Six weeks ago, I wrote a long opinion piece for the TES website. It was about Ofsted. In it, I described my conviction – based on a recent and bruising school inspection – that an organisation that ought to be helping us to improve our schools was instead doing profound damage.
I conveyed my growing sense that, as a result of inconsistent or insensitive inspections, too many well-meaning school and college leaders were made ill, or left humiliated and abandoned in the bleak post-inspection landscape without confidence, self-esteem and, too often, without a job.
I wrote about and for the disappeared. And then the disappeared wrote back.
Within minutes of the article going live on the TES site, emails began to arrive and Twitter pulsated. I got phone calls from people I’d never met. Within a day or two I received cards and letters: some bleak, all grateful, many heartbreaking.
Some of my correspondents were former headteachers. A few were current heads, emotionally hollowed out by a bad inspection. They confided in me their inescapable sense of guilt, their shame, their feelings of having let down their students, staff, parents, governors, community and – gut-wrenchingly – their own families.
I heard from chairs of governors, most of them now ex-governors; people who had once signed up to the notion of public service, optimistic about making a difference to local education, and who had then been on the receiving end of an Ofsted experience that had caricatured or misrepresented the school they thought they once knew.
Some had complained officially, only to find – as I did – that the Ofsted complaints procedure too often seems constructed around a deep and dutiful need for self-protection. Thus an inspection system that demands transparency from schools refuses to release its own inspection notes, When challenged, it dares us to resort to a Freedom of Information request and then rejects those same requests because they don’t conform to a definition of “public interest”.
Some of my messages came from serving and former Ofsted inspectors, and one even from an HMI. Dismayed by what they saw from the inside, all wrote to convey sympathy, gratitude and sometimes just a shared sense of unease.
These too are good people who feel let down by an organisation they thought would harness their talents to support and improve schools. They said they had thought their job would be helping. Now they felt they were doing the bidding of an organisation whose values they couldn’t stomach.
Courage of conviction
Such, then, was my postbag of anguish. And the word used most frequently by my many correspondents was “brave”: they said it was “brave” to write the article.
I find that as extraordinary as it is depressing. It tells us a great deal about the way Ofsted is perceived. To criticise this monolithic institution is seen to be taking on its macho and intimidating swagger. My article was brave, people said, because heads and governors of failing or so-called coasting schools will inevitably be portrayed as the problem, not the solution. To complain about an unfair inspection risks exposing our schools and ourselves to accusations of whingeing or incompetence or lily-livered weakness.
So let’s be clear. My original article wasn’t an act of bravery; it was written out of a sense of injustice. More importantly, it wasn’t attacking Ofsted as a concept. I believe schools should be independently inspected – we owe it to parents and taxpayers.
I also recognise that many school leaders, including me, have at times been well served by inspection. We have the badges on our websites or notepaper. We may feel that our schools improved because of inspectors who got the tone and methodology right, who looked sensitively at the school with a view to helping it to know itself better.
So I believe in detached, external inspection. But it has to be good: fair, consistent, transparent and underpinned by a belief that schools should come out of the experience knowing themselves better and being better able to improve than they were on Day 1. This should be the norm.
Such was my complaint – that inspection teams differ too much in quality and that, as a result, their inconsistency can lead to unreliable judgements. When that happens, the complaints procedure makes it almost impossible to engage in a serious and constructive dialogue to get justice. That was my Ofsted experience and my correspondents said it was also theirs.
Most asked for confidentiality. Their messages were expressed in a tone of concern at what might happen to the reputation of their school if people saw them go public.
Yet what they had to say about Ofsted is important and needs sharing. So each of the writers below has agreed that I might share their experiences anonymously. We have authenticated who they are and they have given written permission for TES to print their comments.
All together now
If that first blog seemed to be all about me, this one most definitely isn’t. It’s about us, a profession that is at risk of letting itself be downtrodden by an inspection system that too often feels out of control, characterised by a tone from the top that runs counter to genuinely reflective school improvement.
Here’s what they wrote. First, the headteachers:
Our inspection was triggered by a fall in the headline measures. In fact, RAISEonline and other analyses subsequently showed that we were still “top quartile” for similar schools and that all five English Baccalaureate subjects were at 1,001 or better. Needless to say, such a level of achievement is underpinned by wonderful teaching from a hugely dedicated staff. All student, parent and staff views on benchmarked surveys aggregate to “outstanding” or, expressed more simply, people are really happy here given the enormous demands placed on all members of school communities.
