Dear Ms Spielman,
I retired from headship in December after 26 years. I worked as substantive head at three schools for about 24 years and since then I have filled a number of interim and consultant positions before deciding that enough was enough.
I am 58. The prospect of "seeing it through until 60" filled me with no enthusiasm at all and I have decided to do the honourable thing. I am sure I am not alone.
The problem for me and, I suspect, for many others not in the position to take early retirement, was Ofsted.
It’s not the fact that we are accountable or that we work to a set of standards and always seek to do the best we can by the children. It is the punitive style of inspection that exists. It has created a tangible fear throughout the whole education system. Headteachers throughout the land dread the message from admin that "Ofsted is on the line". Teachers, by their nature, are generally an altruistic, non-confrontational lot.
The mixed messages coming out from Ofsted in either paraphrased soundbites like "we need a greater breadth to the curriculum and will inspect accordingly" followed the next week by "core skills are so important and they and phonics are the bedrock of all good learning" only serve to fuel the levels of anxiety in schools. Do we teach the basics or do we teach a broader curriculum?
And then there are the stories that come out from schools that have endured an inspection: tales of inspectors wanting to see evidence of something of their own choosing, inspectors rolling their eyes when a head dares to mention that they haven’t got said evidence.
Some time ago, I was acting head of a school while the head was absent on compassionate leave following the death of his wife. The lead inspector was questioning me regarding the substantive head’s absence, trying to find something to suggest that his absence was perhaps somehow not of his choosing. The same lead inspector also wanted to see two references for a volunteer who had just taken on the role of a midday assistant.
Ofsted and the culture of fear
I told her we didn’t have two references and that although it was good practice, we were not legally obliged to have two references for staff. I was told that the school, therefore, faced being graded 4 on the grounds of safeguarding. She was seemingly unilaterally adapting the laws of the land to her own end.
This had all happened by 9.30am on the first day of the two-day inspection. Following that inspection, the local authority then informed every school that they now had to have references in place for all staff and volunteers and that this needed to be done retrospectively. Almost comically, we had the scenario being played out where many heads were then writing references for people who had long left their establishments. This is not of any real benefit, is not a good use of people's time but was all the making of Ofsted.
There’s a shortage of teachers. I believe it’s because of Ofsted. Fewer graduates want to come into a job where the terms and conditions aren’t great, where they could lose their job at the whim of an Ofsted inspector and where too much of their day-to-day work will be subject to intense scrutiny and needless admin from the off. The pay for newly qualified staff isn’t bad, career progression is alright, even though a whole series of hoops have been put in place to try and trip up teachers now (not directly of Ofsted’s making).
So there must be another reason why the numbers are not coming through. Even the prospect of longer holidays doesn’t seem to be attracting them any more. It’s that the expectations placed on teachers now are unsustainable. Teachers have voted with their feet. A lot of quality, experienced teachers have chosen to take on temporary or part-time work without a real commitment to a school rather than put up with what the system has become.
Schools feel like they’re under microscopic scrutiny. I know I made mistakes in my early days as a teacher. I know I made more during my early days as a headteacher. I was fortunate not to have a punitive inspectorial system checking up on me while I was getting up to speed with my roles.
Strangely, while I was learning (often from my mistakes) nothing went horribly wrong, the children still learned; the school, including the new head, progressed. We now feel straitjacketed, fearing to venture off whatever the recommended route of the day is. Schools have become drier places, lacking creativity and genuine opportunities for hands-on learning through practice. This is Ofsted’s doing.
Fear permeates through schools. It’s not a good climate in which to mould young minds or in which teachers can truly do their best. Ofsted has created that fear.
Now we are told that Ofsted wants to reduce the amount of notice, so we might have the reality of no-notice inspections. Is this really designed to catch out schools sending naughty children off site for the day or just to ramp up the fear factor a little further? Why not utilise inspectors' expertise to support the schools that are trying to resolve wide-ranging societal difficulties rather than taking a lofty view and blaming others?
Schools in challenging circumstances find it even more difficult to attract good staff. You won’t be surprised to hear that I believe this is also because of Ofsted...
It takes a huge amount of effort and resource to enable children from disadvantaged, traumatic and dysfunctional backgrounds to progress and enjoy learning. The trouble is that these pupils are judged in the same heavy-handed system that makes little distinction between them and their more affluent peers. In disadvantaged communities, schools are more likely to have lower test outcomes and staff are more likely to find themselves facing more frequent inspection checks.
This can lead to a high teacher turnover, which is not ideal when the class contains vulnerable children. People’s livelihoods are at stake. What incentive is there for a teacher or a headteacher to take on a risky role in an under-performing school? Especially when the school in the next town serves a more affluent clientele, where good results are more easily come by and where they don’t feel hounded by Ofsted.
The inspections are simply too high-stakes. This system plays no role in supporting schools; instead, it merely identifies in which areas schools are not deemed to be good enough. Having done this, the outcomes are made public, laid bare for all to see and pick over. Ofsted can then walk away from the problem (one it created), taking no responsibility for the mess it has left behind – a mess that will impact the lives of hundreds of children and many staff on each visit.
By all accounts, nearly 90 per cent of all schools are presently deemed to be "good" or "outstanding".
So why does a system that seemingly works well now need such a sledgehammer approach to monitoring?
And why does it make us feel so sceptical when a new framework is announced?
Is it because schools have managed to get themselves to be "good" via your old framework that you now have to invent a new way of catching schools? That’s what it feels like to many of us.
My time is up. I'm a little sad that I don't miss being a head.
And that is almost exclusively due to Ofsted.
David Smith is a former headteacher