Ease up with the whip hand

24th November 2006 at 00:00
First the National Audit Office report, then Sir Cyril Taylor, then the Commons Public Accounts Committee, and now the chief inspector's annual report. Schools have had a rough ride recently.

Sir Cyril, chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said 500 secondaries are failing. Edward Leigh, the Public Accounts Committee chairman, talked in sensationalist terms about children's life chances being ruined by underperforming schools, basing his remarks on the flawed audit office report, which naively assumed that if schools are in the bottom quartile, they must be failing. Now we have the chief inspector's report and headlines have again focused on the 12 per cent of "inadequate"


Let us be clear. Statutory demands on school leaders are increasing year on year, yet nearly 90 per cent of schools have been judged satisfactory or better under the new inspection framework, with 60 per cent good or outstanding, and the number of schools in special measures has massively reduced in recent years.

The achievement is remarkable given that Ofsted inspections are now tougher. When the revised inspection framework was introduced in September 2005, chief inspector of schools David Bell admitted that Ofsted had raised the bar on inspections. Ofsted is not comparing like with like. In real terms, standards have risen. If you raise the bar, fewer can jump over it.

Whenever Ofsted introduces a new framework, there are always problems in the first year. This happened in 2003 and again in 2005-06, the period on which this week's report is based. Inspectors struggled, especially with the contextualised value added (CVA) data. This arrived late in schools and was immediately used as the basis for Ofsted judgments. The data was seen by too many inspectors to offer all the answers. Too many schools were told: "I have seen good work here, but I cannot rate you better than grade 4 (unsatisfactory) because that is what the CVA data says."

The situation improved in March 2006, when instructions to inspectors were issued about how to use CVA data. But some schools have been left with a deep sense of injustice and no prospect of redress until the next inspection. Heads have lost their jobs and teachers have been demotivated.

Part of the problem is that CVA is a norm-referenced system, in which there will always be a proportion of schools with low scores. If these all improved, the scores of the best-performing schools would fall, no doubt leading to yet more criticism. Like the flagellants of the 13th century who processed through Italian towns, scourging themselves with leather thongs in reparation for the sins of the world, the English education system continually finds new ways to criticise its performance.

Of the schools cited as "inadequate", many have good value-added scores for very weak intakes. Most of these so-called failing schools serve disadvantaged communities in which the school is often the only place that improves young people's life chances and teachers are working incredibly hard to challenge low expectations and overcome external obstacles. Reports such as these will cause a crisis of confidence among the leaders of the profession unless we start to accentuate the positive aspects of schools'


What school leaders need is not more pressure and constantly moving goalposts, but an environment that trusts them as professionals to do the job they were employed to do. Ofsted should be part of that supportive improvement process. At present, as a central part of the multi-layered pressure on schools, Ofsted is part of the problem, not the solution.

Oftsed itself should be on "notice to improve" in its use of statistics.

Until that improves, we shall continue to suffer the same depressing headlines, the same excessive pressure on school leaders, and the sustainability of school leadership will be as distant a prospect as ever.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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