How bureaucrats turned our good Ofsted into a nightmare

14th December 2007 at 00:00
Headteacher Rebecca Elliott and her staff thought their school had turned the corner when inspectors gave them a glowing report. Then Whitehall stepped in ... This is her story.Picture a jam factory. In fact, picture two. They are both owned and overseen by the same company: Brown's Conserves. It provides the premises, the ingredients, delivers the containers and exercises quality control over the finished product.

Factory A is operating in a state-of-the-art plant, supplied with the highest quality strawberries and provided with hand-painted, earthenware jars stamped "The Fruits of our Labour".

Factory B is based in a warehouse where bottling is done by hand. Glass jars are delivered weekly but are often broken or cracked. The employees frequently cut themselves which results in high absence levels - and wobbly writing on the labels. The ingredients are of poor quality and deliveries are unreliable. However, the employees are resourceful. They work much harder than those in Factory A. They have to if any jam is to be produced at all.

One glorious summer's day, at the peak of the jam-making season, the chief executive of Brown's Conserves visits both workplaces. She is pleased with Factory A.

"Consistent quality, uninterrupted production, reliable workforce. Overall Grade: Good." She is not pleased with Factory B. "This product is of an inferior quality to that of Factory A. In the future, it must meet Brown's standards."

Now imagine that the factories are schools, the jars are children, the strawberries are social, economic, emotional, behavioural, medical and genetic influences and the workforce a team of dedicated staff. The manager of factory B is me.

In 2004 I accepted the headship of a relatively small primary school, St Edmund's in King's Lynn, Norfolk. It serves an area that ranks very highly on the index of multiple deprivation and which boasts the highest levels of reported domestic violence locally; almost half the children receive free school meals, but probably more are entitled to them. Turbulence is common: large numbers of children move in and out for domestic reasons (relationship breakdown, violence, eviction, etc). The number who do not speak fluent English is on the increase. More than 10 per cent are on the child protection file. On average, half the nursery children have delayed speech and language development. Thirty per cent display emotional and behavioural difficulties. About 75 per cent of the reception-age children score below 47 in the Bury infant check indicating potential special educational need. Throughout the school, more than 60 per cent of children receive help for specific academic, emotional or behavioural needs.

These are our raw materials. It is very difficult to fill the jars. The majority of the children face obstacles - barriers to success - which have to be overcome before they can learn effectively.

During the past few years our factory has been innovatively restructured. Attention has been focused on physical and emotional health as the foundation of academic success. There is not space here to detail how this has been achieved. Suffice to say that everything we do is underpinned by our vision statement: "Respecting one another; promoting health; valuing success."

Through the application of these principles to children, parents, staff and visitors alike, we have, in three years, achieved healthy school status, gained Investors in People accreditation, been awarded Sportsmark, are being assessed for Artsmark and have achieved some of the highest well-being scores in the county. In a recent questionnaire, 99 per cent of parents indicated that the school had improved. Questions relating to involvement, equality of opportunity, trust and children's progress also indicated high levels (94 per cent-plus) of parental satisfaction.

External data (the Fischer Family Trust and Raise online) indicates steady academic improvement and, for every child, good progress from what are often very low starting points. Last July we achieved 74 per cent level 4 in science and exceeded county averages for level 5. In January 2007 we were inspected by Ofsted. Overall grade: good, with pastoral care, support and guidance rated as outstanding.

We celebrated. We shared our success and were valued by the local press, by colleagues, by the community at large, by children and by parents (with the possible exception of the mother who told me to f*** off the next morning!) We received cards and letters of congratulation from people associated with the school. From the local authority? Hardly. From the Department for Children, Schools and Families? Not at all.

What we did get, in April, three months later, came notification from the authority that we are a Group 1 school - "hard to shift" and a "cause for concern" - judgments made by the school improvement and targets unit led by Jim Knight, the schools minister.

We challenged the judgment, pointing out the results of the Ofsted inspection. We were told that the inspectorate is not a government department, it is merely funded by government. It would seem, therefore, that the targets unit can choose whether or not to give Ofsted judgments weight. We have failed to reach the 65 per cent level 4 targets in English and maths for three years running. This is the only indicator the unit is interested in. National averages must be attained. Factory B must turn out the same product as Factory A.

