What is a “good school”? According the Ofsted handbook of 2015, a school is outstanding overall when the following (together with a whole load of other stuff) applies: “The quality of teaching, learning and assessment is outstanding.”
But I’m afraid that is misleading at best.
In truth, it might as well just say: “Get great results or your rating will never be any better than requires improvement.”
I don’t know why they bother with all the other standards. For all the talk of the importance of character, social and moral direction, pedagogy and ethos in the inspector’s handbook, it’s ultimately the results that matter. And only results.
Too often, Ofsted inspections are simply checking devices. Unless they find a fundamentalist training camp in the school playground or a massive hole in the floor of the gym then, rest assured, they will already have a pretty good idea what rating a school is going to get before they step inside the gates.
Just look at the data. As of November 2016, there were only eight secondary schools out of 588 inspected that achieved a “good” rating where outcomes were “requires improvement”. That’s a miniscule 0.01 per cent of schools that manage to achieve a “good” rating where their results aren’t “good”. But there are even explanations for those eight, for example, Clacton Coastal Academy. Its results were “less than average” but their GCSE results were “rising rapidly”. In other words, they had made an impressive jump from a low starting point.
Now, you may ask, what’s the problem with this?
Well, if we want to solely judge a child’s educational development on a set of exam results, I think that’s a real shame, but ok. But if we do so, why then do we need Ofsted in its current form? What are they actually doing? If everything hinges on exam results, then apart from safeguarding, what role do Ofsted actually fulfil?
According to Sean Harford, “the best way to prepare for an Ofsted inspection is to run a good school”, and a “good school” according to his organisation is one that simply achieves “outstanding” outcomes for students.
And this is where I think they need to redefine themselves and in turn, become useful again. Otherwise, I really don’t see why one guy sat in an office with a copy of all the results nationally can’t just save everyone a lot of time and stress by scribbling outstanding, good or inadequate next to each data set.
Then schools can just get on with the matter of teaching and learning.
If Ofsted wants to carry on being helpful to the profession, it can start by redefining how it assesses the quality of schools. It can start by taking seriously all the standards it has produced to judge a school and not just pay lip service to them.
In addition and more importantly, I believe the inspectorate also needs to judge the quality of a school on how it treats and respects its teachers: I believe that the biggest threat to children achieving in school is no longer “poor teachers” but “no teachers”.
A system where “outcomes” trump everything else has seen an unmitigated dive in teacher wellbeing leading to an unprecedented recruitment and retention crisis. This is now the biggest threat to the education of children, far above “poor” or “lazy teachers”. The fierce push amongst schools for exam outcome perfection has led to a widespread culture of “doing more and more of the stuff that we know can ensure the students get better results”. The “pushing” of extra revision sessions for students, the “use” of performance related pay as a weapon of war or excessive use of work scrutiny being key examples.
To address this, Ofsted could become useful again by addressing this “threat”.
To be rated “good”, schools could -
- Demonstrate that staff retention rates are good and stable over time – “healthy turnover” will be defined.
- Confidential exit surveys must be conducted with teachers who leave the school to record the reasons for leaving and flag up any reoccurring problems. These must be provided to inspectors.
- Teachers surveyed at the school must show an average working week of 50 hours or below when surveyed.
- Minutes of all meetings must show action points for teacher wellbeing and actions based on the issues raised.
Ofsted has the power to reform itself: it should use it.
Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory