"Requires improvement": two of the most disappointing words in the English language to hear if you're a principal.
When Ofsted delivered this verdict on my school, I was frustrated and upset. More importantly, so were the staff. When it happens, you can't help thinking of all the hard work, the effort, the absolute conviction that you've done right by your pupils. Thankfully, in our case, we had the data to prove that our school was as good as we thought it was.
Almost all our 680 pupils speak English as an additional language (EAL). The largest groups are of Pakistani and RomaSlovak heritage. Historically, the school has struggled with reading, but last year we recorded a 30 per cent improvement in expected progress; this included 92 per cent of Year 6 making expected progress for key stage 2. These exceptional figures put us above the national average.
So when Ofsted deemed last June that we were good in leadership, behaviour and teaching but required improvement in achievement - and then chose to give us an overall grade of "requires improvement" - it just didn't make sense.
I decided to appeal. This was a big decision: I was concerned that Ofsted might adjust our other scores downwards in order to justify the overall verdict. But I felt I had to complain - the data just didn't support the judgement.
What does it all mean?
I was spurred on by the major progress we had made by rethinking our literacy strategy. Most schools are quite proficient at phonics these days, but for many children, not just those who are EAL, the comprehension side is far more tricky. Children don't always naturally read for meaning; too often they're not really thinking about what they're reading.
Previously, we did not have a whole-school approach to comprehension. Our method was test-based - we would simply ask the children questions about the text they had been reading. But many lacked the skills needed to answer.
So we decided to change our approach. We had to get the whole school involved, with buy-in across the teaching staff. And, as well as being incredibly child-friendly, the programme had to present the strategy in a really clear way to teachers by identifying a range of skills and providing a way to help pupils acquire those skills progressively.
When we rolled out our new strategy, the impact was huge. It worked like this: using material taken from real books, we showed the children that authors leave clues in the text. They don't write, "He was sad." Instead they say, "His feet were dragging along the floor."
The children practised finding meaning in a picture, then a sentence and then a passage of text. Soon they were asking who, what, when, where? They discovered that the clues were there on the page and, gradually, the skill of inferential reading was mastered.
Crucially, we applied this approach to all the reading and writing that went on in the school every day, right across the curriculum, and it led to huge gains in our rates of expected progress. So when the Ofsted judgement arrived, I didn't waste time on fury. There was no point in stomping around. Instead, I buckled down and resubmitted the data. And then I waited.
It wasn't until the half-term that the result of the appeal - and an apology for any distress caused - came through.
While Ofsted might change the wording of part of a report, I've never heard of it changing an overall judgement before, and neither has anyone I know in teaching. But there it was, the recognition we deserved: "Following a thorough review, it was felt that on this occasion the inspection judgement did not reflect the full evidence presented. We accordingly upgraded the school to `good'."
We were delighted.
Taking on the inspectors
I urge other schools to challenge Ofsted if they are certain an injustice has been done. Here are a few dos and don'ts drawn from our experience:
- Don't waste your time being angry - think of the school and the staff. They're upset, too, and need your support.
- Marshall your facts. What is the basis for your appeal? Does the data support your view?
- Do a risk evaluation: might an appeal lead to a downgrade? Consider the worst possible outcomes.
- If you are sure of a positive result, or believe the risk is worth it, grit your teeth and resubmit the data. This takes time - probably a full working day, minimum.
Patricia Gavins is principal of Whetley Academy, a primary school in Bradford. The reading programme used was Think 2 Read.