‘It’s too often forgotten by those who judge schools: it’s the students who fail exams, not the teachers’

18th November 2016 at 14:10
The most painful thing anyone can say to a teacher is: “You’ve let your students down”. Ofsted must stop saying it, argues one teacher-writer

Apologies in advance: but having just written an article last week about how pointless Ofsted is, I then read a letter on Monday written by their Southeast regional director, Bradley Simmons, where he proclaimed that Swindon’s children were “failed by its schools at every key stage”.

My first thoughts were that this would be yet another example of Ofsted’s “failure narrative”, as I like to call it, and I was right. Swinney’s blanket condemnation of all Swindon’s educators follows a similar recent announcement by Ofsted inspector, Christopher Russel, when he said of another deprived area, Knowsley, in Merseyside, that its schools have: “Already failed a generation and they are set to do so for yet another generation". How inspiring.

In Swinney’s letter, there is so much that stands out as misleading and unfair.

Firstly, its startling that of the secondary schools Mr Simmons cited as moving down an Ofsted grade in his letter, most have seen an upwards jump in their results in 2016. All the Ofsted gradings that Simmons refers to in his letter are for inspections carried out before the summer of 2016.

The Dorcan Academy is one of those schools Swinney’s letter labelled as “failing” and cited as getting worse, sliding from requires improvement to inadequate. However, its results were up by 9 per cent this summer in progress and attainment, including English and Maths. The school remains below national average, but surely this jump is worthy of note. If Ofsted went back tomorrow, would Dorcan be “requires improvement” again? I bet they would. Which only goes to show how pathetically changeable and finite this entire data-driven calamity is.

As for the Churchfields Academy, another named school; it was inspected in 2013 and found to be “good”. In January 2016, there was a new headteacher installed and that March they were judged to be “requires improvement”, three months into her tenure. Between those two inspections, staff turnover was minimal, budgetary changes were minimal and approaches changed minimally. Yet apparently, the school, in this period, had become poor. Teachers changed from good ones into not so good ones in the space of two years: the same teachers.

'To me, they are heroes'

Did they suddenly stop trying? Did they rest on their laurels? Well, no, because low and behold, in summer 2016, the results went up again, by 10 percentage points, just as they did at Dorcan. How embarrassing for Mr Swinney, no? My view about Swinney’s failure to account for year-by-year fluctuations is shared by leading Swindon primary head Mike Welsh, who said that “Mr Simmons simply takes one year and fails to consider trends”.

At this point it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’re talking about real-life teachers, who are waking up every morning, travelling into one of the most poorly funded LEA’s in this land and one of the most deprived regions in this country. Their only incentive is to teach those children and teach them well. To me, they are heroes. And yet they now have to walk around every day feeling as though they aren’t good enough. Maybe they aren’t in the eyes of Ofsted. But you know what, I’d bet my bottom dollar that no one at Ofsted can teach those challenging students any better than the cream of the teaching crop in those schools. I bet they can’t get them to make 4 levels of progress but more notably, inspire them to love learning, which for me, is a separate entity from exam performance anyway.

Mr Swinney ends his tirade against these schools with; “The proportion of pupils attending a good secondary school in Swindon has now declined from the previous 52 per cent at 31 August 2015 to just 47 per cent at 30 September 2016.”

Apart from the fact that since the summer of 2016, this statistic has probably already been reversed in real time, his attribution of the word “good” to any slight swing of a data pendulum reinforces the view I expressed last week, that Ofsted is merely a checking service for the data monkeys.

What’s also important to note here is that statistically, the higher the starting points of students, the more chance they have of being judged a “good” or “outstanding” school by Ofsted. So, in other words, it’s easier for students who have been nurtured and whose love of learning has been fostered by their parents from the earliest age to make more progress than their peers who were given little of anything. Which explains why, in a town like Swindon, where social and economic deprivation is rife, schools struggle to make the top grades.

But who cares? Let’s just label all the teachers in Swindon failures and be done with it.

'Students fail exams, not teachers'

In one of the aforementioned schools, a successful and well respected Geography teacher with twenty years’ experience in the classroom recently demoted himself to the role of “cover supervisor” for no other reason than he’d had enough. Well done system. Did you know, that when it’s said a school has failed their students, it’s the most hurtful thing a teacher can hear?

And yet, for all the talk of teachers failing, parents and students are noticeably absent from any mention in the letter. It would seem they can do no wrong, as usual. And this, to me, is the crux of the issue. I have written extensively before about how we have created a culture in this country where parents and students escape any accountability for their own action or inaction. These days, it’s almost as if the teachers sit the exams and not the students. I think we need to be blunt and say it as it is. Students fail exams, not teachers. Parents are the parents: teachers are not. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, let’s press the reset button and create a just equilibrium between student and parent responsibility and teacher accountability.

Finally, Simmons highlights that fixed term exclusions being a mere 3 per cent higher than national average in Swindon is further evidence of schools failing. I would challenge you to find any head in this country who will see exclusion as anything other than a last resort. We have a strange obsession with painting the excluded as the victim, but we fail to see that those hundreds of children around the excluded child are victims every time that child disrupts their learning. It’s a debate for another day, but I find it pretty galling that Mr Swinney will use a 3 per cent differential in exclusion statistics to bash these schools and their leaders.

The bottom line is, the “Swindon Letter” is just the latest example of an inspectorate that is increasingly irrational. In my view, Swindon’s teachers deserve an apology for every child they have supported and given their all for. That’s a lot of apologies.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets at @RogersHistory

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