The iniquity of Ofsted

14th May 2004 at 01:00
Labelling a struggling school as being in 'special measures' is draconian and counter-productive, writes Phil Taylor

Trafford education authoritiy's macho response to Stretford high school's categorization as a special measures school - they ditched the head - was all too predictable. Students of these matters may have noticed that, as usual, the treachery is in inverse proportion to the help and support previously offered to the school.

There must be considerable doubt as to whether the "damning Ofsted report" gave an accurate picture of the school. News stories have not mentioned that there were serious concerns, communicated to the Office for Standards in Education and still being investigated, about the way that the inspection was carried out. Perhaps this was one of those rogue inspection teams, consisting of a ragbag of has-beens, scarcely-weres, and never-coulds, which wreak havoc around the country?

Nor was there any reference to the fact that the school had received much more positive reports following Her Majesty's Inspectors visits. It is also surprising that press stories have overlooked Stretford's specialist school status. How can a school that warrants such a status (achieved in 2001 when schools still had to submit a convincing bid and demonstrate high standards) deserve the special measures categorization?

Stretford is not alone among the current bumper crop of Ofsted victims to be noted for its inclusive approach. I wonder how many Ofsted inspectors have led, or even taught in, schools which are genuinely trying to be inclusive?

They will see young people behaving badly. The school may be trying every solution on offer in order to cope, often in the face of staffing difficulties which are beyond its control. There may be inadequate resources available to assist them because their local authority (like Trafford?) prides itself on its low council tax.

Anyone who has actually tried to improve a school facing challenging circumstances could tell you t`hat it usually takes a long, long time.

Some of the most striking success stories, like that of Breeze Hill in Oldham, have come about because of the determination of a dedicated head to stick at a tough job for many years. Not only did Bernard Phillips stay on and bring the school out of special measures, he ensured that it kept moving upwards. Would the school and its young people have benefited had Oldham LEA acted as Trafford has done?

Some heads are cruelly excised, yet go on to prove their worth to the system. The head of one of the most difficult, and high-profile, schools in the country was helping the school to make good progress, according to HMI.

But someone thought otherwise and she was unceremoniously removed with all the attendant media ignominy. Other people were put in charge, at vast public expense.

An objective observer might have been hard put to discover what the new team had added, apart from paint, but eventually the school came out of special measures as it obviously would have done anyway. However, not only did the former head find the self-belief and determination to take on another school in difficulties but she led her new school out of special measures and, triumphantly, on to higher ground. The school is now described as good and her leadership is deemed excellent.

The notorious example of the Ridings school is often used to justify special measures and suggest that quick fixes are possible, but people who followed that story through will know that it did not recover because a "hero head" was parachuted in to chuck a few kids out and lay some carpet but because a committed head and her staff slaved away for years.

The most seductive argument for continuing to use the option of special measures has to do with the young people who currently attend the school and their rights. But no-one who has watched a school struggling to survive as staff flee or are broken (and are often unreplaceable), as parents take leafier options, as additional resources fail to materialise (LEAs having lost their power to pump in extra funding) and as the media vultures gather - no-one can seriously hold that young people are being advantaged.

It is heartening that chief inspector David Bell (TES, May 7) has been honest enough to admit that Ofsted teams are currently damning schools unjustifiably (though one wonders who misdirected them in the first place).

Perhaps he will have the good sense to insist that "special measures" joins "educationally subnormal" in the dustbin of educational history.

But what our school system now needs, desperately, are grown-up politicians and inspectors capable of understanding the difference between an informed audit and a mindless witch-hunt.

letters 25, Ted Wragg 32 Phil Taylor is a secondary head in Tameside, Greater Manchester

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