Whose yardstick?

It’s been a difficult few weeks for school leaders, especially reflecting on recent news, and seeing the national reaction. It is a moment of pause to reflect on a national inspection system which is not designed to support headteachers, but within which they are called to work.

It’s no wonder being a headteacher feels as much personal as professional. The moment the acceptance letter is signed you attach your personal credentials to a school. You don’t just take on a new job, you remove your personal reputation like a garment and reattach it to a brand new community. Where overnight, the performance of everyone in your building, aged anywhere from four to seventy, becomes your responsibility. It becomes an extension of ourselves: our skillset, our ability to make decisions, our integrity.

I’ve lost count of the inspections I’ve been involved in as a school leader or when supporting other headteachers. I’ve seen widely different approaches from the lead inspector and how staff were made to feel. And over the last few weeks some of our forty-three headteachers have been telling me about how they feel right now.

I feel honoured to work with such a positive group of inspiring leaders who, while recognising that our system is broken in so many ways, commit to bringing the best teaching, ethos and care to their communities. I wanted my children’s headteacher to be someone who could do three things: know my children, create a culture within they could thrive and recruit great teachers. For headteachers to be free to do that, they need a structure which allows them to focus on the right things.

But the reality is that I think we’ve reached the point where the benefits offered by the regulator are hugely outweighed by the negatives. The most glaring impacts are on the ability of heads to focus on the job in hand, on their mental health, and on the wider consequence on headteacher recruitment.

The Ofsted yardstick is not working.

Of course, the role of headteacher is a vital one in our society, and comes with the expectations of a community of families wanting only the best for their children. But it needs to begin to feel like headteachers have more control and can lead the journey, instead of feeling they are hostages to fortune, subject to the potentially erratic judgment of those who may well not have led a school.

Unless we do something we simply won’t have enough good leaders to run our schools. We’ll be running a future system without well-qualified or experienced heads, especially for schools in challenging context (which experience more inspections and are less likely to be good). Between that disaster scenario and now lies only the question of how we will respond.

Headteachers are describing five major problems:

Problem 1: The fact that safeguarding is a determining factor, terrifies me above all else.

This is exhausting heads, and draining them of their ability to focus on the important things. The ‘safeguarding’ fear triggers our reptilian brain and means that the deeper work of teaching and learning is always on the back-burner. Attaching safeguarding to an inspection report is the very definition of building high stakes into the life of a school leader (the clue is in the title of the role- it’s head teacher– not lead safeguarding officer).

So we should: Decouple safeguarding from inspection. Added to this, we need a much greater awareness of the risk of a failure of Health and Safety (for example, the risk of physical injury to a child and any potential future claim). Both of these could be reviewed through the maintaining authority (the MAT or LA), in a similar way to how we run financial audit. This is then externally reviewed on a regular basis.

Problem 2: Remove the 24-hour-ultimatum

Currently, heads spend each day with the threat of a ‘twenty-four-hour-ultimatum’. This is how one headteacher described how the impending Ofsted phone call feels. It creates a ridiculous daily tension building up to midday Wednesday, and beginning again the following Monday. However hard they try not to, they know that some of this daily anxiety will cascade to the rest of the team.

It’s nothing for five years, then everything for two days.

More frequent reviews are better for parents (they know that present decisions are closer to the last inspection/review), and for headteachers (it’s much lower stakes).

So we should provide headteachers with a well-calendared process of review, so they can plan their days and their weeks effectively. It would means that their time in post as a headteacher is more likely to be in productive learning mode, rather than in reactive performance mode. It would mean being part of a shared professional conversation, instead of feeling done-to.

It is the difference between:


The system currently looks like this, whereas it could look like this:
Top down instead of co-constructed
Last minute/no-notice visit instead of well-communicated partnership
I know best (only one expert) instead of collegiality/shared goals
ome to judge instead of constructive feedback
US versus THEM instead of supportive
Clipboard at the back of room instead of alongside
Single ticket instead of return journey

One fundamental problem is that the government made the decision not to re-inspect outstanding schools (some have not been inspected since 2009). It’s a bit like saying because the school was good enough for me to attend, it’s now good enough for my child. As though standards of behaviour and teaching are immutable, leaders don’t leave, or staff move on. In the future we need a system which is more regular, and is fairer to all schools and families.

Problem 3: The bland report, the one-word judgement grade and the inspection itself doesn’t do justice to the work of our school.

In my experience, most HTs/schools/Trusts experience inspection, then see the report and think, ‘we had a much more sharply defined set of strengths & next steps.’ Neither the Ofsted nor the subsequent report make any contribution to the real journey ahead. It’s a distraction.

So we should: Remove grades. They do not effectively describe the information that we have. The honest dialogue we have with our headteachers about their school’s strengths and weaknesses considers a deep picture of information with which we frame this dialogue: a range of attainment and progress data, capacity of leadership, support & challenge from governors, HR issues, staff turnover, financial leadership, parent & staff & pupil survey, destination data, quality of books.