Our lead inspector had never been a middle or a senior leader in a school. A separate complaint about his arrogance, rudeness, hostility and macho posturing during the process was “not proven”. This, despite the fact that a cavalcade of staff would have been willing to give any independent investigator their own personal examples of his unprofessional behaviour (for example, brandishing an unmarked book in the face of a teacher during a lesson – a teacher who marks and assesses extremely conscientiously. The student concerned had been absent).”
“I resigned. I wasn't asked to go, no compromise agreement. I would definitely never have taken that and removed money from the school. (My view, but I understand why others protect themselves and their family.)
I couldn't stand any more pressure with results, marking, changes without being able to plan for them and manage them. I couldn't bear the way education was moving through government intervention, free schools, academies. I was fighting to keep staff against academies who could pay them more. I had just had enough.”
“I have just read your article and would like to thank you for sharing your experience. I am one of a very small number of heads struggling to get our schools to “good” and we are constantly amazed by the inconsistency of Ofsted’s judgements and the downright unfairness of what can happen, depending on the time of the year when schools are inspected and so on.
Our experience in the past two inspections has been the classic “find evidence to match the data”. Although I know my school is improving (we have not dropped a grade despite the raised expectations of successive frameworks), I feel that my local authority regards me as failing and that confidence in my leadership is declining. Fortunately, I am resilient (I think), but I must confess to being more shaken than ever before as to how I will end my career (I have been teaching since 1983).”
“About an hour into our two-day inspection, it was clear we were in for a difficult journey. To cut a very long and sorry story short, this inspector informed me that we were a “requires improvement” school and that I should feel grateful we hadn’t been placed into a category.
We felt – and feel – that we are a good school, an opinion that has been echoed by our community and by the local authority, which gave us a glowing report during a review of teaching and learning just eight days before the inspection.
The draft report was truly horrifying and did not reflect our school at all. Our inspector used the narrow and unbending view of data that small schools come to dread, as data does not give a reliable picture of small cohorts of children without the context of a back-story. Our inspector was impossible to “read” – her trails were obscure and I felt that I had no voice at all. It seemed as if she had made her decision before she came. We were concerned about many aspects of the process, not least the feeling we had that the evidence and information we were sharing was not making it on to the evidence form – which of course, we never had the opportunity to read.
We too put forward a complaint to Ofsted regarding both the factual inaccuracies we identified in the draft report and the conduct of the inspector – more than 30 bullet points on each aspect of our complaint. Submitting the complaint and even the factual inaccuracy response to the ridiculously clumsy, unreliable provider portal was a trial in itself, as the 24-hour deadline loomed. It was 3am when I finished it, before a full day of supporting my exhausted and demoralised team in school, all highly anxious about what we were to expect next.
This resulted in a call 10 days later informing us that Ofsted was coming back – to gather further evidence. A senior inspector duly returned and spent a day with us. Although his conduct was more professional, we knew of course that we would have to demonstrate almost outstanding practice in every aspect of Ofsted’s criteria in order for an inspector to overturn the judgements of a colleague. He didn’t. He did, however, rewrite significant aspects of the report, which highlighted the huge inaccuracies that the previous draft had included.
So... this left us with the same judgement, a cobbled-together report with some changes, but not enough, as the aspects that the second inspector didn’t have time to research were just left in – even though the areas he had looked at were discredited by the fact that they were removed.
Several weeks later (it’s interesting that Ofsted doesn’t work to the same time frame as it expects from school leaders, even though they are also running a school and managing a demoralised team), we received a 17-page response to our complaint. One point was upheld. Most were not, a significant number because it boiled down to my word against the inspector’s, and since her evidence forms did not shed any light on some of the events outlined, they could not be considered. Oh, the irony.
We have received overwhelming support from the local authority, from our families and the community. I have been propped up by my colleagues in the consortium to which we belong and by other professionals who work with us sending emails of support. My team is strong and united and our wonderful children continue to be the focus for all that we do. We do, of course, have things to work on, which were identified before the inspection and which continue to be our focus. But we are so much better than this report.
I have been so embarrassed by how hard this has hit me and how long it is taking to get some perspective. No one has died, we have been well supported and our families are not shaken by the result. So how come I feel so ashamed of a report for which I have no respect? How come I am questioning every judgement and decision I make? How come I have considered walking away from a role that I am deeply committed to and passionate about, at the drop of a hat if I could afford it?
