Ofsted watch - Special measures is a medieval punishment

28th November 2014 at 00:00
Teachers know public humiliation isn't the best way to bring about improvement. It's about time Ofsted realised this, too

When your school is placed in special measures, it takes a while for the judgement to sink in. The moment when the lead inspector first utters the dreaded words is awful, for sure, but the conclusions feel even more damning when they are emailed to you a day or so later. As the chair of governors, I felt as if I were having an out-of-body experience and that this fate had befallen someone else.

Public knowledge of the school's failings takes time. If an inspection finds you to be good or outstanding, this will appear on Ofsted's website within 15 working days. But when that deadline has passed and nothing has been published about your school, informed Ofsted-watchers - the local press often among them - can divine that you are "in a category". Full public humiliation generally comes 28 days after the inspection. In that period, you will have meetings with local authority representatives to consider what additional support your school needs.

Surprisingly, none of this makes the verdict sink in either. I only really felt the pain when I had to stand before parents and give an account of why the school deserved such unequivocal criticism. By that time, Ofsted had written directly to parents, cataloguing our shortcomings. The explain-yourself-to-the-angry-mums-and-dads gathering is a requirement - it's easy to see why so many headteachers and chairs of governing bodies resign instead of suffering such ignominy.

I didn't, and going through the process made me consider things from a fresh perspective. Let me be clear: I agree with inspection. I believe that a relentless programme to drive up teaching standards is necessary. And I admire much of Ofsted's work. But is special measures really the best approach to school improvement? I'm not sure. Perhaps placing petty criminals in the stocks was a successful aid to medieval law enforcement, but if employed today the collateral damage would quickly be seen to outweigh the benefits. And so it is with schools and Ofsted.

We were lucky. The public battering, plummeting staff morale and grave warning to each child that they were being failed did not have a huge impact on pupils or the number attending the school. We serve a working-class, local-authority-built estate with a relatively static population. Half the parents are former pupils; destiny, not choice, accounts for our intake.

But that is not true of every school. A friend of mine chairs the governing body of a rural secondary. Its intake is mixed, with two-thirds of pupils coming from professional families. There is a private school close by and another state secondary six miles away. The modest roll of my friend's school appeals to parents and it has a strong reputation in music and the arts.

Special measures, when it came, hit this school hard. By the end of its first term "in a category", it had lost 30 pupils. Twelve months later, out of special measures and praised by Ofsted, the school still has 20 per cent fewer children than it did before the inspection. The governors calculate that the cost in funding will be about pound;500,000 over five years.

"The government wants parents to take a more active role in the education of their children," my friend tells me. "But in a community like ours, that includes moving their children away very quickly when anything goes wrong. The way that affects income makes it very difficult for even a prudently run school to recover. And what really surprises me is that Ofsted don't seem to understand this. They appear to still think special measures results in more income, not less."

The number of schools in special measures is significantly higher than a few years ago. At the end of August 2012, 332 schools were in special measures; at the same point in 2014, 447 were in the category.

Ofsted points to research claiming that schools that only just fall into special measures improve appreciably quicker than those that only just manage to avoid the judgement. A study by Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess of the University of London's Institute of Education suggests that the average grade improvement for pupils is 10 per cent higher in the special measures category.

But even if special measures works, that does not mean it is the best way. Pedagogical thinking has long since abandoned the idea that humiliation is an effective spur to learning. It is surely only a matter of time before theories about school improvement go the same way.

For now, though, planning is always worthwhile. Consider the consequences of special measures before it happens and you will be better prepared. Better still, focus the minds of senior leaders on this eventuality - this might help you to avoid such a harsh categorisation. And, in the meantime, let's all hope Ofsted finds a route to school improvement that doesn't require a public dressing-down.

John C Hare is chair of a primary school governing body in the South East of England


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