Last week, I was privileged enough to sit on a panel for the launch of the National Foundation for Educational Research's Teacher Workforce Dynamics report. It’s a truly remarkable piece of research. It’s robust, extremely detailed and – whilst the findings reflect many of the grim conclusions of recent research on the teacher crisis – full of practical recommendations for school leaders and policymakers.
I’d struggled with my usual “stubborn optimist” persona in the week previously, since attending the Education Support roundtable event at which the Teacher Wellbeing Index was presented. I carry it around with me and take the odd glimpse at the stats on sleep deprivation, anxiety and staggering attrition rates a bit like one might peek over a cushion at a particularly grim horror film.
It is, however, a real privilege to be called on to represent teachers in the UK, and it struck me as I travelled to the NFER event that this was a very real opportunity to suggest some real solutions.
I found myself revisiting an old theme, explored in my book: Ofsted is not the enemy. What is, is the various convoluted interpretations and guessing games that surround it. It’s not surprising that Ofsted has gained mythical status, given the threat it appears to pose to school leaders. Let’s never forget the truism that school leaders have a job with the security of a football manager but without the pay. A few words from Ofsted could potentially spell the end of a headteacher’s career.
Those as old as me will remember how it used to be – and the scars left behind. The days when teachers would batten down the hatches day and night, filling in intricate paperwork and cursing any homework that involved writing a story (resulting in 10 or more pages of marking). Schools would stay open for 24 hours for days on end and, in true Blitz spirit, we would prepare singing and dancing lessons with which Mr Barnum himself would struggle to compete. Ofsted would eventually descend, much like The Borg, and we’d each await our individual observations, which would result in a single grade per teacher. I do remember with some relish the school where teachers agreed to put these in a jar, unopened, and burn them once The Borg had departed.
Ofsted is not the enemy
The destructive impact of Ofsted during that period in the early 2000s cannot be underestimated. It’s little wonder that most heads quake in their boots when they hear that the inspectorate is "in the area" or they insist that schools remain "Ofsted-ready" with glossy folders and colour-coded spreadsheets for months, sometimes years, on end when they estimate that "they" might be due.
I have the dubious privilege of having experienced two Ofsted inspections in two years in recent years (in different schools). I wasn’t the only member of staff to be actually physically sick on the way to work when the day actually arrived. My poor children had been hustled off to a bemused neighbour so I could run in and work until 11pm and brief my team repeatedly to ensure that no possible holes in our practice could be discovered whilst offering rather hollow tokens of confidence in their abilities.
The thing is, when Ofsted arrived on both occasions, most of them were teachers just like us. The first time, one asked me to talk through how I monitor books to make sure students are making meaningful progress. They weren’t asking for colour-coded pens – simply evidence that students of all abilities were making progress. I was allowed to lead the conversation. We drank coffee. No masks were removed to reveal inner lizard skin.
The second time, the team introduced themselves and it was refreshing to realise that most were practising teachers just like us. They kept introductions brief, acknowledging that they knew we had loads to be getting on with. I was just behind the lead inspector as we left the meeting and watched her make a beeline for a group of students. “Are you proud of your school?” she asked them. This, to me, felt like a valid and fair question.
On both occasions, Ofsted were led by the head, on whom the pressure was the biggest. Most teachers didn’t meet the team at all – a few were asked about the support they received as newer teachers and a few had lessons visited as part of “evidence trails” based on information provided by the head around, say, achievement of the most able or minority groups. The key questions seemed to be: is the school right in its evaluation of its own strengths and areas for development? And do the staff have a shared understanding of the vision and supporting practices described by SLT? I can find nothing unfair or sly or underhand in any of these questions.
On both occasions, the result and report felt entirely fair. We’d been harsh on ourselves in some areas. Consistency (of outcome rather than practice) wasn’t always as tight as we might have imagined. But on the whole, the findings of the head were agreed upon. As relatively objective observers, they were able, in a short and succinct document, to leave us with clear areas for development as well as manageable strategies to address these.
So, could we enlist Ofsted’s help in tackling the crisis in teacher retention?
We know, based on solid research from academics and groups like NFER and Education Support, that, trite as it sounds, happy teachers make better teachers, and happy teachers tend to stay, and that teachers who stay have a better long-term impact on students than those who go.
All of this seems blindingly obvious, and yet toxic cultures seem to persist in a significant minority of schools (I had the stories of almost 250 beleaguered teachers in my inbox in the space of 3 weeks).
With that in mind, Ofsted, please could you ask school leaders these questions:
What is your staff turnover like?
When staff leave (and we all know this can be a positive thing for all concerned), where do they go? Are they taking on new opportunities in education? What do your exit interviews tell you and what measures have been put in place to address issues raised in these, such as mistrust and loss of professional autonomy?
How is staff wellbeing at your school?
How do you know the state of staff wellbeing? What do you do to ensure that staff feel appreciated and valued? How do you involve staff in key decisions? Which areas do you need to develop? There are a number of robust ways of measuring these, from the Education Support tools to Investors in People.
How do you ensure that there is a balance between support and accountability?
How do you keep workload manageable?
This simple series of questions, or a version thereof, really could make a huge difference. Ofsted continues to try to bust the myths around its existence. Can it support us further in helping to ensure that school leaders keep quality teachers in teaching?
Dr Emma Kell is a secondary teacher in north-east London and author of How to Survive in Teaching