Damning reports demand right of reply

28th March 2003 at 00:00
When Ofsted inspects, the report is the only document allowed into the public domain. The uncritical acceptance of this one-sided approach needs to be questioned.

I was head of Ickburgh school, in the London borough of Hackney, in September 2001, when the inspectors designated us as having serious weaknesses. Ickburgh, a school for pupils with severe learning difficulties, had experienced problems - many of them due to factors beyond its control. A financial crisis in the borough delayed a major building project, which finished at the beginning of inspection week and left our 14-19 department settled back into barely completed accommodation. We'd lost many of our best teachers and the primary department had only one permanent class teacher who was trained to teach pupils with learning disabilities. This affected the findings significantly.

Receiving criticism is never easy, even when some of it is valid. But public criticism with no right of reply is heavy-handed. It feels damning to have failings itemised baldly to parents who generally support our work.

I am proud of what I achieved over five years at Ickburgh: curriculum innovation, staff development and learning breakthroughs by pupils.

In my correspondence with Ofsted, I proposed a "school response" form, allowing for a brief public statement about the inspection findings without diluting them. I received a sympathetic reply, but it's not going to happen. The official line of not tolerating an "excuse culture" has become a smokescreen for denying schools a point of view. We need to ask ourselves what this says about how we respect the work of schools and their leaders.

Heads deal with a never-ending range of problems that fall outside the remit of education. It's become accepted that they take the rap for failings in other services. We catch the fallout when management has no limits.

Having moved on from school management and to the north of England, where I teach part-time, I realise how disproportionate and dangerously undefined the expectations on heads can be, particularly in small schools with thin supporting infrastructures.

My experience suggests heads, unlike other public servants, can repeatedly be asked to work miracles to keep a service successful. If not - irrespective of the context - they're labelled a failure. Something is wrong.

Phil Goss was head of Ickburgh school from 1997 to 2001

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