'I had no choice but to resign. There's no point being a headteacher if you don't believe in what you're doing. I wasn't prepared to work under a dictatorship'

9th June 2006 at 01:00
The new inspections might be shorter, but the pressure is driving some heads to resign and hundreds to complain. Steven Hastings meets the men and women who have had enough

Headteacher Charlie Lupton wasn't in the least apprehensive when the inspectors arrived at his school in January. His self-evaluation had highlighted areas for improvement, but staff were happy, pupil numbers were improving and the school, St Barnabas C of E first and middle in Drakes Broughton, Worcestershire, was attracting children from far beyond its catchment area. St Barnabas had received Artsmark and Activemark gold awards, and parents said it offered an excellent all-round education. Mr Lupton was expecting a verdict of satisfactory, or better. But, after a two-day visit, the school was placed in special measures, with inspectors claiming children in particular years had not made sufficient progress.

When Ofsted introduced its new inspection system last September it seemed to be giving schools what they wanted: less intrusion, more respect, a "lighter touch". And when things go well, heads do seem to appreciate the changes; a recent ICMGuardian survey found that 62 per cent were "positive" about the new system. When things go badly, however, the fact that judgment has been reached after just two days clearly rankles.

"Inspectors don't have time to understand the school properly," says Mr Lupton. "As a first and middle school, our set-up is unique in the Worcestershire area. Around half the older pupils have been right through the school and half have joined in Year 5. When considering the progress made since Year 2, the inspectors appeared not to take account of the transition issues, or to consider the fact that half the children had actually been taught elsewhere until Year 5. There are a lot of subtleties to get your head round in just two days, and none of the inspectors had visited a similar school before."

In the autumn term of 2005, the first under the new system, 83 schools were put in special measures, compared to 38 the previous term, although this was partly because the shorter visits meant more schools were inspected.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, says other heads have been left feeling that they haven't been given a fair hearing. "You might expect schools which have done badly to feel that way," he says, "but even schools that have done well are reporting that their context hasn't always been properly considered."

Miriam Rosen, Ofsted's director of education, admits that the inspectors can't cover everything. "Instead they identify particular trails they wish to explore. They focus on what matters most," she says.

And what "matters most" under the new inspection model is leadership and management. The focus is less on what goes on in the classroom and more on data, self-evaluation, and conversation with the leadership team. "It's now much less an inspection of the school and much more an inspection of the school's leadership," says John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. "Inspection findings can seem quite personal and, with governors and LEAs being quick to react to criticism, school leaders are in a vulnerable position. It wouldn't surprise me if that puts people off the idea of headship."

Charlie Lupton certainly took the findings personally. He found some of their comments "very offensive", particularly the charge that his leadership was complacent. A section 48 church school inspection, which took place around the same time, had praised the "vision and tenacity of the headteacher". His governors and LEA advisers were supportive, but felt it would be better for the school to keep its head down and accept the verdict. At Easter, Mr Lupton decided he had no choice but to resign. "I believed that the inspectors' findings were wrong. So how could I make the changes they wanted? I wouldn't have been able to tolerate their interference. I'm a tough cookie, but that would have destroyed me." In April, Moira Gutteridge, an advanced skills teacher at St Barnabas, wrote to The TES insisting it was "criminal" that a good head had been driven out. Mr Lupton now works as a consultant, planning team-building workshops for school leaders.

A few miles up the M5, another Midlands primary was also being placed in special measures. And again the head - who prefers not to be named - felt obliged to resign on a point of principle. The school has featured in The TES several times as a beacon of creativity and has been lauded by its LEA as a model of good practice. But as at St Barnabas, the school's commitment to providing a holistic education did not impress the inspection team.

"They were not interested in anything that wasn't measurable by Sats," says the former head. "They had a very shallow understanding of what we were trying to do."

In this case, the inspectors were concerned that children were not making sufficient progress with their writing. While the head could see some truth in this, she felt unable to accept the course of action the inspectors were demanding. "We know our children struggle with writing. Children in working-class areas often do, and 40 per cent of our pupils have special needs and find writing a challenge. Our approach was to work on improving writing, but we also wanted to keep the focus on what the children were good at. So in subjects such as history and geography we tried to liberate them as much as possible from the need to write, so at least they were free to learn."

The inspectors, on the other hand, wanted to tackle the problem by making writing more central to every lesson. "That would have gone against everything I was working for, so I felt I had no choice but to resign.

There's no point being a headteacher if you don't believe in what you're doing. I wasn't prepared to work under a dictatorship."

Like Charlie Lupton, she is lost to headship. "I could possibly see myself returning as a classroom teacher," she says, "but I wouldn't go back into senior management. As a teacher you have the freedom to do your own thing; as a head you have no choice but to toe the line."

In some cases, it's not only a question of the head resigning. Rosebery primary school in Loughborough, Leicestershire is due to be closed this summer after 108 years - and one poor Ofsted report. "The inspection findings were the driving factor in the decision to propose closure," says Sharon Scott, the LEA's deputy director of young people's services. "If a report concludes that a school has no capacity to improve, then you take that very seriously."

