Ofsted – the view from the ground!

Someone recently suggested that Ofsted is not fit for purpose. My disquiet has been growing for some time as has my anger. The final straw was on hearing that schools were being inspected during the last week of the autumn term – the hardest term of all – at Christmas!!!!!! Thus I decided to make Ofsted- or the Forces of Darkness as I prefer to call them! – the subject of my first ever blog.

 I am the lucky recipient of not one but two Ofsted inspections this year and these experiences have shown me that it is a bankrupt – and untruthful – process. Here’s why.

 The first occurred in May at the primary school where I am vice Chair of Governors and which had been rated outstanding at the previous inspection. The school serves the most deprived ward in our deprived town – in the bottom 10% of all the indices of poverty. The Head has put a lot of energy into creating a school with high expectations and aspirations for all the children including providing experiences they might not have at home, particularly within the arts. Results are good and the previous year matched national for English and beat it in maths and for FSM pupils. All down to those “enemies of promise” – the teachers – assisted by the support staff who together enhance the lives and educational chances of the children.

 Some months prior to this anticipated visit, it transpired that the Head was worrying about the Ofsted judgement fearing the school might slip into a category and was spending many hours marrying up and analysing the many changes of schedule since our previous inspection. It turned out he was not sleeping very well. Horrified the Chair (parent with local knowledge and roots in the community) and I ( senior teacher at a local secondary school and Education speak person) instituted an Executive meeting every month where the Head and the deputy could go through anything they were concerned about and keep us up to speed generally. This seemed to have the desired effect.

 Then came the call and the school moved into full Ofsted mode. Those lazy, lazy teachers were at the school until late into the evening and the part timers were in on their non-working days without being asked or paid. The Head and Deputy were there from first light until last fuelled by Red Bull (other caffeine drinks are available!)

 On day one, the Chair and I duly pitched up for our meeting with the inspector who was at pains to tell us immediately, and at intervals throughout what was a very cordial meeting, that they were desperately trying to avoid putting the school in to a category. I was thunderstruck. How could I have failed to notice that things had become so bad??? Well, it was just this one little piece of data – our reading data showed a small drop which we stated was a blip. Try as they might, those lazy enemies of promise – the Head and Deputy – could not find sufficient data to convince the Inspectors although the SATs some 6 weeks later vindicated exactly what they were saying. In fact, for the first time ever we had 2 pupils gaining Level 6.

 I told the Inspector – all twinkly eyes and disingenuous questions – that if the school went into a category it would simply show what a bankrupt process the whole Ofsted process is and that I would demand that Sir Michael Wilshaw present himself at the school and explain how this could be. The inspector was rather taken aback. It wasn’t them – we had to understand. They had to make sure that the Readers who check their reports did not overturn the team’s judgements. The Readers, it seems, read the reports to ensure they match the data and if not then judgments are questioned and altered. But we were not to worry he cheerily soothed. I questioned why the Inspectors were in classrooms. Again he looked puzzled and I explained that since the latest framework is essentially a data driven model and the whole point of the Inspections is to make judgements about progress and attainment over time, then being in classrooms would tell them none of this. He tried valiantly to explain their presence but we were unconvinced.

 The following day we returned for the feedback meeting. As we arrived at the school a parent was being told by the SENCO that his children had been taken into care that day, 80 dads who had been in to school to spend an afternoon doing Fathers’ Day activities with their children were just leaving and the Head told me that a child had made a disclosure to an utterly dismayed Inspector.

 The school was judged as Good. Behaviour was judged to be Outstanding. Outstanding. There was just this small drop in reading – see the paragraph above and wonder! The Lead Inspector was at pains to emphasise that the school had not stood still. Quite the contrary, it had continued to grow, develop and improve under a Head described in the report as “inspirational”.

 That was my first go-figure experience and I am still livid about it. We are none of us self-absorbed enough to want an Outstanding judgement for our own aggrandisement – although I confess I cried when we got ours the last time round. Rather we understand the importance of such a judgement to our children and their families.

 And so to my second experience. The secondary school where I am a member of SLT is not connected with the school above but also serves a very deprived area with a high percentage of refugee and asylum seeker pupils and a highly mobile population. Between them the catchments of “my” two schools were responsible for the bulk of more than 800 referrals made to social services in just one week in May 2013.

