I’m okay with Ofsted

My last post might imply that I have a problem with Ofsted; I don’t. For a start, I don’t believe I’ve been in the teaching profession long enough to judge. But I’ve done a few other things along the way.  Here are some thoughts.

Just do what you say you’re going to do

Early on in my consulting career, I became the company’s quality manager. In order to win public sector work, we needed to give our government clients some assurance of the quality of our work. BS5750 or ISO9000 was a badge that gave some assurance. I took on the role as a development opportunity: I am naturally disorganised and hate unnecessary procedure and paperwork, so I wanted to learn how to do it properly. It was a bit of a farce. We had procedures, statements of how we did things and how we assured ourselves of the quality of our work. And for 99% of the time, we ignored the procedures. Then, with an inspection visit looming, we’d rush around and do a year’s paperwork in a week. No one got much sleep but the files looked convincing and we retained our accreditation. A few years later, on someone else’s watch, we saw the light: why don’t we just be brilliant, encapsulate that practice in our procedures and be held to account for what we actually do? It felt great. It felt easy. Above all, it felt honest.

What happens to a child lives with the adult

In 2003, I set up and managed the procurement stage of a project for DfE to create ’embedded learning materials’ in basic skills for adult learners. Numeracy, literacy and ESOL in the guise of training in trowel trades, horticulture, healthcare… One of our target audiences was the prison population, people who’d left school unable to read, write or calculate. A shocking and shameful percentage. I was new to education, but the subject knowledge experts told me that part of the reason for these materials was the failure of some schools in the 1970s and 1980s to teach basic skills. True or not, this shocked me. I hoped the materials helped a little, but it made me think, why had this happened? And if they were culpable, how had schools got away with it?

Assurance or poker?

In 2007 I led a review of the risk, management and budget for the programme to establish the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Transport. As a co-funder of the programme, the department was liable for a proportion of any overspending, straight out of its budget for infrastructure projects. The minister, understandably, didn’t want to be stung for hundreds of millions of pounds. Without breaching any confidentiality, what struck me was the game of cat and mouse we played with the programme and its sponsoring department. Meetings with the Treasury and the Permanent Secretary of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport were exhilarating; one or two of my face-offs with Dennis Hone left me with real admiration for him but vowing I’d never play poker with him. Over three months, we reviewed, we reported, Cabinet met, the Games happened and there was no apparent overspend.  Our review was deemed a success, though I believe we never really got to the heart of the programme.  That review was one of the triggers for me to become a teacher: if I could rise this high and still feel I wasn’t making a difference, I needed to change my game.

“Who turns up”

I was also accredited as a leader of Gateway reviews for the government’s high risk projects. After a career in poaching, I had turned gamekeeper. To be a reviewer, you have to be a practitioner; to lead teams, you need to prove your experience and your capability. What matters with a Gateway review is “who turns up”. The seal of confidentiality is vital and has been fiercely defended, of which more later. You stand or fall by your reviews, as the projects you scrutinise – and the teams you lead – provide feedback on your performance. I loved the role, which was all too brief because I left to become a teacher.

My experience with Ofsted has been limited. A few near-misses, an observation from Her Majesty’s Inspector and a great conversation. Here’s a flavour of it.

Stress can kill

Before I started my teacher training, I observed at a school which had recently been inspected. The staff were devastated: one of their young colleagues, exhausted from the effort of preparing for the inspection, had had a serious asthma attack and had been taken to hospital. While I was there, the decision had been taken to turn off her life support machine. “Had she been suffering from any unusual stress?” the consultant asked her colleagues. The Head, a gentle man who appeared to be trying his hardest, lost his job once the Ofsted report became public. I decided that maybe I didn’t want to be a Head.

Just shut up, cut up and stick up

On my first teaching practice (observation at that stage, not teaching) I was told by my host teacher to shut up, cut up and stick up. Suddenly, laminated learning aids appeared, Romanian children who’d been impoverished of any EAL support in the classroom were surrounded by vocabulary, lessons sparkled and differentiation abounded. No one smiled in the staffroom; laughter had a bitter edge to it. Everyone seemed very tired. I decided that I would try to avoid being inspected if at all possible.

I have other stories, experiences of schools’ reactions to Ofsted visits – but I’m sure all my colleagues across the profession do too. I have felt the huge pressure to make everything perfect before an Ofsted inspection: it makes the stress of my previous career seem trivial.

