Nothing quite unifies a staffroom like a grumble about Ofsted. Or Michael Gove. Indeed, it seems strange that more than two years after his departure from the hallowed halls of the Department for Education, Mr Gove still maintains such a level of unpopularity among teachers. It’s also fair to say that the department itself rarely comes in for much praise – and with good reason, given some of the chaos we’ve seen in recent years.
But we ought to be wary of creating bogeymen to be the scapegoats for all of education’s ills. Not every problem in schools was created in Whitehall. Not every resigning teacher does so directly because of something Mr Gove said or did. And perhaps most importantly, not everything that your headteacher says is Ofsted’s fault actually has anything to do with Ofsted.
One of the problems that the DfE has is the lack of clear communication pathways from the centre to schools. In a world where power is divided between local authorities, Ofsted and regional schools commissioners, trying to convey messages to individual teachers is virtually impossible. And so we’re left with the faulty filter that is school leadership.
Credit where it’s due
In my work with schools, and my conversations with colleagues all over the country, I never cease to be amazed by the nonsense that goes on in some places. I am constantly astounded to hear about the pressure that some teachers are under, or the expectations placed on colleagues to do ridiculous things. But almost universally, I hear the blame placed at the door of either Ofsted or the DfE.
We ought to give credit where it’s due: Ofsted has gone out of its way, over recent years, both to up its game and to convey clear messages about what isn’t expected from schools. Clarification documents and changes to the school inspection handbook have made it clear that there are no ridiculous rules about how often books should be marked, or how frequently data should be collected, or demanding that each lesson should contain a kinaesthetic activity. As Sean Harford – Ofsted’s National Director, Education – says: we should never be doing things “for Ofsted”, but rather for the benefit of pupils.
The DfE, too, has tried to improve the messages it sends to schools and to clarify its expectations. It’s far from perfect, but the messages about workload are clear: marking should be meaningful and manageable; lesson planning should be about teachers thinking about learning, not completing endless pages of planning templates.
So why is it that when we hear of a retention crisis, it is the department or Ofsted that gets the blame? How many teachers are leaving the profession because of those external factors? And how many are really leaving because poor leadership in their school has piled on the pressure and taken away the enjoyment of the job? Is it possible that some poor school leaders place the blame at the door of those above them, without themselves taking responsibility to tackle challenges in their own school?
As the old saying goes: people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. There are plenty of good bosses in good schools around the country, and plenty of leadership teams working hard to reduce the pressure on their teams. You don’t have to look far to find horror stories of schools where an exodus of staff has resulted from the actions of leadership. No doubt many of those leaders blamed weak staff unable to take the pressure of the job.
Perhaps it’s time to shift some of the blame from the doorsteps of the DfE and Ofsted just a little closer to home.
Michael Tidd is deputy head at Edgewood Primary School in Nottinghamshire. He tweets @MichaelT1979