I won’t, of course. I will stay and we will get back to “good”. I am determined not to lose sight of the reason we do this job and we will continue to work with integrity.”
Next, the former inspector:
“I read with great interest your article relating to inspection. I have been involved with school inspections for many years. However, I won't be working for Ofsted any longer. Quite honestly, I'm deeply disappointed in what the organisation has become.
I wanted to reassure you about a few things. First, ever since Freedom of Information came on to the scene, we were told that we must never write something on an evidence form that we wouldn't be happy for the school to see. I can honestly say that I’ve nothing to hide in that respect. It puzzles me, therefore, that you were not allowed to see all the evidence from your inspection as Ofsted would know that they would have to comply if an FoI request was made. I honestly think they are now using whatever tactics they can in the hope that complainants will just lose interest and go away. This is not acceptable for an organisation run with taxpayers’ money.
I also wanted to tell you about a school inspection I carried out a little while ago. Now, I've been to some “challenging contexts” but this really did take the biscuit. The social disadvantage in the area just blew me away. The previous year’s results had not been great but there were lots of sound reasons for this and the inspectors were prepared to listen to everything the school said.
What was fantastically impressive about this school was the way in which the leadership was working to improve teaching – virtually everything we saw in English was outstanding and hardly anything was less than good. Current data looked healthy. The senior leadership team were very impressive. I’ve been involved with many inspections and I wouldn't say I'm a soft touch, but in my view, and that of the other inspectors, this was definitely a candidate for good leadership and management.
The school graded itself with 3s for achievement and teaching (they understood the “teaching over time” thing) and 2 for behaviour and leadership. We agreed with their judgements. We even sought advice from the inspection helpline to explain why we agreed with them. The report was written and put through with those grades.
A week later I was told I was told that an HMI had declared that we had “got the grades wrong”. We couldn’t understand this rationale at all. It turned out that Ofsted had made a brief visit to the school some time before the inspection and had come up with some sort of unreported provisional judgement. So all that evidence we had gathered meant nothing and essentially this team of experienced inspectors was not trusted to make a judgement.”
“I have been involved in school governorship for more than 25 years and, as chairman of a multi-academy trust (MAT), have recently experienced just such a mauling from Ofsted. The inspectors walked through the doors of all four of our schools on the same day and declared us all to be in special measures before they had even sat down.
Talking to them about context, staffing issues, creating a MAT from scratch was like playing a cracked record. They paid no heed.
And so it has continued: the Department for Education and Education Funding Agency hitting us hard, new sponsors being sought, the whole process of brokering frankly a farce, the role of the new regional school commissioner ambiguous at best, and good heads becoming utterly disillusioned.
Never in my time as governor have I been more depressed about the state of education and the frankly Kafkaesque world of Ofsted and the DfE.
I've never experienced such vitriol from the media, including local BBC and the newspapers, but I can't tell the truth because no one would believe the political machinations in the local authority or the incompetence of the senior staff there. It would be laughable if it were not so serious and an utter waste of public funds.
Hundreds of staff have been demoralised, and many are leaving to seek jobs elsewhere as the new sponsor comes in with a complete restructure.
I won't be part of it, despite the two brand-new school builds and the rebranding of the MAT. Indeed, I probably won't be involved in education any longer.”
I received many other similar accounts. Some were too difficult to present in a way that would not either compromise or expose the correspondent or the school. Some people were too apprehensive about being identifiable to give their permission to be quoted here.
But my hope overall is that the accounts above reveal an inspection system that appears in too many cases to be doing great damage. My sense is that it’s time to stop quietly accepting that the way Ofsted is the way Ofsted should be. It’s time to stop condoning its inconsistencies or shrugging off bad inspections as the whingeing of hapless leaders or the inevitable consequence of a few rogue inspectors.
It’s time that all of us – school leaders, governors, inspectors, politicians and union leaders – started to do something, remembering Churchill’s comment: “Headmasters have powers at their disposal with which prime ministers have never yet been invested.” It may, in other words, be time to flex our collective muscle. More on that soon.
For now, my thanks to my miscellaneous correspondents, to those I’ve published and those I’ve simply read. Your letters are a reminder of the remaining threads of solidarity in a profession that is sometimes at risk of splintering and losing faith in itself.
And to those of you who are the disappeared, a particular thank you for making contact – not just from me, but from all of us.