Ofsted Inspections: Fairly without fear or favour…who are you kidding?


It is hard trying to run an organisation whilst simultaneously trying to improve it: this is made doubly hard when you are doing so in an open environment. When you are constantly made aware of the unpopularity  of your decisions  by the very people whom you are trying to improve or trying to make improvements for. It really doesn’t help then, when the people above you behave in a way that makes you wish you could put them on the naughty step until they’re sorry – voicing their opinions which seem to contradict previous agreements, or putting pressure on you to change course. So no wonder that Wilshaw is ‘spitting blood’ over some of Gove’s alleged words and actions against Ofsted.

Poor Wilshaw, I thought, that really has the potential to ruin your weekend. Then I read another quote from Wilshaw about Ofsted: ‘As long as we exist we will do the job fairly, without fear or favour’. And at this point I had to laugh at the sheer self-pitying and self-indulgent notion of this statement. How about you, Sir Michael, consider those F words from the perspective of the people who are at the mercy of your blunt instrument of torture improvement.


Is Ofsted fair? I am the first to agree that schools need support and validation from an independent and external body in order to help improve achievement for all children in the country. But is the current system fair? No. A system cannot be described as being fair when it lacks a key ingredient for fairness: consistency.

I strive for consistency. I truly believe that it is the key for sustained school improvement. Find out what works and do it well. If you apply this to any aspect of school life it will have a positive impact right across the school. Yet it is impossible to apply this to Ofsted. Having recently heard a Head who is in the middle of their training to be an inspector, I was alarmed when he said the following:

‘The entire focus was on how to fill in the evaluation forms: you don’t write a judgmental statement down unless you can back it up with evidence. You have to be able to have a chain of evidence that backs up the reason behind your judgement.’

That sounds ok doesn’t it…but he continued:

‘We then saw examples of a lesson and we had to evaluate it as if we were carrying out an inspection. Around the trainees in the room, our judgement on the quality of teaching varied from inadequate to good. I suggested that this was something we should probably discuss but was told the variety in judgements did not matter…all that mattered was that we each could refer to evidence behind our judgements. It didn’t matter what we thought only that we could argue it.’

How is that fair? How can a school’s inspection result being mainly determined by the lead inspector’s whim and own personal interpretation of what the school ought to be doing be a fair system through which to judge the quality of education across the country?

Without Fear

Is it any wonder that schools fear Ofsted? When it is so transparently clear that schools are not judged in a consistent or fair manner you can’t blame schools for living Monday to Wednesday 2:00pm in a state of fear. How can you prepare for something when you have no idea what tangent the inspection will go off on? Is the lead an early year’s specialist, a data obsessive (which normally means they can only interpret data if it’s presented in a way they like), someone who has judged the school before entering, someone who values PE above everything else, someone who prefers a particular teaching method? There is no consistency in what individual inspectors are looking for or think, so, schools cannot trust the teams entering their school.

I appreciate that every school is different but that doesn’t mean inspections should vary so wildly. Inspections should be focused on the consistent effectiveness of schools over time. They should gather information and work with the leadership team to find out how good the school is based on agreed national expectations (no data myths) and against the school’s contextual information. We would all know where we stand and we would all be able to welcome Ofsted into our schools.

Without Favour

Actually the idea that Ofsted aren’t doing anyone any favours isn’t wildly inaccurate – but that’s probably not what Wilshaw was inferring. (I get it Mike, and you have my permission to charge into every free school like a massive bull in a tiny china shop and go knock yourself out.) I want to love Ofsted. In my particular experience I got the result the school needed in order to help get everyone on board with my improvement plan.  But the inspection itself was a truly horrendous experience that did nothing to suggest that Ofsted are robust bastions of education. Instead I felt that it was a hoop, a barbed wired hoop being held by an ignorant bully, which I had to squeeze my school through in order to get on with improving my school. That is not right.

So I support Wilshaw’s rhetoric of ‘fairness without fear and without favour’ but after he’s got to the bottom of his gripes with Gove – he’s still got a long way to go.

I may not be a lady but sometimes I wish I was more woman

ImageTo kick things off: I am a man. To add some more background: I am a man in education. Finally:as a man in education, I know how irritating some men in education can be. 

