I’m sitting on the train back from meeting a group of inspirational senior leaders at our National Teacher Enquiry Network conference. One of the big questions for the day was to figure out how we get our schools to be places where teachers feel they can flourish, where they are encouraged, supportively challenged and where they hold themselves to account for improving their own performance.
No matter which way you slice this discussion, everything comes back to Ofsted. There is absolutely no question that of the two main accountability levers, league tables and inspection, it is the latter which relentlessly drives behaviour in schools. A number of colleagues had recently been in schools that had been deemed ‘requires improvement’ or in special measures. When asked, how can you foster a developmental culture in this environment they said:
- “Of course everyone wants to be supportive, but when a single student’s test result is the difference between your own and others’ future career success or a blighted future when you become untouchable as a ‘failed leader’, there’s no way you do anything other than drill teachers in what you think Ofsted want to see – you just can’t risk it, you stay tunnel visioned”;
- “We wanted to spend much more time on helping teachers improve the basics in classrooms but they were far too tired and busy with all the extra intervention and extra support classes we had to throw at the kids to try and survive. Even now we’re Good we know it isn’t a long term solution but it’s almost impossible to decide to take the risk of our results dipping and the inspectors coming back”;
- “We tried to show Ofsted all of our developmental CPD plans but they weren’t interested; they only wanted a clear and brief summary of how we observe and grade teachers, supply CPD to address any deficiencies and then measure the improvement in grades”.
- “When we finally got Ofsted out of the way and got a Good, I sat with the Head and we breathed a huge sigh of relief knowing that we were finally free to create the sort of school we always wanted rather than simply panic about survival”
I am a huge supporter of a robust system of accountability. In fact, the HMI attached to the primary school where I’m a governor has been brilliant at getting the right mix of challenge and support in order to help the school improve. However, there must be something wrong with a system where those schools in the deepest need are so strongly disincentivised from pursuing long term strategies and building capacity. It feels like we’re in a system that prefers meeting floor targets by year 1 and then sitting at that level thereafter rather than meeting floor targets slightly more slowly and then continuing to make sustained improvement.
I’ve spoken to so many teachers who have experienced terrible things like:
- fortnightly ‘learning walks’ where a single observation of failure to tick a specific box leads to intensive capability-style procedures;
- frequent unannounced drop-in lesson inspections (and grading) to ‘avoid over-preparation’ which resulted in a refusal by most staff to ever try anything new or take risks;
- a requirement to submit lesson plans for ‘quality assurance’ one week in advance, every week, for every lesson they teach;
A colleague at today’s conference said that “the sad fact is that all these school leaders know in their hearts that these things are wrong but they’ve persuaded themselves that this is what they have to do”.
As a system, we’re in the same place as these schools. Politicians would be far too scared to remove or change the system in case it leads to a dip in results and they are held to account themselves and suffer similar ‘career doom’. We don’t have the financial resources or time to develop another system in parallel before phasing out the current inspection regime, so how do we transition to a more developmental approach? This is a question that must be urgently addressed if we want to make any meaningful progress. There is absolutely exceptional practice out there in professional development and learning and this is what our network members are striving for. It is time we turned these exceptions in to the rule.
This is one of the articles in the TDT December Newsletter.
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