Ofsted's fresh approach leaves heads 'furious' and union 'aghast'
Headteachers' leaders are used to being asked to comment on bad news by education reporters. They take most things in their stride.
But this week, when The TES revealed the outcome of six months of school inspections under Ofsted's new framework, there were shocked silences.
"I am quite aghast," said Mick Brookes, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, after he had taken in the implications of a new regime that has seen the proportion of schools judged "inadequate" almost double and the percentage given the top "outstanding" rating more than halve.
For heads, teachers and those who represent them, these findings are more than just figures. They represent lost jobs, ruined careers, damaged morale and schools already struggling in difficult circumstances being pushed into steeper decline as alarmed parents take flight.
No one could argue they weren't warned. Ofsted was always quite explicit that it was, once again, "raising the bar" and increasing "expectations". But the sheer size of the difference in inspection grades has taken people aback. Next week, when the watchdog publishes its own figures, it is likely to say that this is partly because the lighter touch it is giving to better schools has skewed the sample.
Ofsted had said its new framework would see schools previously judged "good" or "outstanding" inspected every five years, with those in the bottom two categories on a three-year cycle.
But The TES has found plenty of schools that were visited in the first pre-Christmas tranche of new framework inspections despite having been judged "good" by Ofsted fewer than three years before.
Mr Brookes is sceptical of the skewed sample explanation. "That doesn't fit with my understanding at all," he said. "The feedback we have been getting from members is that schools have been dropping grades."
That feedback began to emerge last term, as soon as the first of the new inspection results were published.
The stories that made the headlines tended to surround the new emphasis being given to pupil safety, which meant schools found themselves marked down for failing to counter risks such as "low door handles".
But for Keith Dennis, inspections consultant at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), the real issue is the greater emphasis on raw exam results or "attainment", which he said had created "real fear" among heads.
"In nine years of working on inspections I have never known fear like it," he said. "It is people doing everything possible who are sometimes constrained by things beyond their powers.
"It might be that they can't recruit an English teacher, or a maths teacher goes off on maternity leave at a crucial time and results drop."
Those results, regardless of how challenging a school's intake, now have a much bigger influence on the final outcome of inspections.
The level of concern in schools led to the Government intervening and raising the issue with Christine Gilbert, Ofsted's chief schools inspector, last term.
Ministers are apparently now content that schools with low raw exam results will not be unfairly penalised because "attainment" is not what is known as a "limiting" judgment.
And Ms Gilbert has repeatedly reassured schools that it is possible for them to be judged "outstanding" even if they have low results.
Both points are technically true. But they also mask a reality set out in Ofsted's own framework - that schools with "low" raw exam results will be unable to achieve an overall outstanding or good grade, except in "the most exceptional circumstances".
The TES findings are not all bad news. Special schools had feared they were about to be cut down to size because under the old regime the percentage getting outstanding reports had been twice as high as for schools in general. But that does not appear to have happened. With a third of special schools making the top grade under the new framework, they have moved even further ahead of the pack.
The way the new inspections are actually being carried out, with more involvement for heads and deputies, has also been a positive, according to Mr Dennis.
When the previous framework was introduced in 2005 he quickly found himself with a "huge" database of inspectors that members had complained about.
That has not happened this time. But what heads are telling him is that "inspectors' hands are tied" by the framework when it comes to grading schools.
When John Dunford, general secretary of the ASCL, addresses his organisation's annual conference in London on Sunday, he will read out an email that he says sums up many heads' feelings.
"Despite sweating blood to build a wonderful new school, raise attainment, reduce permanent exclusions to zero, slash fixed term exclusions by a third, reduce (those not in education, employment or training) to 5 per cent, and improve attendance to above average, Ofsted could still judge attainment as inadequate because it is significantly below the national average and this will have an impact on the other judgments," the member writes.
"I am left feeling white hot fury. My school is hugely challenging and my wonderful staff work themselves into the ground for our students; yet everybody is feeling that they are potentially a failure. What is the incentive for good people to work in really challenging schools where everything feels stacked against them?"
Ofsted refused to comment ahead of the release of its statistics next week.
'WE ARE JUMPING HIGHER THROUGH MORE HOOPS'
Janet Reid was looking forward to showing Ofsted inspectors how much things had improved when they visited Yeo Valley Primary in November.
The head had followed all the advice set out in the Barnstaple school's previous inspection, only three years before, which had judged it "good".
Instead, bemused and upset, she found herself on the end of an "inadequate" verdict and a notice to improve.
Ms Reid blames Ofsted's new framework. "Everything has been ratcheted up," she says. "We're having to jump higher and through more hoops to move forward.
"The expectation that the attainment of all children will reach the national standard regardless of their starting point is tough on schools like ours."
Ms Reid also thinks the system has confused inspectors. Her teachers told her they had misinterpreted situations.
In one instance, she says a nursery play activity was deemed adult-led. But it was actually child-initiated, which would have been a plus in the early years section.
"It was our early years that were (judged) inadequate and if you're inadequate in one area that triggers an inadequate rating for the school," she says.
"To be told that you're not doing enough by three people who come into school making sweeping statements about the school for a day and a half, when they're not here on a day-to-day basis, is disheartening."
Brian Lloyd (pictured), head of Kelsey Park Sports College, believes his Ofsted fate was sealed months before the inspectors arrived.
In November they judged the comprehensive in Beckenham, Kent, "inadequate" and gave it a formal notice to improve.
But just three years earlier under Ofsted's previous inspection framework it had been reported as "good". Mr Lloyd, head on both occasions, says his school had not become worse in the interim.
He says it has been penalised for having an inspection just after a particularly difficult year group had sat their GCSEs, under a regime that places a much greater emphasis on raw results.
"It is like going into a cup final with several of your best players injured," he says.
The cohort that reached Year 11 in 200809 had been swelled by at least a third when 50 pupils from outside the school joined it in Year 9. Mr Lloyd says about 20 of them, transferred from a neighbouring troubled school, had a damaging effect on the entire year's behaviour and attainment.
Staff predicted just 21 per cent of them were on course to gain five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths. Hard work helped raise that to 28 per cent and the next year group is on course for 42 per cent.
But that was not enough to prevent disaster when Ofsted visited. "The registered inspector said the only way we were going to come out without a category four (inadequate) was if our teaching was judged to be outstanding across the board," Mr Lloyd says.
"But if you read through the framework and follow it to the letter that is virtually impossible."
Mr Lloyd says his actual inspection was fair but that inspectors' hands were tied when they awarded a final grade that left staff demoralised and a "stigma" on his school.
"Parents don't understand the intricacies of it all," he says. "They just see the final verdict."