Amanda Spielman has declared open season on "mocksted" consultants. As my views on responsible public spending are slightly to the right of Ron Swanson, I’m loading up my shotgun.
College and school leaders should never have been allowed to direct their funding towards these non-teacher, non-leader, non-inspector figures who, let’s face it, have probably been managed out of somewhere else. Often they are used to prop up a culture of fear, acting as highly-paid sycophants to a failing leadership. Many, riding their wagon into town like education’s own incarnation of Dr Terminus, try to sell a gimicky formula to fearful leaderships who then pass on the utterly-pointless additional workload to their already-overburdened staff. Given that Ofsted’s role is not to dictate how things should be done, but to evaluate the ways that institutions choose to do them, it should be assumed that any leadership reaching out to these consultants is conceding their own incapacity.
'Peddling potions and fear'
The hierarchy of Ofsted inspectors is widely misunderstood, permitting many consultants to overstate their experience or expertise. At the top sit Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) who are directly employed, full-time, by Ofsted. Every HMI I’ve met, so far at least, has been an impressive individual. They are relatively few in number. They do not sell consultancy.
Prior to 2015, the majority of the rest were additional inspectors (AIs) who contracted on an occasional basis through third parties such as Tribal and Serco. These presented a quality-assurance nightmare. They were all-too-keen to sell consultancy to institutions living in fear of the unpredictable Ofsted judgments that AIs themselves ineptly handed out. I remember with amusement being subject to a Section 5 inspection carried out by AIs who, by mid-morning, had indiscreetly declared the formerly "inadequate" institution "good", despite all evidence to the contrary. A team of HMIs had to be rushed in the following week to undo the damage of low expectations.
In 2015 Ofsted responded by abolishing AIs and directly recruiting their own new tier of Ofsted inspectors (OIs) with much tighter controls and higher expectations. Needless to say, many former AIs did not make the grade. Needless to say, they did not stop peddling their potions and fear.
Full disclosure: I went through the same training as an AI in 2013 and then applied to be an OI in 2015. I was not successful. The "inadequate" institution I had worked for was so notorious as to act as an immediate bar. The earlier AI training was eye-opening, though. I had naively imagined that it would involve "standardisation" of grading. In fact, it was entirely focused on ensuring consistency of the grading with the notes on the evidence form, in a sort of postmodern exercise detached from the reference point of the lesson itself.
Those running the training were coy about even revealing the gradings of the filmed lessons we observed, because that wasn’t the point. Nobody moderated the real-life observations we subsequently carried out ourselves: only our paperwork’s internal consistency was of interest. My grade 4 employer had invested several thousand pounds in putting me through in the hope it would give them an edge in inspection, but all it taught me to do was to fill out a form. Ironically, it never even helped with conducting observations in my day job, because most quality leads opt for a Sudoku grid of tick-boxes rather than the mostly-white-space, narrative-friendly evidence forms of Ofsted. The food was spectacular, though. We ate like kings while my students’ opportunities shrank. My much-less-expensive proposal to take a disadvantaged group on a tall ship that year was declined because of a lack of funding.
'Believe in your own people'
External consultants can enrich our settings. Real innovators and experts, or those with a rare skill or experience, can bring great benefits.
Recently, an extremely creative and dynamic individual came to work with my team on maximising stretch in our teaching. His background was from a wildly different curriculum area but my outstanding team were able to immediately see the application in our own. We will be able to take that away and capably assimilate it. The fundamental difference is that what he was offering was something inherently positive. It was inspiring and it will manifest itself in our interactions with our learners, in how we plan to challenge them, and in the safety nets we cast out to support them.
The post-2015 plague of ex-AIs, on the other hand, sell a message of fear. They play on insecurities. They tell you to ignore Ofsted’s repeated, frustrated cries of common sense and to instead subscribe to their desperate attempt to resurrect the silly initiatives of the noughties. And the worst thing is that the senior leaders who throw public money at these charlatans would probably never have employed them in even middle-leadership positions, where references, questioning, and a teaching episode would present insurmountable barriers.
There’s an extraordinary amount of talent in middle leadership in education. It’s the tier where a reasonable amount of experience and success remains married to shiny enthusiasm and idealism. Senior leaders who call upon "mocksted" consultants are not only admitting their own inadequacies, but more unforgivably sidelining the pool of talent that they doubtless have in their ranks and that they should be nurturing. Stop looking elsewhere and empower your team. Most of all, stop paying for someone else’s vision. If you are a leader in education, you should believe something. Start by believing in your own people.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in a South-West college. He tweets @Education720