HMI – professional, constructive and clear

I’ll turn to my direct experience of Ofsted: a recent HMI visit. I did nothing special, barring being a little bit quicker in putting up a display (and that was only because I was childishly proud of the children’s work). For my observation, I taught a maths lesson, with children who lack confidence in the subject. Nothing special: it had always been in the plan.  That day, they sparkled; the previous week, they hadn’t. But in that lesson, the inspector got to see my pupils being excited about shape, participating in a confident dialogue with me and then applying what they’d learnt. I know I can teach outstanding lessons; I can also occasionally teach some real duds. Thank goodness this was a good day. Later on in his visit, the inspector spoke to a small group of the staff, gently encouraging us to express our opinions and asking incisive questions. I think his subsequent inspection letter was spot on.  His intervention was professional, constructive and clear: if Ofsted is about “who turns up”, he was a great ambassador.

Ofsted, NUT and a bit of common sense

As our school’s NUT rep, I recently attended a training day. Mike Sheridan, Ofsted regional director for London, spoke to us. He drew a clear distinction between what Ofsted want to see and what some schools still seem to think inspectors want. The ‘myth busters’ have been widely circulated now, though not widely enough for my liking. It is published in the school inspection handbook, here. Mike seemed eminently reasonable, not least because he has walked in our shoes and is married to a primary school teacher. I felt comfortable with what I heard, and we gave him some food for thought: why not have a class teacher in every inspection team? Their proximity to the ‘coal face’ would give them greater insight and empathy than their SLT peers might have. It would, we thought, create balance. I’d be interested to hear what others think.

And finally…

I ended my secondment to HM Treasury as manager of the Gateway brand. It was a temporary post: as the agency for whom we all worked squirmed under the hostile scrutiny of the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, as budgets and headcount were cut, and as the vow of confidentiality for Gateway reviews sustained attack after attack via FOI requests, I was charged with reviewing the future of Gateway: its nature and reputation.  This is what it looks like these days.

At stake was a simple process that depended on a few things: its very simplicity and clarity, the experience and capability of the reviewers and the confidential nature of the review. In summary, reviews were conducted for the highest accountable individual on the project or programme – the SRO, a senior civil servant (or, in one of my reviews, the major general) whose career was most threatened if the endeavour failed. We spent three days on the review. We could demand access to any person, document or meeting we wanted: everything was conducted in confidence. During the review, we prepared our findings and recommendations, discussing them with the SRO. The emphasis was as much on offering constructive advice on how to deal with the main issues we had found as it was on our forensic work: that’s why it was important that we were practitioners.

At the end of the review, we presented our report to the SRO, warts and all. No senior person likes to be told that their pet project isn’t right (though the gravitas, humility and receptiveness of the major general, still in battle dress after his flight from Afghanistan, really impressed me). And there it stayed, for the SRO to put right. The great value of this process was the honesty it prompted from project teams. Knowing that their concerns could be voiced in confidence, they told us the truth: through us they could ‘speak truth to power’.

But that wasn’t entirely all. We took out reports back to the Treasury, which maintained an overall view of the risk profile of government projects and programmes. The severity of the issues on a project or programme determined the timing and nature of our next steps: routine review, repeat review or intervention. And if, on our next visit, the project hadn’t acted on our recommendations, the Prime Minister got to hear about it.  No one wanted to be on his ‘to do list’.

Finally, I’d like to reflect on the future of scrutiny, assurance and accountability for schools, in a personal, as-yet relatively uninformed and exploratory way.

I am delighted to hear that Ofsted is taking inspections back in-house; I felt uncomfortable with the idea of Gateway being franchised out to extended organisations. Corporate commercial interests don’t sit well, in my book, with the common, public good.

I’ve gone on at length about this subject because I am comfortable with scrutiny from Ofsted. I’m a parent. I’m a teacher. I have been a governor. Schools need to be held accountable for the work they do with our children (I won’t extend that to ‘outcomes’ because true accountability would have to come with a greater degree of control over the variables in our pupils’ education).

I would like to see inspections that:

  • offer a two-way feedback process, where schools can comment constructively and confidentially on the approach taken by inspectors and feel that their feedback is acted on in the subsequent selection and further development of inspectors;
  • report confidentially to the governing body of the school and only ‘go public’ if the governors are unwise enough or unable to act on the recommendations of the review;
  • exercise strict quality control (if they don’t already) over the conduct and capability of inspectors, who should include experienced classroom teachers.

I would also like to hear that schools:

  • feel able to be honest about their needs and shortcomings;
  • instead of second-guessing some draconian approach that will please Ofsted, subscribe to the principle of “Hey, why don’t we just be brilliant, encapsulate that practice in our procedures and be held to account for what we actually do?”, as the Wroxham School seems to do, and (if it works for their pupils);
  • are publicly celebrated for their honesty, vision and courage as well as their consistency and prudence.

To summarise, our children’s education is too important to go without scrutiny, and education is too important to be subject to hostile publicity with no incentive for honesty. Let’s not play poker with our children’s futures.

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