I have rather neglected this blog lately due to work and other pressures one of which relates to Ofsted. For a number of years I have been vice-chair of governors at a large, culturally diverse secondary school in London. We are a highly committed governing body who are not afraid to hold the school to account, we make regular monitoring visits and know our school well. When governors identify a concern, they are not afraid to ask searching questions of the senior leadership team. Early in the summer term we had identified an issue with a small group of white working class boys who appeared to be underachieving and questioned the reasons for this. As things turned out this group of boys were all experiencing serious challenges in their personal lives, including dealing with mental health problems (their own or their parents) and a significant proportiion were living in with parents who were alcohol or drug abiusers. We were satisfied that the school was providing adequate support and keeping a close eye on things.
A week before the end of term we were paid a visit by Ofsted who were coming to check on the progress the school had made since a previous inspection had identified areas in need of improvement. An interim monitoring visit had confirmed what the governors knew, we had made good progress and we were confident that GCSE results would confirm the improving trajectory of the school. At the end of the visit the inspection team fed back and unanimously agreed that the school had made significant improvement in all areas. The school was graded 2 in all areas and the draft report described a school which felt familiar.
Two weeks into the autumn term, there was no sign of the final report and the head started to chase the contractor to find out what was going on. After weeks of being pushed from pillar to post the head was informed that HMI had decided that they did not agree the judgements of the inspection team and downgraded the school to 3, across the board. Eventually after a great deal of pressure from the school a member of HMI paid a visit and met with the head and chair. He presented us with a report that described a school that nobody recognised. Our harmonious, multi-ethnic school was described as “racist”, bad behaviour was “endemic” despite there being no mention of this in the original report and in respect of the small group of white working class boys, the HMI stated that mental health problems were no excuse for underachievement. I only wish that I had been at that meeting as I have witnessed on a number of occasions the disbling effect of depression, stress and anxiety on pupils. That a member of her Majesty’s Inspectorate can make such a statement suggests that he needs to do an awareness course run by MIND to address his alarming level of prejudice and ignorance
Finally, after five revisions, the school has received an Ofsted report that we can just about accept, the references to racism have gone and the comments about behaviour have been toned down. Most important the strength of the leadership team and the school’s capacity to improve have been recognised. However, at the end of the day, we as governors can’t help but feel that we have been “done over” by HMI. The final report describes a school that we barely recognise, it fails to acknowledge that the GCSE results are the best the school has ever achieved (they are the best in the borough), exceeding the results of schools that have been rated good. it is some comfort to find that we are not alone, Longhill School near Brighton had a very similar experience recently, you can read the local media report here and see the school’s letter to parents here, but at the end of the day the whole experience leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth.
To be honest, I have not trusted Ofsted judgements for a very long time, inspection teams are highly variable and of all the many inspections I have been involved in as a governor, the majority have resulted in a complaint being made by the school (not all the same one by the way). Every one of these compalints has been upheld and we can only trust that the complaint that has been made about Ofsted this time regarding their apparent inability to follow their own procedures will also be upheld, but I won’t hold my breath. Ofsted, under the stewardship of Sir Michel Wilshaw has become a powerful political tool for Michael Gove who appointed him. A quick trawl of the media will reval the countless schools (Downhills was just the first!) that have seen previous good and outstanding inspections turned on their heads and the schools handed over without due consultation to one of the voracious academy chains. Could the fact that Wilshaw was previously the Education Director of the ARK Academy chain be significant here?
Since his appointment as Chief Inspector of Schools, Wilshaw has never shunned an opportunity to criticise schools or to serve his master’s every whim. He is a man who once said that low teacher morale was the sign of an effective head and his bullying style has become a hallmark of his tenure. As a governor (and I am not alone in this) I have learned that constant denigration of teachers and pupils only serves to demoralise resulting in worse, not better performance. A fear of Ofsted and the insane tagets that measure schools against their pupils’ achievement in a basket of Gove’s favourite subjects (somewhat ludicrously labelled the E-Bacc for a Baccalaureat it is not) leads teachers to focus on the test. Unlike Singapore, Japan and China, all countries Gove aspires for England to emulate, there is no place in Gove’s E-Bacc for creativity, English pupils (unless they attend an elite private school) are force fed a diet of educational gruel!
