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The Ofsted debate

November 22, 2015 1 comment

This post was originally published here, on Labour Teachers on 22nd November 2015.

I watched with jealousy yesterday as my twitter timeline filled with tweets that included #Michaela. For those unaware, the hashtag was related to an event at Michaela school where educationalist and teachers were debating big issues in education. It was an event I’d have loved to be at. All the debates were quite interesting but the one that has me thinking the most was the one around the abolition of Ofsted.

This is an issue I’ve seen discussed many times, (including in the green party manifesto) and I can see where arguments on both sides come from. So much so, in fact, that I actually feel the debate is being framed wrong.

We need a regulator

This is a strong theme used by all who argue against abolition. And it is certainly one that I’d full of merit. But I don’t think it stands up in the debate. I would seriously worry if we had schools which were unregulated and entirely left to their own devices, but that doesn’t mean I agree with the current model.

Ofsted makes SLT spend their time doing nonsense things to please them

This is a strange argument that I’ve seen phrased in a variety of ways over the years, but it’s not entirely accurate. Yesterday I saw it tweeted like this:

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Katherine Birbalsingh (@Miss_Snuffy) was tweeting out what many perceive to be true, but as John (@johntomsett) replied, it’s not true. We’ve seen time and time again that Ofsted have spoken out against many of the practices that go on in their name (see the recent pens debacle here and here, my hatred for the word “Outstanding“, this response to a guardian secret teacher and these misguided schools), so it’s wrong to keep using it to argue against them.

So what is your problem with Ofsted?

It’s the culture it engenders. The 1-4 grading system is for me, ridiculous. It seems to attempt to boil down how good a school is into a tick box exercise. It doesn’t account for the complexities each school has, it promotes game playing and encourages teaching to the test, rather than for understanding. It means certain groups of children are deemed more important because they fall around a threshold grade and they receive more help, more money, more time and more resources and that is not fair.

So what would you replace it with?

I’d like to see a system where grades were replace with a two teir system, a “fine” and a “you need urgent help to improve.”

I feel all schools can improve, and the reports should be constructive and developmental,  highlighting the strengths each school has and areas in which they need to improve.  This could lead to greater collaboration between schools as the all try to help each other move forward.

Those schools deemed to need urgent help shouldn’t be stigmatised in the way schools in special measures can be. They should receive help to get them back on track. No school has made a concious decision to fail it’s students, some have just lost their way.

We should all be working together,  with a common goal of giving all young people the best possible start. And the regulatory body should be enabling that, not ranking schools in accordance to some criteria that doesn’t even take the full picture into account.

Scrap Ofsted and the National Curriculum?

April 5, 2015 6 comments

Ok, so I realise I’m a little late with this, but I somehow missed it a couple of months ago and only came across it today. This article in the tes from February outlines some pre-manifesto policies from the green party. Those policies are scrapping the national curriculum and scrapping Ofsted.

Are these good things?

Let’s take them one at a time:

Ofsted

Scrapping Ofsted in itself doesn’t seem like a terrible idea. I think it has become a stick to.beat and scare teachers and has led to a raft of ridiculous policy implementations in many schools. I do, however, think there needs to be some forms of inspection process to ensure schools aren’t letting students down. I’d personally opt for reform over scrapping, I’d certainly get rid of grades and replace them with two, perhaps call them “fine” and “need to improve”.

This could be a good policy, or a dangerous one, depending on what is put in Ofsted’s place, I will reserve fuller judgement until the manifesto is released.

The National Curriculum

I think this one is rather dangerous. In a world pre national curriculum teachers were largely left to teach what they wanted, often primary students may learn about the tudors, for example, each year and no other history over the course of their primary careers. A complete removal would give rise to a massive inequality in our society. Students would learn completely different things depending on where they were schooled and so some may end up with a rich broad education but some with a bland narrow one. The National Curriculum should be a way to ensure all students have a good start, a broad base, to enter the adult world from.

Academies and Free Schools

Third bit of policy that jumps out at me is the idea of bringing Academies and Free Schools back into the local authority. This would provide a logistical nightmare I’m sure, and the local authorities would need to be rebuilt as they’ve been massively stripped back by the academies programme.

I was against the idea of academies when they were introduced, and I was against the massive roll out of the programme orchestrated by Gove. I have since worked in academies and have had mixed experiences.

In one academy we were part of a large chain to begin with, this could have been disastrous. The chain in question were not favourable of teachers rights and if it weren’t for the fact we had a fantastic principal looking out for the staff we may have had a really rough ride. I know other schools in the chain did and the unions kept telling us not to accept this or that policy, but our principal had already refused them! In my experience smaller, 2 and 3 school, chains are much better than the big ones, aimed at improving outcomes, rather than improving numbers. Run from an education, not business, point of view.

Academies and Free Schools, with the right leadership, can use their freedoms to really improve outcomes for their pupils, but they are also open to the possibility of abuse. And they can build in extra inequalities in the system, which should surely be creating a more equal experience for all. I think the current situation of some schools having these freedoms and some not is ridiculous, it should be all or none. I think this is a policy I could definitely get behind. Bringing all schools into LA control could also mean LAs could take over the inspection role if Ofsted was scrapped.

So, some interesting policies. Some good, some bad, I’m interested to read the fuller policies announced in the manifesto. In 2010 I was very impressed by the Green manifesto’s education section, so far there is potential, but I’m not sure it will be as good as last time. We shall wait and see. I’d love to hear your opinions on these policies.

Under pressure?