With the stakes potentially so high, the inspection system needs to be watertight. Miriam Rosen claims it is. "The process is very robust, and the decision to put a school in special measures is never taken lightly," she says. "The evidence gathered by the inspection team is re-examined by HMI, and the judgment must be signed off personally by the chief inspector." But there is concern among heads such as Charlie Lupton that the emphasis on data gives inspectors a lopsided picture. He admits that last year's key stage 2 results at St Barnabas were "disappointing", but he also points out that had the inspectors arrived three months earlier, they would have been using the previous year's data, which was much healthier. "They would have been forced to draw a different conclusion, even though the school was still fundamentally the same."

Miriam Rosen says that schools are free to present their own data to support particular strengths. "Data does not drive the judgment, it informs the judgment. And with contextual value-added figures, the data we have now is much better than before." But John Dunford says Mr Lupton is not alone in having concerns. In the first two terms of this academic year, Ofsted undertook 3,670 inspections. By the end of April, 222 schools - around one in 16 - had complained to the organisation, a sizeable number given that those inspected later in the spring term are unlikely to have worked their way through the complaints procedure. "A significant minority of heads are unhappy at the new system," says John Dunford. "And it's almost always data that's the source of the complaint."

It's the contextual value-added (CVA) figures which many heads feel are unreliable ("Ofsted value-added infuriates schools", TES, May 12). Ofsted has its own CVA system, which is used by most inspection teams, but there is another formula, developed by the Fischer Family Trust. The two methods can produce very different results. "Data is probably only 80 per cent reliable, and we have real concerns about schools being judged on it," says Mick Brookes. Ofsted recently warned its inspectors not to use data as their only source of evidence, but it has already piloted a move towards "proportionate inspection". Under this new system, the best performing schools will receive even shorter inspections, perhaps just one inspector for one day, while more resources will be channelled to schools in need of support. But this two-tier system will make the CVA data even more influential, since it is likely to determine the length of inspection.

Whichever data is used, it is only as good as the person reading it. "There are some very good inspection teams," says Mick Brookes, "but there are certain teams that schools always seem to have trouble with. We've been told of one team who completely ignored the data one school provided, because they said they couldn't understand it."

Since Charlie Lupton resigned, St Barnabas has had two acting headteachers, and a permanent appointment has been made for September; that's four heads in seven months. "Fortunately, parents have sided with the school, rather than with Ofsted," says Mr Lupton. "No one has withdrawn their child. They know that it's a good school." But he remains disillusioned with the new system. "Inspectors look at the value-added data and arrive with a preconceived idea," he says. "And because the inspections are so short, they don't have time to explore more fully or to discover the value which is added tothe whole child."

* Should we transform the school overnight by permanently excluding the 15 worst behaved pupils in each year group?

That would improve attainment as measured by the CVA, but what would happen to those angry children?

Three months ago my school suffered an Ofsted inspection. I say "suffered"

because the effect on both staff and student morale has been devastating and has been in many ways like a bereavement. We were judged to be in special measures, writes Chris Conway.

We are an edge-of-city comprehensive next door to a technology college which creams off the brightest of the local youngsters. It has the profile of a grammar school, while we accept pupils regardless of ability. We happily accept those who fail to get into the CTC.

Our intake is mainly made up of working-class white children, most of whose parents have no history of further, let alone higher, education. This socio-economic group is notoriously difficult to motivate and it often falls to us to try to bring some order to the chaotic lives which many of them lead.

During the inspection we were pilloried for our poor attendance figures.

How can that be our fault? Are we, the staff, supposed to go round and wake the children each morning, feed them and escort them to school? If sick people don't go to the local surgery, are the doctors criticised? No, yet we are punished for the inadequacies of some of our parents. This is the nonsense of Ofsted. We have a growing number of children who are so damaged, so angry and from such dysfunctional backgrounds that we are at a loss as to what to do with them. The behaviour of some consumes the efforts of the leadership group and headteacher who walk the corridors and playgrounds at all times in an attempt to support our staff. We run reward trips, stage two hugely successful awards evenings and offer Easter revision schools, master-classes, in-house mentor support and mentoring from undergraduates at local universities, all in an attempt to support and encourage achievement. We reluctantly have burdensome after-school and even Saturday morning detentions for our most persistent offenders to encourage better behaviour.

We have performed miracles in the past two years and seen our GCSE A* to Cs rise to 41 per cent. This makes us the highest-achieving non-selective school in the area, yet in the inspection we were told that we did not make enough progress between key stages 2 and 4 and that consequently our attainment, progress, management and leadership were all weak.

Our sixth form came out well, but didn't the inspectors realise that those students have all been through the same school which they have damned? Many of our sixth-formers were not always the mature, co-operative and intelligent young people they are now. That has taken considerable effort from the students, their parents and their teachers.