Wilshaw, like his master seized on the most recent PISA report to justify their position and bemoaned publicly that English pupils are slipping down the international league tables. Like the media, he and Gove focused on those aspects of the report that suit their agenda citing lower achievement in reading maths and science though interestingly England showed an improvement in all areas except science as can be seen here. They ignore the warnings PISA gives about inequality and the privatisation of schools. A more balanced analysis can be found here and here. Yes things need to improve in English schools but in the main Gove and Wishaw are looking in the wrong place.
In recent weeks, Wilshaw has shifted his focus. When he made his annual report this month, he chose to focus on the underachievement of white working class boys and began to focue on rural schools as opposed to inner city ones. When he raised his concerns about white working class boys and behaviour, two thoughts crossed my mind. Firstly, was there a connection between this new focus and the fact that the amended inspection report I referred to earlier. Secondly, why are Ofsted only concerned with white working class boys? All the evidence suggests that white working class girls are also a serious concern but maybe because they are girls it doesn’t matter to Gove and Ofsted, after all they will probably get pregnant and have children so the don’t really need qualifications do they?
Now it appears that Wilshaw has “declared war on grammar schools“, something that I and many others think is long overdue. Before the publication of added value was dropped from the league tables, grammar schools were generally seen to be underperforming comprehensive schools, something which needs to be addressed. Wilshaw’s criticism of grammar schools is timely but at the same time inconsistent. He accuses grammar schools of being “stuffed full of middle-class kids” but omits all the other types of selective schools (free schools, academies and church schools) that often have the same social profile. As PISA highlights, socially segregated schooling works against raising attainment. Sahlberg makes a similar point when he argues that the succees of the Finnish system is largely due to the high level of social equality and the fact that Finland only has one type of school. If Wilshaw is serious about challenging the impact of selection on educational performance, maybe he should be leading the call for private schools to be stripped of their charitable status.
When he said that selection holds back poorer pupils, Wilshaw was right but the rest of his proposals make less sense. He makes a bid for the UKIP vote by raising the spectre of hordes of Bulgarian and Romanian pupils invading English schools. Why is this such a problem? After all Ofsted don’t make allowances for the presence of refugees and immigrants from other areas of the world when measuring pupils outcomes at the end of KS2 or GCSE. He also calls for a return to testing children at not just ages of 7, 14, 16 and 18, but at every year of their school life. By contrast high achieving Finland only tests once, at the end of the students school career. As has been shown many times, high stakes testing results in a narrowing of the curriculum and teaching to the test. Pupils learn how to pass the test rather than to think for themselves, hardly the best preparation for a rapidly changing world. Finally he calls for shorter school holidays as a solution to the apparent underperformance of English pupils. Evidently he is unaware that pupils in Singapore, Japan, China, Finland and private schools all have shorter school days and longer holidays than their English counterparts with no obvious advese effect. It seems that more doesn’t always mean better.
Education is the single most important investment any nation can make in its young people and it is only right that any nation aspires for their education system to be among the best in the world. Unfortunately, English politicians and their paid enforcers appear to be incapable of learning from what other countries do well. Inequality is the biggest impediment to improvement but it will not be overcome by adopting simplistic solutions. Britain is the second most unequal society in the world and it is only by addressing the root causes of that inequality that the British Government will be able to change the educational prospects of the most disadvantaged. Ofsted and Gove can tinker as much as they like but the real enemies of promise are corporate greed, an increasingly segregated education system, an assault on the poor and disadvantaged while the rich are allowed to get richer together with an exponential rise in child poverty. Ofsted and the government are part of the problem, not the solution.