Ofsted’s inspection system makes it easier for schools in “leafy catchments” to get a good or outstanding rating than schools in “challenging circumstances”, schools minister David Laws has said.
Speaking at the National Association of Head Teachers’ annual conference in Liverpool today, the Liberal Democrat minister said Ofsted’s system had to be made fairer because it would be “fatal” if the threat of bad Ofsted judgements deterred people from working in tough schools.
“There is some evidence that I’ve seen in the department, and I’ve raised this directly with Sir Michael [Wilshaw], that it is tougher for a school in tough and challenging circumstances to get a good or outstanding Ofsted report, even bearing in mind the progress it is making with pupils,” he said.
“If this is the case, if the Ofsted process is weighting prior attainment too much, making it easier for schools in leafy catchments, bluntly, to do well and tougher for schools in more challenging catchments. That’s a real problem.”
If this was happening, he said, it could “make it very unattractive for some of our best people and the best leaders to go and teach in challenging schools.”
He said: “It would be fatal if we had an accountability system that turned people off doing that and made that a risk to their careers.”
During the conference both Mr Laws and education secretary Nicky Morgan said they were open to talks about the prospect of a peer-to-peer school improvement system in which schools would assess other schools, but that they had reservations about the idea.
“If the profession can develop its own assessment and accountability mechanisms that had credibility, that would be an entirely good thing,” Mr Laws said.
“The test is whether it’s possible for you to do that professionally. It is difficult for groups sometimes when you’re assessing people who work together, who are part of the same profession, who are in very testing occupations where the accountability thing is really high stakes, it’s difficult sometimes to shine the light that needs to be shone.”
He added that in the past, local authorities “didn’t always do it [their school improvement function] very well” and had not been “willing to challenge failure”. Heads must “prove that it’s not just a soft option,” he said.
Ms Morgan said she was “open for discussion” about peer support but wanted to know “how that’s not going to result in more pressure on people in the profession, in terms of taking on more [work].”
“Some people want to step up for that and some people don’t,” she said.
Mr Laws also said his party would not enter a coalition after the general election with any party that would not commit to real-terms pay rises for teachers and other public sector staff.
“The Liberal Democrats are setting down a second red line which we would be require to be met in order for our party to enter any coalition in the next Parliament,” he said. “The next government must end real pay cuts for public sector staff, including teachers, and increase real public sector pay from 2017-18 onwards, after the budget has been balanced.”
He said this meant pay would rise in line with inflation in 2016-17 then increase above inflation the following year.
Mr Laws told delegates that real-terms pay cuts had been “inevitable” over the past few years because of the need to “get the budget back in balance”, but that once the economy was growing this trend should be reversed.
Further pay freezes for teachers would be “just unfair”, he said, adding: “I think there comes a point where the public finances have recovered enough, and the economy has recovered enough, that actually we can’t expect people any longer to continue taking cuts in their pay.”
He said it was “getting more difficult to recruit teachers”, and pay had to remain “competitive” in order to attract people to the profession.