The result of the "hard to shift" label has been the imposition of support; the outcomes - pretty disastrous. Last summer we were informed of an additional budget allocation of pound;25,000 but, to qualify, I had to produce within a week yet another action plan. Tight deadlines were set by the local authority in response to Whitehall's demands. The money was to pay for three additional part-time teaching assistants who started in September. Annoyingly, the funding has still not arrived. Costs of advertising meant our recruitment line is now overspent; this may mean a reduction in other spending.

The support package they insist on includes advisory teacher time. As a Group 1 school, we have been expected to implement the new primary framework fully and immediately while also providing additional literacy and numeracy sessions for "target" children. We welcome and encourage extra training, but there is a limit to the amount that can be assimilated in a short space of time.

We have been bombarded. Teaching assistants and teachers have been out of the classroom more often than is advisable in a school where children and parents are easily unsettled by change. Resulting behaviour problems have placed additional demands upon me and the special needs team.

To the staff's credit, standards of teaching have not dipped. However, the energy required to implement change quickly at somebody else's pace has resulted in increased stress and higher than average levels of staff illness. Most disturbingly, children selected for extra support are now expected to receive this outside the usual literacy and numeracy sessions. This reduced their curriculum and resulted in them missing things they succeed in to be faced with more of what they find difficult.

This flies in the face of everything we know to be important in terms of the Excellence and Enjoyment and Every Child Matters agendas. It also jeopardises our imposed attendance targets. The work we have done in motivating, enthusing and engaging children, which has led to improved attendance, is being undone.

The extra funding is for one academic year only. The expectation is that our Year 6 will attain 65 per cent level 4 in English and maths. Of these pupils, 15 per cent have statements, 8 per cent attend part-time, 23 per cent experience circumstances that affect their emotional and behavioural health, 4 per cent do not speak English and a further 19 per cent have required us to seek help from the authority or social services. Thirty five per cent are already unlikely to reach level 3 let alone level 4.

No time or attention has been paid to this data. Never mind that the child's mother has cancer - the pupil must attain a level 4. Two of the recruited teaching assistants have already resigned - one for personal reasons and the other, a qualified teacher, so demoralised by the whole system she has decided to leave education altogether. To consolidate these difficulties, certain Fair Funding proposals relating to multiple deprivation budgets for next financial year may result in a loss of more than pound;30,000.

Just to be absolutely sure that we have no hope of reaching our targets, the local authority's admissions department wrote last week, informing us of our duty to re-admit a child to the school. The pupil was moved out two years ago as an alternative to permanent exclusion and has since been to at least three other primary schools. No statement, no money, no support and expected to join Year 6.

So, to assist in our efforts towards producing jam that reaches required standards, Brown's Conserves is now threatening factory funding and delivering rotten fruit.

This county contains a high number of so-called failing schools: those Ofsted has given notice to improve or put in special measures. The local authority must be under considerable pressure to bring about school improvement, particularly as it is accountable to the Department for Children, Schools and Families for the unacceptable situation. Every Child Matters.

Successful leadership demands an understanding of capacity for change, realistic and achievable targets, appropriate and professional development opportunities and the ability to appreciate and recognise even the smallest step towards improvement. It should allow creativity and encourage innovation. It necessitates risk-taking.

What is needed is the application of all the techniques the most effective teachers use in the creation of a healthy learning environment. In our own situation, what the authority and Whitehall have both failed to do is to listen - and learn. Instead, we have been subjected to last-minute, knee-jerk reactions that are symptomatic of panic.

At our factory, we do not complain about the working hours or the money. Adverse growing conditions determine that fruit often arrives bruised and damaged. Jars are occasionally cracked or broken. We work hard to fill them with jam of the highest quality. We demonstrably succeed - but our labels still say "cause for concern". Only when Factory B is supplied with earthenware jars and Class 1 ingredients will the product be similar to that produced by Factory A.


Half the pupils receive free school meals. One in 10 is on the child protection file. Half the nursery children have language delay. Threequarters in reception potentially have special needs. Overall, 60% need need extra help.

A popular school

Ninety nine per cent of parents said they could see the school improving; 94% said they were highly satisfied.

A successful school

Last January, Ofsted graded it overall good after an inspection. Pastoral care, support and guidance were rated outstanding. Fischer Family Trust and Raise online said it showed steady academic improvement. Of Year 6s, 74% scored level 4 in science in July and they exceeded county averages at level 5.

A school causing concern

The local authority and the DCSF's targets unit graded it Grade 1 "hard to shift" and a "cause for concern". It had failed to reach 65 per cent targets at level 4 Sats in English and maths for three consecutive years.

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