During the two-day inspection our staff pulled out all the stops and were all on duty every spare minute. As a result our children were deemed well behaved and biddable. This took a huge and unsustainable amount of staff energy to achieve but we did it, little knowing that it would contribute to our downfall. The inspectors declared that we should be achieving far more with such well-behaved children!

Our head pleaded with them not to judge us as inadequate. This was not for selfish reasons but simply because, as he said, "We live on a notice to improve every day of our lives and this judgment will do nothing to help us."

We now fear that our best teachers will leave; there are certainly easier teaching jobs paying the same salaries and without the pressures and stress that come with working at a school in special measures. We are the second big secondary and the fourth school from this small area to go into special measures since September. Morale is at an all-time low. The head from the other secondary has already announced his resignation after 14 years, and I know that our own head has considered his position. These heads should be getting knighthoods for their commitment to their schools and local communities, not finishing their careers with this cloud hanging over them.

Can anyone tell us what to do? Should we transform the school overnight by permanently excluding the 15 worst behaved pupils in each year group? That would certainly improve attainment as measured by the CVA, but what would happen to those angry and damaged children and their families who rely upon our school so much?

To make matters worse, a neighbouring school is closing shortly and reopening in September as an academy with a new name, new uniform and new superhead. With a millionaire's backing and a zero tolerance approach to disruptive behaviour, doubtless we'll soon see their results go through the roof while we continue to smile, battle hard each day and do a tremendous job for our children - despite what Ofsted says.

Chris Conway is head of sixth form and assistant head at Archbishop Grimshaw school, Solihull

* I shall continue to prepare myself and my staff as thoroughly as possible for the inevitable. I shall not go gently into the outer darkness of early retirement and sick leave. I shall continue in the job I love

I have been "Ofsteded" several times, the last as deputy head of a small school. I was teaching Years 1 and 2, and was proud of my class. I thought: if Ofsted are going to come, let them come while I still have these pupils.

The inspectors saw good management, good special needs provision (I was also the Senco), some satisfactory, good and a little very good teaching in my class, but no overall level 3s in the small group of Year 2 pupils.

Suddenly I became a satisfactory teacher who did not challenge the older pupils.

This was plastered all over the report, and the feedback meeting for the governors was not a process I'd care to live through again. The phrase "but Year 2..." is embedded in my brain.

Now I'm finishing my third term of acting headship in another school. This has been a challenging but enormously rewarding time and I have felt able to develop both as a teacher and as a leader. But the ghost of Ofsted has reared its ugly head again. I thought I had moved on and was ready for the challenges of headship. Yet I am suffering restless nights, tearfulness and anxiety. Why? Because my school's next inspection is overdue.

I have worked hard to keep the momentum going here. The school development plan is in hand and reviewed; new priorities have been established and actions suggested. The children have performed well in the optional assessments and show a healthy level of progress. Parental feedback is positive, the staff happy and fully involved in developing the teaching, learning and management strategies. I am told I have the art of delegation mastered but in reality I have a dedicated staff who are willing to support the school as a developer of the Government's much vaunted Excellence and Enjoyment initiative.

So why don't I look forward to showing off what the school has accomplished in the past few years, and particularly within the period of my acting headship? The answer is simple. I have been here before.

Once again I find myself in a situation where I dread the arrival of another team who won't be able to see what others assure me is there. The advent of feedback letters to pupils and the concept of "coasting" schools fill me with horror - the new possibilities for professional humiliation are much worse. How have we allowed ourselves to be put in this situation?

I believe in accountability; I think we should, as a profession, be called upon to explain and justify what we do. But teachers are people, not machines, and like all people they respond much more readily to praise and offers of support than to threats. I love a challenge, but I hate being threatened. Ofsted does not challenge, despite the best intentions of some of its more human exponents. It threatens; and it does so from an unknowable vantage point.

I have attended several courses and conferences since that unhappy inspection and all of them point me to the same conclusion: Ofsted is not the objective machine it likes to think it is. The refrain from teachers, advisers and school leaders is always the same: it's the personality and experiences of the team that counts, not the process they are coming to deploy. Why aren't we shouting this from the rooftops? It seems so obvious.

Inspectors, like everyone else in education and childcare, have their own agenda. They have their own defining set of experiences and preferred outcomes for schools and pupils. It seems to be acknowledged that the head makes the all-important difference to the life and "personality" of a school. We would do well to acknowledge that "lead" inspectors are likely to do the same for the work of their teams.

A head I know regales her staff with a telling story. When the inspection team arrived at her small primary she was relieved when the lead inspector revealed his own personal agenda and experience. "I think people who work in small schools are saints," he said. Strange to say, the findings were positive and supportive, and the school and staff amply rewarded for the good work they were doing. Where improvement was needed it was suggested in a way which left the staff with their egos intact.

For now, I shall continue to prepare myself and my staff as thoroughly as possible for the inevitable. I shall not go gently into the outer darkness of early retirement and sick leave. I shall continue in the job I love, and trust to a kinder providence to provide more inspectors who realise that most teachers actually want to do the best possible job for their pupils.

The author, who wants to remain anonymous, takes up a permanent headship in September

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