March 17, 2015 4 comments

I seem to be reading a lot lately about “Mocksteds”, these mock inspections that seem to be all the rage, and other seems to me that they can cause more damage than good. I have a number of friends who have been subjected to these over the last few months, all felt heavily pressured, all felt they had had their already massive workloads increased and some felt undermined and have lost confidence in themselves. I can’t imagine any of these are positive outcomes for the schools.

So you think it’s all nonsense?

No, I can see there may be a need to review and evaluate a school, it’s the manner in which it is often done that I take issue with. Part if the philosophy in my school is that the “why” and the “how” are as important as the “what”. The reasoning behind the review should be shared, and when designing the how staff welfare should be taken into consideration. During my career so far I’ve been through Ofsted inspections, internal “mock inspections”, external “mock inspections”, internal “reviews” and external “reviews”. On the face of it, the latter four seem very similar but in reality there can be a major difference.

We had an external review in the winter term, it lasted a day, reasoning was shared beforehand, and it seemed like the senior leadership had gone out of their way to ensure that staff remained relaxed about the process, while still putting their best foot forward. The process went well and I didn’t notice any colleagues crying in the cupboards.

On the other side, I have a friend who teaches at a different school who has recently been through a “mocksted”, she was put under an immense amount of undue pressure and was left questioning her own practice.

I have friends at another school who have been through a series of events that would test the strongest of people. They are expecting Ofsted, so are in the midst of Ofsted fever, they are being hit with no notice “Marking” scrutinies, they had an external company come in to do a mock inspection to ensure they are ready, and had an internal review conducted by SLT from within their Academy chain to make sure they were ready for that. If ofsted come next week that’s three two day review processes in a term. One staff member received 5 observations in 6 days. As if teachers weren’t under enough pressure.

The worst though, is this harrowing account, where school staff were told that Ofsted were here, but actually it was an external review team conducting a mocksted. A fact not shared until after the inspectors had left.

What are the outcomes

If a review is conducted in the right manner it will find areas to develop for the school, it will build teachers confidence in themselves and their leadership and will ultimately improve outcomes for the learners in our care. If a review is conducted wrongly it can lead to increased stress, reduced confidence, reduced staff well being, increased workload and can lead to learners getting a raw deal.
Of course we need to know how are schools are performing, we need to know where staff strengths and weaknesses are in order to tailor our development plans, but it doesn’t need to be a painful process.

Dear “Outstanding Teacher”

January 25, 2015 2 comments

Dear “Outstanding Teacher”,

I’ve just read your secret teacher letter to Ofsted in the guardian and I have to say I was unimpressed. You mention time and time again that you’ve done things to tick boxes because that’s what you thought the rules were. That’s not what it should be about. You should be doing things because they improve outcomes for the learners in your care. Perhaps if you had focused in this your inspection might have gone better. Maybe the inspector arrived to find a senior management team so obsessed with box ticking that the learners were being left behind, as that’s what your letter implies.

Are you a real human, or an automaton? You talk of “cutting the deadwood” and “only taking the best with us”, so what, you have turned a load of struggling teachers out on the streets? With no jobs and families to feed? And what have you based your criteria on, the same tick boxes you thought were wanted but it turns out you were wrong about? Why not try to support these teachers in becoming “the best” and take them with you?

Your learners and your staff are people, not numbers on a data sheet. Your role as a management team is to ensure staff and students are growing, developing and improving. Perhaps the fact you have missed that, and become obsessed with box ticking, has been your downfall. Stop worrying about “the rules of the game”, it’s not a game, it’s real life, these are real people and you are in a position with comes with a duty of care. Switch your focus, create the conditions for growth required for staff and students, see the outcomes improve for all. That’s what is important here.

Stephen.

Observations, Ofsted and the Trial of Alfred Wegener

December 19, 2013 2 comments

Last week I had a morning conversation with a colleague from the science department that got me quite excited. I was about an hour before lessons were due to start and the colleague in question came into the workroom and started cutting up some cards for his lesson. I noticed one mentioned “the jury” so asked him what he had planned. He informed me that he was looking at continental drift and was running the lesson like a trial. It was to be set at the time when Wegener had first come up with his theory and pupils were role playing parts of defence and prosecution barristers, expert witnesses on both side. The lesson sounded awesome, I was gutted not to have a non-contact period when it was on so I could go and see he lesson!

While we were discussing this I reflected that often when cutting up resources in the workroom the question gets asked “are you being observed?” This is something that normally bothers me, I don’t understand why people would change their approach to a lesson because an observer is coming in. Obviously, there are things you wouldn’t do for you PM observation, I can’t imagine there being any point in observing a mock exam where the class are working in silence for instance.

Our discussion moved on, as my colleague suggested that he wouldn’t do the lesson if he was being observed, as there was potential for it to go wrong. This was the polar opposite to the usual expectation, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

This got me thinking about observations. I think that by altering the way you teach for an observation gives a false picture, and means there is absolutely no point in the observation taking place. But, if you are planning exciting lessons, but are using safe and steady lessons for observations, you are also giving a false picture.

It think the key word we all need to keep in mind, is appropriate. My colleague Mark Miller recently wrote this piece exploring the Ofsted annual report. The evidence he found within is that Ofsted are finally moving towards an approach that recognises that a single one-size-fit all prescribed lesson format is ridiculous. The context of each school is vastly different; the context of each class within a school is also vastly different. Even classes of similar age and ability will have a different context, and what works for a class with one teacher may not with another. It’s all about finding the appropriate lesson for any given class at any given time.

I think that, as professionals, we should be striving to give all our classes the best lesson for them. Making sure the lesson is planned appropriately. The right amount of stretch and challenge. The right sort of activities for the class, and the right seating plan to enable the class to all make the best progress over the course of the year. And that should be the same for all lessons, whether you are being observed by SLT, HOD, Ofsted or no one at all.

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