Another Day Out…At Ofsted.

I liked Mike Cladingbowl, National Director for Reform at Ofsted and was very glad of the chance to meet with him last Friday. For a start he bought the biscuits himself. He also has the kind of naughty little twinkle in his eye that makes you think he would be good company in the pub. And there is something of the bruiser about him too. I think if I were in a street fight (I’m from Burnley and live in Oldham, so it’s not that unlikely), I’d quite like him to have my back. I’d rather not be fighting him though. He’s convivial and generous, but no idiot and I had the clear impression that if he wants something to happen, it will happen. This, of course can be problematic for someone who doesn’t listen, have empathy or accept advice (a recently departed Secretary of State springs to mind), but here I think we have that rare person who is principled, determined, tough and humble enough to listen and to consider what he hears. Our meeting was scheduled to last for 90 minutes. He stayed for close to three hours and they had to throw him out of the room in the end. You could not have had a bigger contrast between that encounter and the earlier one we had at the DfE with Liz Truss.

There were two strands to the conversation. Mike was keen to clarify the latest thinking from Ofsted and to clear up some myths. This meant that he talked quite a lot and was keen to ensure that we had the information that we needed. The second strand was for us to put forward our concerns and observations about the impact that Ofsted had on our schools and on our behaviours in schools and to ask questions about how changes to the curriculum and assessment structures would impact on the inspection process. My colleagues have already blogged about much of this – @cherylkd and @jordyjax have covered the impact on SEN and PRUs more specifically and @leadinglearner’s thorough post outlines the reactions to worries about the impact of this year’s GCSE grades on school inspections really well. So I’ll just give headlines and my own thoughts in response to what was said on the day. Most of you will already know that:-

1. Inspectors will no longer grade individual lessons.

My Facebook timeline is going to be free of all those little “I got Outstanding” posts that are understandably full of relief but also, unfortunately, ensure that we end up colluding in the system we say we deplore by feeding the monster. This unreliable grading system, that for years has set teachers up in competition with each other and which has given some less scrupulous management teams sticks to beat staff with, has gone. But Ofsted will still judge the impact of teaching on learning. This in many ways casts an even brighter searchlight onto data and it is important to bear in mind that in terms of numbers and figures, we are now looking merely at KS to KS progress measured by raw scores. There is, as Stephen Tierney points out, a clear distinction being made between attainment data and assessment evidence. And this evidence will never be found on a spreadsheet and not always in a child’s book. Learning doesn’t happen in books. It happens in heads. The worry about how Ofsted will know that children are learning in the absence of levels is already leading many schools to throw ridiculous expectations at staff in terms of recording children’s work in books and insisting upon unsustainable marking expectations – in some cases triple marking, or insisting that books are thoroughly marked every week. For a secondary school Humanities teacher with potentially 300-400 pupils, this is clearly impossible. Even in primary, a marking load like this is unsustainable. Mike was very sympathetic and was clear. An inspection team will not only look at children’s books to assess their progress. They will …. wait for it …. talk to children. If you are clear about what you want them to learn and they are able to articulate the fact that they are learning it, then you have evidence. Out of the mouths of the babes will come your inspection grade. And yes, of course work in books is important – Mike spoke of wanting to see evidence that children are taking pride in their work – that they pay attention to it and do it to the best of their ability. In my experience, this happens when they care about and enjoy what they are doing. Keep a scrap book for their ideas to be scribbled in. Keep a portfolio for best work. That’s my tip by the way, not Ofsted guidance! But most of all, make sure they know what they can do, why they are doing it and what they need to do to get better.