But let’s come back to me. I’ve always been successful! I can be concise, amusing at just the right times and most importantly I can sound like I really know what I’m talking about and believe me, I like to talk.

So far, so nauseating. I appear to consider myself to be amazing and worst of all, I’m going on about it. However, there is a big but…and I’m not talking about the one you are probably thinking my head is currently up. I am also painfully self-aware and have the social skills to be self-effacing and come across as mostly normal. But I know men in education who can not quite manage this. I’ve met them at interviews, schools, courses, seminars and they are tedious.  You have probably met/studied/worked with them too. They make you glad that you now have excessive mobile data allowance so rather than engage/listen/be bored by these gentlemen, you can safely find a corner in the room and tweet.

But what is it that has made these men so annoying?

Gender ratios may be a place to start. When I graduated as a teacher there were certainly less men training to be teachers than women. We were also told that there was a great shortage of men in education and that it was vitally important for children to have positive male role models. This led to a feeling that a man would automatically have a natural advantage in a job interview purely because by having an Adam’s apple and a pair of testicles, he was biologically more likely to become a positive male role model than a candidate without the aforementioned biological apparatus.

What I think happened as a result of this statistical fact was that some men began to get a bit confused. They began to think that, because they were men with Adam’s apples and all the rest of it, they were automatically good teachers! Over time they evolved from bold as brass NQTs into cock-sure mavericks. Convinced that their way of teaching was not only unique but would change the world and lives of all the pupils that were lucky enough to experience their lessons.

I’m not having a pop at innovation, far from it. But some of the behaviours I have seen, particularly in a certain type of male teacher, is anything but a positive male role model:

  • Steamrolling over other professionals’ ideas based on an assumption that you are the only one in the building capable of a valid and original thought.  
  • Being unable to really listen to advice from anyone who is willing to give you the time to help you reflect.
  • Believing that your unorthodox methods earn you the right not to mark books properly or do the time intensive and boring parts of the job.
  • Talking very loudly as if everyone needs to hear about your philosophy and experiences.

The worst part about all this, is that if they don’t wake up from their own ridiculousness they start to lose perspective and being a teacher becomes more about them than the pupils they serve. Once this happens, they really may as well give up.

This doesn’t end in the staffroom either. Gather certain Alpha-Male Heads together at a conference bar and there is so much posturing and hot air it’s a miracle the night doesn’t end with actual chest beating, teeth gnashing and red bottom waving.

The other night, a friend of mine and I happened to bump into three female Head Teachers that we know so we joined them. Listening to these leaders was a totally different experience. There was no posturing or self-importance. All three, although at times scarily strong willed, peppered the conversations with questions to support or challenge each other and there was no competitive edge to their conversation. Their conversations were not based on showing off their own achievements or bragging about their leadership style. Instead they were firmly rooted in their own experiences and working on what was right for their pupils and schools. I couldn’t help but think: How can I be more like them?

Are they great because they are women? No. They’re just incredibly talented and professional people-as many men also are. But they are not prone to the hyperbole and self-importance that some men in education indulge in…they just crack on and do it. They are certainly as driven as the many over-confident men I have met but by not being distracted by themselves they are more effective.

It was, for me, a reminder that being successful in education is about focus. If you’re a Head, focus on your school, your teachers, your pupils. If you’re a teacher, focus on your pupils and their learning. I don’t know if men or women make better teachers. I doubt it matters. I do know male and female teachers and Heads who are equally wonderful and inspiring. But I’ve come across more self-important, ego-centric men than I have women in my career and considering we are meant to be in the minority, that doesn’t look good in terms of proportional representation.

If any of this is making any men feel uncomfortable then I may be talking to you (if you now feel very cross it either doesn’t apply to you or it really does but you’re too far gone to do anything about it). 

So come on boys, grow a pair! Stop believing your own hype and focus on the job in hand. Aspire to be like those female Heads, not because they can do things that we, as men, can not do; but because they don’t let arrogance get in the way of their success.