 So, forward to September and the secondary school received the call at the start of the second week of term. As we have a two week timetable we had not yet seen the new timetable round. Some staff had yet to meet groups and most of us had not had time to get to know the pupils in front of us.

 I won’t bore you too much with the usual meetings and what transpired although I will just mention that they considered our work on assessment (my area of responsibility) to be in front of the game. They were also puzzled as to why our Pupil Premium (PP) children do better than the national average and the school gap between PP pupils and non-PP pupils is non-existent. We were at a loss to explain this really other than to say that we have high expectations of all our pupils and do not allow excuses of any kind. Rather let us look at the contentious issue of lesson observation. We don’t do a lot of these as a general rule – one for performance management and probably a Learning Walk or two – maybe. More recently a bright young assistant head has set up a teaching and learning group where members – all volunteers (about 40 at the last count) – work in trios and observe each other for their own professional development.

 Day 1 and the Inspection team went forth to observe and judge mainly in core and EBACC subjects. Six bankable outstanding teachers – the ones you would send anyone to see and know they would have an outstanding lesson to look at – were told they weren’t quite outstanding. They were very, very good– and in some cases very, very, very good – but not quite outstanding. In one case the inspector fedback that a teaching assistant (TA) had not joined the pupils in an element of the lesson which involved some chanting of the lesson content. The teacher concerned immediately accepted responsibility for not having directed the TA to do this only for the Inspector to respond that this was not the case at all and the TA should have known what was required. So he missed out on outstanding because….? Another was told that she couldn’t be sure that all pupils had completed an activity and should have asked them to put their hands up to confirm that they had! You honestly couldn’t make this up.

 Day 2 and we suddenly had a flurry of outstanding judgements from areas not previously noted for such strength, including a member of staff who had been unable to manage a judgement of good during five previous observations by a variety of people. It turns out the inspector was blown away by the sight of brown, black and white children working together. We had to check that this was indeed the Year 2013.

 At our feedback meeting the Inspectors were at pains to tell us how brilliant our pupils are and the Head’s assembly, which was, as always, lively and interactive, was envied by a fellow Head in the inspection team who lamented that he could not get away with such an assembly at his own school. But we did not merit an Outstanding for pupil behaviour.

 Overall, what we did merit was a judgement of Good. You see, there was just this small issue with a small bit of the data. Four levels of progress in English was not quite up there with the national figure – although three levels was better than national and the percentage of C+ grades had increased by more than 20% on the previous year thanks to the work of a new Head of Faculty. That was it. The difference between Good and Outstanding.

 So what part did lesson observations with all the stress involved play in that overall judgement? None. It didn’t matter what they saw in books, heard from staff, parents, pupils or Governors or what they saw in lessons. In the end what mattered was one very small element of a whole raft of data. In the end, the judgement was made before the team set foot inside the school and inspection was simply about justifying it. Oh, and pretending that Ofsted is actually about something.

 Since I started this blog – fuelled by my rage about the injustice and complete inflexibility of this process – Ofsted has updated its guidance about what they are and are not looking for in lessons and how they must not preference any particular style of teaching. (We’d had training and been told no more than 3 minutes of teacher talk – seriously?) Would that advice have made a difference in either of my experiences? I think not since the whole framework is predicated on the data. That’s it. Nothing else counts so it seems to me that Ofsted Inspections are merely an expensive con trick.

 It is all part of the current regime which – much like the Thatcher Government, only worse – seems to want to belittle, de-skill and denigrate the teaching profession for reasons I don’t understand. They want, and expect, schools to solve the ills of society and to overcome all the challenges, barriers and hurdles that children face, many of them caused by social inequality and injustice. Schools are not equipped, resourced or designed to do this but in both “my” schools this is what we strive very hard over long hours to achieve for our pupils as we recognise that education is their route out of the poverty and challenges faced by their families. We, the lazy enemies of promise.





4 thoughts on “Ofsted – the view from the ground!”

  1. This is a great post and should be read by anyone involved in education in the UK (and here in Ireland!) I trained in the UK and although I would have loved to have stayed there, I couldn’t because of the mad system that’s over there. For me, the key ingredient missing in the UK education system is trust: i.e. trust in teachers and in their professionalism. While there does need to be accountability in education, I feel this can be done without a system like OFSTED. Sadly, it looks like Ireland is going this way, which is a terrible shame. (@simonmlewis)

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