'If Ofsted wants leaders to take on struggling schools, it should have a role in improving them'
Yesterday, Sean Harford, Ofsted's national director of schools, tweeted this:
And so I wrote this:
When I was looking for a deputy post, I couldn’t help but notice how few there were compared to the number of headships being advertised. I came to the conclusion that many people were reaching the position of deputy – and then sitting tight.
I deliberately sought out schools that Ofsted deemed to “require improvement” (RI). Having been on the journey to “good” as a middle leader I’d eventually enjoyed the challenge and the pleasure of reaching that goal (if not necessarily the whole journey). So now I am deputy in an RI-graded school, trying to do everything I can to help the school to improve.
I’m prepared to put in the hours. I’m certainly open to new evidence and approaches. I’m trying as hard as I can to strike the right balance between challenge and support of my colleagues in school.
But you can be sure that if my school’s headteacher decided to pack it all in tomorrow, I wouldn’t be putting my name in the hat.
That’s not to say that I’d never want to be a head; my mind changes on that pretty much weekly. But who in their right mind would take on that challenge in the knowledge of what fate might befall you if things take a badly-timed turn?
Consider an example RI school. It’s not on a rough inner city sink estate or anything of the sort, but it has its challenges. Attendance is definitely a tougher challenge than in many schools in leafy suburbs. Attainment is definitely lower on intake. Parents naturally want the best for their children, but are not always able to provide it. Recruitment is hugely challenging.
Raising standards in these schools takes the work of the whole school community. But the buck stops in one place.
Imagine such a school gets an unexpectedly bad set of results one year. We know it happens. And imagine it then gets a badly-led inspection team visit that year. We know it happens. What then, the consequences for a headteacher who has perhaps been in post for 20 months? The stakes now are massive.
Of course, I’m not arguing that leading “good” schools is easy. But look at the data on Ofsted outcomes compared to intakes and you can see why the risks might at least be lessened. And true, there’s the risk of being deemed to be “coasting” now. Perhaps all headships will become equally unappealing in due course, which I guess certainly alters, if not solves, the problem.
But there is a reality to face about schools in challenging circumstances. Firstly they’re not rare. The catastrophic environments that make the press might be, but there are plenty of schools dealing with challenges in their communities and trying to do the best by the families they serve. Secondly, there’s no over-supply of excellent leaders ready to leap in and save them.
And high stakes inspection isn’t always helping.
So what should Ofsted do?
Firstly, I’d like to see new leaders given time. Not unfettered freedom to fail, but time to make the changes that will lead to visible impact before inspectors are forced to nail colours to the mast, and leaders to the cross.
Ideally, Ofsted would still have an involvement with the school. I think the link between an RI school and its HMI should be strengthened. In fact, ideally, I’d like to see all inspections led by an HMI who then remains responsible for any schools put into a “category” or RI. And that responsibility should be greater than a single check-up after 12 weeks.
I’d like to see HMIs visiting at least termly to provide the robust challenge and guidance that may well be needed. That way, the same inspector who made the initial recommendations can also follow up on progress. There is still an issue of HMI having to judge progress against recommendations which they might not really agree with. And perhaps still a case of too many lead inspectors writing reports offering spurious targets for improvement, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be somebody else’s problem.
If inspectors stayed with a school on its journey to “good”, then they could offer both challenge and support to leaders – particularly new ones – for up to two years before a new inspection takes place.
Of course, schools shouldn’t be allowed to avoid ever being inspected by repeatedly replacing the headteacher. But a linked HMI could recommend further inspection at any time if she/he felt it were needed or appropriate. If a school can be turned around in 12 months then early confirmation could be welcomed. If an HMI recognises progress towards “good” is being made at an appropriate rate, then delaying an inspection to allow the school to focus on the task at hand ought not to be feared.
Of course, that means having enough high quality HMI available, and I don’t know if Ofsted yet has that capacity. But if not, perhaps that should be a priority?
Do I think that these changes alone will magic away the recruitment challenge, and encourage all those sitting deputies to step up? Probably not. There’s a lot more that needs to be done by ministers to change their tone in that respect. But it would certainly go some way to reducing the risk that we might one day end up with a nation of sitting deputies.