“Empowered”, “open to collaboration”, “the fear factor has gone”, “able to try new things out”…
These were just some of the comments made by some of the 40 or so leaders at the virtual Headteachers' Roundtable event last week as they discussed how the pandemic and the suspension of Ofsted inspections had impacted their leadership – for the better.
Because while all who spoke at the event were clear that a system of accountability and improvement for schools is vital, it was also evident that they see the existing Ofsted inspection system with its four-tier outcomes – "outstanding", "good", "requires improvement" and "inadequate" – as stifling innovation and leadership.
But over the past 12 months, without inspections and the fear of every move ending up affecting an inspection outcome that defines the school for years to come, there has been a newfound sense of freedom rarely felt before.
“I have felt as if I have had more autonomy and I am more in control,” said acting headteacher Sharifah Lee, speaking at the event and summing up the views of many in attendance.
Life without Ofsted
One of the key areas in which this autonomy and control has manifested itself among leaders is a willingness to engage more widely with peers on how to address the issues that the pandemic has caused – and more.
“Instead of being insular and thinking about the impending Ofsted [inspection], we have been able to be open and honest with each other about how we are doing and look for help and answers,” said Ms Lee.
“It’s removed a lot of barriers because we are all faced with the same situation, and, no matter your Ofsted rating or size of your school, we are all facing the same thing.”
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Dan Morrow, the CEO of Dartmoor Multi-Academy Trust, said he has seen this, too: “The scales have lifted from our eyes to help us realise that we are one group and while we may be diverse and have different approaches to curriculum or pedagogy…if you have to take a step back then the commonality and bonds we have are so much stronger than what has divided us in the past.”
Julia Skinner, another member of the Headteachers' Roundtable discussion and a former governor who now advises school boards, said she has also seen evidence of this willingness to share more in the networks she supports.
“I think it happened without it being a conscious decision: once we went into lockdown, we were all in land unknown, no one knew what was happening, and we realised, in order to find out a lot of information that we needed, it was useful to reach out,” she said.
“Here in Bristol, I work with two schools and both headteachers belong to networks that really stepped up to the plate to share information because there was no blueprint out there, so schools were really sharing and finding out what works and not wanting to reinvent the wheel.”
This support has taken many forms – from ad hoc groups online and Zoom calls to informal Whatsapp groups and Twitter direct message groups – to the more established local authority-organised meetings between local leaders.
“We are now starting from a premise that we have something to give and something to learn from colleagues in the same position,” added Mr Morrow.
“There is a far great sense now of how do we ensure inclusion is at the heart of what we are doing for every child – whether that’s digital circumstances or financial or specifics around health…the amount of sharing that has gone on around all these issues has increased phenomenally.”
The spirit of collaboration between schools
This is all positive to hear, but for many the question may be: why has it taken a pandemic and the removal of Ofsted’s presence to make this happen? Surely schools should always be connecting, sharing and collaborating?
Dave Whitaker, director of Learning at Wellbeing Spring Academy Trust, said the issue is that while this may be the intention of most leaders, the reality is that the looming presence of Ofsted and its inspections means it is very easy to become insular and stop thinking beyond you own school gates.
“If you are going to try something new that comes with an element of risk and while awaiting inspection that can be damaging, you don’t do anything new when an inspection is pending – I know that from experience of being a head,” he explained.
“This can even include simply making changes – so if somebody discovers a better way to do something, you’re still less likely to change while awaiting an inspection, and that is stifling.”
None of this is conducive to finding time to chat with other leaders, share ideas, take on new ways of working or generally think beyond the confines of "how do we pass the next inspection?"
Mr Morrow made this point, too: “High-stakes accountability is a Sword of Damocles and if you are in that space and thinking about collaboration or outside engagement, there is a real fear sometimes that you could take your eye off the ball for your own children…so there is a tension between not wanting to make a mistake and doing the right thing,” he said.
A competitive market
This focus on Ofsted is understandable, of course: the rating that a school receives or its position in a league table has a huge impact on pupil numbers and the funding they bring – it’s all very competitive.
This may not sit comfortably with some, but it's a reality that will almost certainly influence how people think and operate – including perhaps being reticent to share everything with "rival" schools down the road, suggested Mr Whitaker.
“We’ve created competition for pupil numbers and money flows numbers, so if you are competing with a local school for numbers...how generous would you be with your time, effort or resources to share school improvement?”
Julie Cassiano, the head teacher of Vernon Terrace Primary School in Northampton concurred: “Grades and league tables should never have been allowed – they just set schools up against each other and hinder collaborative working.”
She added: “Schools have always collaborated, but I think, subconsciously, there is a problem where schools above or below one another on the Ofsted framework see themselves as better or worse and so there is a sort of natural hierarchy that is established that stops information being shared in certain directions.”
But, she said, because the pandemic is a novel experience for all and there are no league tables on pandemic performance, all leaders in all settings have felt able to speak up and share ideas.
“The point is that there are no ‘experts’ here and I think that not having the [Ofsted] grading and the apparent knowledge each school has from those labels has enabled us more effectively to work together in a non-judgemental way, in a non-biased way,” the leader added.
Mr Morrow also said he believes this has been the driving force behind much of the information sharing that has taken place.
“The pandemic has meant that reductive forms of competition and the market aspects of accountability have been suspended, which has provided more fertile ground for collaboration leading to genuine cooperation,” he said.
“We have become much more centred on working in our local networks to provide for the whole community – irrespective of the colour of the jumper they wear.”
Back to normality?
From 8 March normality will return – everyone hopes.
With this, though, will come the slow resumption of normal schooling and this may well mean a rapid return to Ofsted inspections and the loss of all the positives that their postponement had created.
“When we come back, I fear it will be a return to the old model again and a lot of this good practice will be lost,” said Ms Cassiano.
They added, though, that they hope a key takeaway from the period will be a sector-wide understanding that the existing Ofsted model of the four labels and league tables is not fit for purpose.
“Of course, schools need to be accountable and inspected but does it need to be graded? We could publish reports for parents to see but say what is going well, what is being worked on, what are the areas for improvement. The minute you put on a grade on it…we become like football teams.”
Ms Lee agreed: “We’ve been our own islands and we couldn’t see that because of the accountability system as it stands – but we should be working together for the benefit of all. We have to be supportive.”
Mr Whitaker suggested that one way to ensure that this collaboration is not lost is for the government to engage with the sector on what has been learned over the past year and how it could shape future accountability systems.
"The DfE [Department for Education] should do consultation now, before Ofsted come back into full swing, around inspection processes – I'm sure school leaders would be happy to contribute," he said.
He added – like all the others spoken to for this article – that the new accountability framework itself is not an issue, with heads feeling that it covers the right areas to assess how schools are functioning.
Instead, he said the focus should be on how it is implemented by inspectors and how their reports are packaged and presented to the wider world. "I think heads have realised there is a different way of working – after all, without Ofsted they have just been committed and effective at running their schools," he added.
Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes