InspLdrshipConf, give me call.

Moderation – one size fits no one


What do you get when a particular process is one person’s main job? A highly skilled professional with a wealth of knowledge and understanding? An individual who is blinkered by their preferred systems? I know which one I’d prefer but then again sometimes life is like a box of chocolates from Lidl: what you see ain’t always what you get.

I recently experienced a moderation morning. I was genuinely surprised at how archaic this system seemed in the light of all the changes coming in next year. I would have thought the moderators would have been interested in how schools were making their judgements rather than dictate the use of rather stale and soon to be outdated ways of assessing. I don’t mind a system and rigour – that is very much welcomed, but to mask an individual’s preference through artificial officialdom is a bit weak.

There were some frustrating suggestions about what we should be using in order to make judgements with no acknowledgement of our systems. Well, no that’s unfair. They did acknowledge our systems but they pretty much wanted us to use theirs.

Before that discussion got too heated however, there was the ongoing battle about when should you judge a child to be at a certain level? Consistency over time is key, we all know that, but if a child is capable and has demonstrated it, how long must we wait before we nail our colours to the mast?

Whilst I appreciate that a child using a full stop for the first time in their entire life does not mean they are suddenly writing at Level 2B but the ‘we must see at least one hundred pieces of writing including twenty examples of cross-curricular writing before we commit to a level’ theory really gets my Gove. Why? Simple: I trust my teachers; I have faith in my senior leaders who moderate with my teachers; I am not an idiot.

Let me explain:

I hate it when I flick through children’s books and see that a child is working ‘pretty much’ consistently at a particular level and yet when I look at data they are assessed at a level behind. When I ask the teacher why this is so, the response I normally get is based around the child’s failure to consistently do one teeny-tiny element of a level descriptor. The handwriting isn’t always joined; they missed a full stop last week; they haven’t used an exclamation mark in a month. I believe that this single-minded obsession with fulfilling every single descriptor stunts progress. If you committed to assessing at the ‘higher’ level then when you plan for that child not only will you still be getting them to use an exclamation mark in every sentence but you will also be focussing on more appropriate next steps. By not doing this, by keeping that child down, you’re showing low expectations that will only result in low standards. Be brave…challenge the child and challenge yourself. Don’t be irresponsible but if you ‘think’ a child is a 2A pretty much most of the time just crack on and say it: I won’t mind, the child won’t mind and, after your performance management, you won’t mind either.

This is what I encourage my teachers to do because I believe it gives a more accurate picture of a child’s ability. I also have a leadership team who moderate children’s work and I trust them to know that a teacher isn’t going insane and up-levelling everyone. We therefore create an accurate and consistent picture of progress and achievement across the school.

Oh and as I said earlier: I am not an idiot! I don’t want every Year 2 child achieving 2A and level 3 plus…because I know that will be impossible to replicate with Level 4s and 5s when they’re in Year 6 and I gots to show progress don’t I! No, I don’t want assessments too high to make us look good now or too low to make us look good later; I just want accurate data.

But on the day of moderation, if we don’t have multiple sources of evidence, including the use of test resources from 2007, evidence of ‘current level’ work in at least 5 pieces of writing and if we haven’t used their assessment descriptors we get penalised. Never mind that our systems have been checked and approved by my local schools cluster, my governors, the local authority and HMI. Apparently the lone moderator who has not changed their ways since 1998 outranks all these people; who knew?

So ok, we’ll play ball. Not enough evidence. Fine. I’ll put that lad down to a 2C. Not a problem. Why is this not a problem? Because I know that within three weeks I’ll have the evidence to say he’s a 2B.

Oh, apparently that is a problem. I can’t do that because the moderator would be very surprised if the boy had made any further progress in that time. (This boy, if you remember, had written at a 2b level but not enough times to please the moderator so he was lowered to a 2c.) So even though the moderator understands that he has written at 2b meaning technically, by my understanding, he doesn’t have to ‘make’ any more progress they still wouldn’t expect me to say he’s a 2B in a month’s time when I’ll have the evidence to prove it. I genuinely don’t get this argument. I mean, what do they think we’re going to be doing from now until the summer? Of course he’s going to do more writing and of course my teachers are going to assess it and, when they do, I’ll make sure they use your ancient system and of course when he comes out as a 2B (again) I will be sending that level off to the local authority. To suggest otherwise is a nonsense as it stems from bureaucracy rather than allowing educators to do their job.

Then came the comment that the moderator would also be surprised if any other pupils moved up a sub-level before the data deadline – in about a month’s time. Again, what do they think schools are doing in the last term? I have no idea but apparently, working really hard up to the last minute to get as many children as possible writing at age related expectations isn’t one of them. It was only a few months ago that Ofsted were expecting every child to make progress in every lesson – but now I’m being challenged over the assumption my children will make any form of progress in three and a half weeks!

What irritates me here is that I don’t think I’m being challenged educationally. I’m being challenged because the reality of the situation doesn’t fit in with the contrived nature of how moderations are carried out. It’s akin to trying to fit a strait-jacket onto an octopus. Progress is messy and awkward and relies on teachers’ professionalism to get it right. If the moderators want to come in and assess 10% of pupils in every school using their own antiquated system to get a picture of achievement across the city that is fine, but they cannot demand schools use their systems instead of or as well as their own. This will be no truer next year when the poor moderators will be unable to rely on their beloved level descriptors. What will they do? What system will they use? How will we know schools’ differing systems are being judged relatively?

There’s only one solution…moderation.