Achieve that, and you may go as far as me…cos I’m great!Image

The Golden Age – part 2

When I began teaching, Headship was like the end of a rainbow..out of reach. Partly because I had only begun teaching,  any thoughts towards becoming a Head would have been very odd considering I wasnt quite sure what was higher: a 2C or a 2A? (I actually had to ring my final school, placement mentor to find out). No, if at that stage in my career I had designs on Headship it would have been very worrying and I probably should have left the world of education there and then .  

Another reason however as to why Headship appeared to be an almost mythological state was because of the Head Teachers that were around. In my mind the Head Teachers back then were calossal. Mighty beasts that not only led their school but were the school.  I don’t want to use the word “Maverick”but these were big personalities who seemed untouchable. It was these men and women whose schools were like kingdoms.  When you heard about what this or that Head was doing in his or her school it was like listening to myths from another land. They were at once, to me, all knowing about education but only in their particular domain. I always felt that it would be impossible to become one of them…unless I killed a lion or wrestled a bear or bit the head off a snake in some weird local authority ritual.  

I later worked with one of these leaders at close hand and I was so relieved that they weren’t a disappointment. It was a tough school in a socio-economically depressed part of the city and floor standards were pretty much your wildest dreams.  (Don’t confuse that with staff low expectations however, as a pgce student once made the mistake of actually saying during a staff meeting.) This Head was, to my mind, the only possible person who could lead that school.  

Don’t get me wrong, there were some areas of weakness:  

1. Being able to actually teach (if he was taking your class you would come back at break to find that he had barely taken the register so preoccupied with trying to make the class laugh)
2. Staff communication at times was not brilliant; you found out, for example,  what year group you were teaching next year via letter in your pigeon hole after lunch on the last day… he would have left for the holidays at noon.
3. Zero respect for financial responsibility…each year came the depressing and soul destroying moment of ‘managing change’ which left many staff feeling devalued.
4. Writing a  SEF that was a complete (although at times amusing) work of fiction.  

But there were many, many, many things that cause those weaknesses to evaporate from my mind when I think about his overall contribution to that school community.  He loomed so large on the psyche of the community and committed so much of his life to bringing the community together and unifying them that he remains a significant influence on my own headship.  

I say that even though I believe his breed of Head Teacher is now extinct. For better or for worse schools are no longer led by Kings or Queens trying to protect their castle from the dragons that try to burn them down. (Wow, reading this back makes me think I should hold back on Game of thrones). These Heads have died out as Headship became more… professional?  

I don’t for one minute say that to try and take any level of professionalism away from the Heads of yesteryear… but the job itself has changed. For example:
I can’t employ, without interview, parents from the playground because they seem nice. I can’t have staff favourites (publicly) and offer them internal promotions. I can’t create an SDP priority based upon a personal indulgence. l can’t ignore what my local schools are doing or ignore their achievements over mine.  

Headship has become more transparently accountable and operating as a lone saviour is impossible. When people reminise about the “freedoms” of teaching back then (“I used to decide what my afternoon lessons would be whilst shaving”) or Headship (“Bugger the SIP, I Know what we’re doing”) l occasionally feel, not Sad, but a nostalgic longing for what I may have missed… a golden age? A time of freedoms and of a “my way or the highway” and assurity that you were right without question.

I mean will I inspire a generation of future Heads? Will they write a blog about me saying:  

1. By God he could write a SEF that cut to the chase.
2. He Knew Raise like the back of his hand.
3. I’ll say this for him, he always interviewed if there was a vacancy.
4. The man could budget reasonably well.. no one lost their job but we never managed to equip a fully working ICT suite.  

I’m certain they won’t. Even so, I hope I can be the Head for the community that I saw in that inner city school years ago. The cut corners, I can do without and the independence.  But the total commitment to a school is what drives me, and the changes that have come with the evolution of school improvement are, by me, welcomed. I embrace the partnerships we are creating with local schools in the real world and professional colleagues in the virtual world of twitter. I don’t want to be alone in this very public dashboard of educational judgements. We may not be living in a golden age of education and school leadership may have become more corporate and professionally minded but I wouldn’t necessarily change that.  

Where there are constraints, people will find freedoms through creativity.
When one school “fails” it will succeed through systems and partnerships.
Professionalism and rigid accountability are borne from a true desire to raise standards for all pupils.

As a school Leader I truly feel that we are tantalisingly close to forging education’s new golden age.