But somehow Ofsted shrinks the complexity of this into one single, blunt word, asserting that this is what parents want – as though parents are incapable of processing more than a one-word judgement.

Problem 4: I don’t trust having my professional work (and my personal reputation) judged like this. I’m not really in control of what happens during inspection, and the process of reviewing my school.

So we should: Change the way inspection is done.

We could break the inspection process down into its constituent parts. For this we need to ask what kind of information could be interrogated at Trust level? Since we share a clear spectrum of accountability, let’s use this to take pressure off headteachers:

Schools would be on the front line for: an inspection of quality of education (just what happens in the classroom)
Trusts/Maintaining Authorities are on the frontline for: an audit of safeguarding, H&S, governance, finance (everything else)

Part of the problem is that the current inspection framework was designed for a completely different school landscape to the one we now have. A future inspection and audit needs to be framed around the MAT landscape (this is the government’s clear destination for all schools – currently more than 80% of secondaries and more than 40% of primaries are academised in MATs or SATs). So use this framework as the starting point, and working from there to then fit the audit process around maintained schools.

This new inspection and audit framework then allows Trusts to take a much fuller part in the process of evaluation and review (spoiler: they do this already), just as we do with a robust financial audit process. An inspection team works closely with the Trust, for example grouping together the kinds of school they might audit this year (for example small schools of less than 150, or schools within challenging context, or legacy-outstanding schools).

Trusts are subsequently monitored for their ability to audit and hold their schools to a good standard. There are, of course, high quality HMIs and inspectors, who many of us work with, and they would be well placed to lead this.

This audit process establishes where there is best practice which can be shared (offers), and identifying areas requiring attention and support (needs). Matching offers with needs is the rationale behind such review, and is the definition of system-wide improvement.

It’s a much better response than the current answer to the question: What is Ofsted for?
In fact the wrong question to ask is: What do we want Ofsted to look like?  
Whereas the right question might be: What do we need to do in order to achieve a high performing education system?

By replacing an infrequent high stakes, high pressure school inspection regime with a regular low stakes, low pressure inspection & audit process, greater pressure now falls on Trusts rather than on individual headteachers.

This would liberate the system from being in thrall to the outdated 24-hour-Ofsted-model, and allow school leaders to play a more significant role in designing a self-improving system. And with each inspection costing around £7000, it would mean spending taxpayers money on activities which will make a real difference, such as staff training, leadership development and effective audit, NOT on high stakes preparation for inspection.

In her study of high-performing international education systems, Cleverlands, Lucy Creehan saw groups of schools being overseen by a superintendent who guides the school leadership teams and builds collaboration between them: Accountability in these settings means responsibility and answerability, rather than culpability and liability.’

Problem 5: The focus is all wrong – the job I applied for ten years ago, is different to the one I’m now doing.

So we should: Ask how can we better support our headteachers?

It raises questions for those of us with both the privilege and the responsibility of supporting headteachers, sharing their journey and listening to them when they feel pressure. We need to invest in headteachers like never before. This is partly about retention, but mainly to help bring the job back to what it was always about (know my children, create a culture within they will thrive and recruit great teachers).

We have to recognise that providing effective professional and personal support for the superstars leading our school communities on the front line, is probably the most important work we do. It makes me ask:

-Whether I’m doing enough to make the solitary experience of a headteacher a little less lonely, less high-stakes, less like an un-doable job.
-Whether I’m doing my best to make the leadership journey more together, more fun, more about developing people.

So we are trying to make sure:
-That our regular meetings rarely mention Ofsted, but do talk about children.
-That we invest in our headteachers in ways that focus on the important, upstream elements of the job (children, teaching, CPD) not the depressing, downstream elements (inspections, complaints, exclusions).
-That we reflect this balance in our training for governors
-That we do not panic about inevitable inspection, or run ‘mocksteds.’
-That we take the drama out of the current inspection process.
-That we are clear with our Trustees and governors and leaders that we know there are many ways to judge the health of the school, and what we mean by accountability.
-That we invest in a programme of high-quality professional development – we run Leadership Seminars four times a term, which cover specific areas of school leadership, including the practical, thorny issues we face.
-That we invest in a future headteachers recruitment strategy.
-That we invest in one-to-one mentoring and/or professional coaching for all school leaders.
-That we meet regularly F2F, over coffee and cake to help heads meet, chat and connect.

Some might think the kind of leaders who want the Ofsted yardstick changed are those for whom it was too high or too challenging. But some of the most high profile people who’ve been calling for change, leaders like Geoff Barton here, Caroline Derbyshire here, and Alison Peacock here, measured their schools against the yardstick of the time and performed with excellence.

Generations of future school leaders will look back at the system we currently have, and will ask how we allowed this to happen.

The current inspection regime may have become part of the status quo, but it will not help us to achieve the high performing system of the future. Teaching is an incredible profession, and headteachers, with the right support structures behind them, transform communities. Headteachers expect to be accountable to their communities, and feel the responsibility of allocating tax-payers’ money to best support children.

But they need to be able to trust the review process that judges them, and the methods chosen to measure the standards of our schools.

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