2. Schools overcomplicate the complex.

Learning is a complex process, but schools make it too complicated. Falling over themselves to second guess what Ofsted want to see, they too often lose sight of the purpose of the education they are supposed to be providing. In a nutshell, Mike was clear. Teach them stuff. Make it engaging enough to be remembered. If you do this, you have little to worry about from Ofsted. Inspectors do not get up in the morning rubbing their hands with glee at the prospect of undermining the confidence of teachers. Talk to them. Tell your story. Know your children. Have a clear moral purpose. Don’t cheat and lie to please them. Love your kids. Have high expectations. Know your data. Be brave. Under the new framework, inspectors have more freedom than ever before to take your school’s context and story into account. They are not so bound to the rule book as they were, so make sure they know the narrative curve of your intake and that you have a clear vision and that you know where you’re going and how you intend to get there. And make sure that the vision is shared not only with staff, but with parents and pupils so that they can articulate why it is you do what you do.

3. Good is good.

@Cherylkd has outlined this policy well, but basically if you are good then you’ll have a light touch visit from HMI once every three years. If you want to move to Outstanding, you can call Ofsted and request a full inspection. That’s up to you. But the aim is to divert attention, time and money away to those schools who need to move towards a Good grade. And for those schools, the process is to be less punitive and more collaborative. There is a return to the support role that HMIs used to have in schools in offering advice and guidance. There will be a sustained relationship, working together towards improvement. This seems to me to be a much healthier and more collaborative approach to school improvement than we have previously seen.

4. The tests are not the curriculum.

There will be a focus on ensuring that children are getting their entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum offer. I have to say that this has been a real bug bear of mine for years – that those children, usually from deprived backgrounds, who come to school with a poverty of vocabulary and general knowledge, are invariably the ones removed from the foundation subjects (where those very things are often built) to take part in literacy and numeracy intervention classes. The gap widens. And it is a common experience as many parents of Year 6 children will know, for subjects like PE, Music, Art and the Humanities to largely disappear in the run up to SATS. It is an insanely counterproductive measure. For success in the the literacy SATS themselves often depends on having a vocabulary and level of general knowledge that allows a child to access the question. The focus on ensuring a broad curriculum will hopefully bring those practices to an end. And schools who are innovative and rigorous in their approach will find that children thrive in numeracy and literacy when they see those skills embedded and utilised in other subjects. I hasten to add here that all of this is my rant. He just said that it was vital that children access the full curriculum. But hip hip hurray anyway.

5. A good school is more than a set of results.

“Schools are a human business – it’s all about people and sometimes the relationship between inspectors and head teachers has been like having two people who instead of using language to speak to each other, try to converse in a currency.” In short, Mike’s view is that the inspection process should be about a professional dialogue between human beings who respect each other’s professional integrity. Head teachers can be very unwelcoming. They can hide behind files and data and spreadsheets (currency), avoiding dialogue and similarly inspectors can use data to avoid the meaningful conversations that might lead to an enhanced understanding of a school’s context. Talking to each other is vital – all inspectors are being retrained in this respect but a canny Head will learn to take the reigns and to tell the inspector the story of their school. There is a move towards a more narrative reporting process than a data driven one (although results will ALWAYS matter) – there is a recognition that there are stories behind results that may need to be told. Similarly, there is a story about the life of the school that moves way beyond grades. How is your school preparing children for life? How is it building moral purpose, character, experience?  In the words of Mike Cladingbowl, “I want kids to be happy and to be able to live full lives. To be able to form secure attachments and relationships. How do we put this at the heart of education? What kinds of schools do we want and what kinds of people do we want to come out of them? … We need to have conversations about the purpose of schooling, and while they are there I want them to be excited. I want them to enjoy it. You ARE allowed to have fun!”

In the next few months, as the academic year progresses, there will be a number of stakeholder events hosted by Ofsted. They will be for teachers, senior leaders, parents and pupils. They will be about generating a conversation about what we want from our education system. This really excites me. I genuinely feel that we are moving towards a more open and collaborative period in which, yes, of course expectations will be high, but there will also be more professional trust and interaction. This can only be a good thing, and I was very grateful to be part of one of the groups hearing these thoughts for the first time. Thanks to Mike and his team for making the time to talk to us.