'It’s no longer good enough to do what’s right in your school: you must signpost it, so Ofsted can see'

13th August 2017 at 12:03
The all-powerful Ofsted drives a compliance culture in schools, writes one headteacher. You have to be seen to be ticking the pointless boxes, too

It’s that time of year. Secondary school heads, relaxed and bronzed after a summer break, have to start focussing on the day job again. Non-teachers reckon they’ll be enjoying three weeks’ more holiday: we know the truth.

Next week brings A level results: the week after that, GCSEs. Heads and teachers alike will be focussing on the achievements of individual students, hoping they gained much needed and deserved grades.

If only it were that simple! Heads and senior staff will also be urgently considering their overall statistics, hoping they’ll secure their desired position in newspaper league-tables – also that Progress 8 and any other arbitrarily-imposed government measure will suffice to keep Ofsted and government off their backs.

Yes, for heads the holiday is over, any moment now. The pressure swiftly builds once more.

Turmoil and chaos

There will be turmoil, something we’re accustomed to nowadays. At A level, schools and candidates alike are still dealing with the bizarre mix of modular and linear A levels caused by their hopelessly messy phased introduction, thanks to government (really, Gove's) intransigence, plus sheer incompetence.

There will be chaos at GCSE, with new gradings that few understand and, a mix of numeric and letter grades.

Ed Dorrell pointed out on Friday that this year’s results should be something for government and politicians to worry about, rather than schools. If only that were really possible. I reckon schools will still look over their shoulders, wondering what new Ofsted data-quest will come their way.

Back in June, the new Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, issued some strident comments that smacked of common sense. She promised to take a hard look at schools that appear to be chasing exam scores rather than choosing best outcomes for children. Then last weekend she accused schools of becoming too risk-averse, adding that dressing children on a school trip in hi-vis jackets makes them look like mini-construction workers.

She stirred up lively professional debate about the latter. Something in me dislikes the whole idea. On the other hand, children in most schools wear uniform in any case. Moreover, when I was a music teacher in the 1980s, we dressed touring bands or choirs in bright T-shirts: they were easier to spot in the airport or on the ferry. As ASCL’s Geoff Barton commented, I wish I’d thought of the hi-vis solution.

Are schools really risk-averse nowadays? Of course they are. They’re risk-averse when it comes to exam results, too, always mindful of government’s targets, benchmarks, progress measures and its inspectorate.

Ofsted 'part of the problem'

It’s too easy for Ms Spielman to condemn schools that chase points and certificates: but points, remember, don’t only mean prizes. They can also mean survival.

In the 1990s, some schools began developing qualifications that they persuaded government to equate to multiple GCSEs, boosting their GCSE scores enormously. Did they boost children’s employability? Or entry to Higher Education? I doubt it – apprenticeships had just about died back then – but they counted in league tables, and kept Ofsted at bay.

So, while it’s welcome to hear Ofsted’s boss condemning nonsenses, she needs to recognise that Ofsted is part (much?) of the problem.

It remains the enforcer. As if to demonstrate the fact, also at the end of June, Ms Spielman said her inspectors would be checking that schools are doing their bit with regard to the Prevent strategy, genuinely promoting British values rather than merely paying lip-service.

Her unintended message to schools, then?  Don’t just do stuff: make it so obvious that the blindest Ofsted inspector can see what you’re doing. Remember, in 21st century UK education, it’s not good enough to do what’s right: you must signpost it, so everyone knows and Ofsted can check.

Until she can change that state of affairs, I’m unconvinced that any of Ms Spielman’s pronouncements, however well-reasoned, will bear fruit.

Meantime, teachers and heads, enjoy these last few days of freedom.

Dr Bernard Trafford was until this summer headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle upon Tyne. He is also a former chair of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

To read more columns, view his back catalogue

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