Naming and shaming works;Platform

17th April 1998 at 01:00
Two heads whose failing schools were turned around give their views of OFSTED's methods. They wish to remain anonymous.

Without the Office for Standards in Education there would be little school improvement. The "naming and shaming" of schools does works.

A sad judgment, but one based on our experiences as headteachers who took up our posts just before or after our schools had "failed" OFSTED inspections. The glare of adverse publicity, continuous inspections and the very real threat of closure was exhausting for our colleagues and ourselves - but it had the desired effect.

Our schools improved beyond recognition. OFSTED now describes them as "very good value for money", and as places where teaching standards are high and pupil progress and response is good.

Pupil and staff attendance has improved dramatically - as good a performance indicator as any. Both schools are full and have waiting lists in areas where school rolls are falling.

Not that we have forgotten dealing with the anger, tears and resentment of our colleagues after the initial inspections.

Some staff, parents and governors tried to deny the accuracy of the inspectors' judgments. The whole OFSTED machine was vilified and belittled in an attempt to shift responsibility on to anyone else. Poor teaching skills and underdeveloped curriculum knowledge were defended by decrying OFSTED's emphasis on "academic standards" or the unreal expectations of the inspectors.

The supposed irrelevance of the national curriculum to our pupils comforted others. The fact that both schools had little or no system for curriculum planning, assessment, recording and reporting was forgotten. Few were willing to accept any responsibility for the state of the school - even some senior managers and governors who had been associated with the schools for some time.

As both schools are in areas of urban deprivation there was another convenient scapegoat among the pupils themselves: the Jasons, Waynes and Kylies.

The local education authorities and government also came in for some criticism as the buildings were neglected and dilapidated. This lack of investment was reflected in the paucity of curriculum resources.

So what happened to turn our water into OFSTED wine? First and foremost, there was constant external monitoring by the local authority, OFSTED and HMI. A core team of staff in both schools was willing to listen to their criticisms and act on advice given. Even if this was sometimes done in a spirit of playing the game to get them off our backs, it meant that progress was made.

In the same spirit, we gradually started to monitor our own practice and performance more rigorously. Initially this was resisted by many staff, either passively or aggressively. Some simply stayed off work when they were due to monitor or be monitored. However, the number of converts grew as it was understood that any one person's failure to improve and follow our freshly-minted policies kept the spotlight on us all.

It was realised that neither external nor internal authorities would tolerate poor classroom practice or refusal to comply with legislation. This meant that there was some turnover of staff. Those who stayed improved their curriculum knowledge, planning and delivery. Roles and responsibilities were reviewed and clarified to ensure that monitoring was written into job descriptions and whole- school responsibilities were detailed.

Failure did bring the bonus of extra resources from the local authority. This additional income was enhanced by careful housekeeping: costly contracts were reviewed, savings were made on energy costs, less expensive support staff were employed, and caretaking job descriptions were renegotiated to allow a greater degree of school self-help.

Every grant available was applied for. LEA initiatives which brought in additional (but relevant) resources were embraced. These funds were not spent on extra staffing. Instead we improved curriculum resources, purchased in-service training or on-site consultancies and residencies from storytellers, dancers, artists, poets, musicians and the like to enrich our curriculum.

As staff attendance improved, we brought in supply teachers to allow developmental work to go ahead or, sometimes, just to give staff a breather. The school sites were improved by decoration, art work and by planting trees and shrubs. Both schools simply became more attractive places for staff and pupils to work.

Failure meant a turnover in the governing body. New governors wanted to understand the schools "warts and all", but they showed trust in us as heads who were showing results with each new inspection.

As managers seeking change we courted allies, not unpopularity. However, we had to face the latter if some staff were going to accept OFSTED's criticisms; a small number needed the reality of formal action before they made efforts to improve.

Conversely, at times we also had to stick our necks out and protect our schools from a local authority keen to use one school's initial failure to re-organise us. Our improving OFSTED record helped us to fight this off.

It is unlikely that either of us would have been willing to take the necessary action without the existence of OFSTED and our schools would be poorer places today.

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