“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it” Fun Boy Three & Bananarama

(NB – any reference in this post to OFSTED is at an organisational, cultural and leadership level.  There are 1000s of OFSTED inspectors and thankfully the greater majority of them work with passion, dedication, kindness and compassion).

It has been a challenging period for the education system in England.  The incredibly sad news that Ruth Perry, headteacher of Caversham Primary school, took her own life in January whilst waiting for the publication of the school’s OFTSED report has sent shockwaves through the system and created a lot of media interest.

There is much for the policymakers, system leaders and staff in schools across the country to reflect on.

Interestingly in all the media attention and commentary the voice of OFSTED has been largely quiet, save a pre-prepared statement, distributed to all of the media outlets.  

Since my own experience with OFSTED, as a Headteacher in 2017, I have been periodically utilised as a commentator on issues of accountability in the education system… the gist of the questioning is always the same, assuming that as someone whose Headteacher career was essentially ended by a negative OFSTED outcome I must surely think that OFSTED is bad and that I would like it to be scrapped.  Yet more evidence of the simplistic and positional debate that we seem to love in this country… of course it is much more nuanced than that.

Whilst my views on OFSTED are my own they are informed by the thousands of Headteachers in the @HeadsUp4HTs network… a network that I initially founded to provided support to Headteachers who have been treated badly by the system that they have devoted their life to but which has since evolved into a network that CELEBRATES the great work of our leaders, their schools and the wonderful staff and children who work in them, SUPPORTS Headteachers with their well-being, helping them to stay in the system and find joy in the job that they have devoted their life to and CAMPAIGNS to change the negative culture that pervades the system that they have dedicated their life to. 

The reality is that much of that negative culture is generated by and perpetuated by OFSTED.  Their annual reports focus on what isn’t working, data and insights gained from their school inspection regime where the reports for schools in the most challenging of contexts and circumstance also focus mostly on what isn’t working and seek to reduce it to the most simplistic and reductive of one/two-word summary judgement.  

Every few years this data and ‘research’ is then utilised to build a new framework which focuses on the next thing that they have identified needs to be ‘fixed’ in our education system and off we go again… into the next negative cycle.

This week, I presume due to OFSTED’s silence, the media outlets have reached out to Sir Michael Wilshaw to offer comment and defence of OFSTED.  I was unexpectedly pitted against Michael on Jeremy Vine’s radio show on Tuesday 21st March, and I found his justification wholeheartedly reinforcing what I have felt for a long time.  His defence essentially boiled down to two things:

  1. OFSTED is necessary because in the 80s and early 90s (his reference frame seemingly) education was a mess.
  2. Yes, it is sad what has happened to Ruth Perry but look at all the good that has been done.

So, does the end justify the means?

  1. Let’s presume that his observation of the education system at that time is correct… and then state the blindingly obvious point that he is referring to a time that is 30-40 years ago.  It may have been deemed necessary to create a ‘hard-hitting’ regulator with teeth in the early 90s to address the perceived failings of the education system and its schools… the OFSTED culture at that time appears to have been something along the lines of “we think schools are not very good and populated by lazy and ineffective staff, we are here to find you out and address these issues for the benefit of young people” essentially seizing the moral high ground and at the same time starting the negative narrative that persists to this day.

The problem with this defence is of course that he is referring to another time.  where there may have been little or no accountability, we now have an overwhelming amount of it.  Not to mention the investment in CPDL for all staff, the development of curricula, policy/practice/systems development, technology.  I could go on and on…

The school system has evolved and transformed itself since then both culturally and in practice, whereas OFSTED may have evolved it’s practice but the culture remains as it was… for many Headteachers the lead up to an inspection, the behaviour of some inspectors during an inspection and the way in which OFSTED choose to categorise the school and write the report leaves them with a sense of “they think we are rubbish, they are here to find out that we are rubbish, I must spend the next two days proving that we are not rubbish” and of course if you are successful the relief is palpable, if you are not, the shame begins.  

(I am not delving here into the associated points 1) The context – that the framework ignores context and the complexity of society and individual humans when drawing its conclusions and therefore always will always be flawed 2) Inconsistency of application – the tighter OFSTED makes its frameworks the more obvious it becomes that they have a problem with the consistency with which it is applied… leaving Leaders and schools with a feeling of ‘unfairness’ 3) The politics – that sense that darker forces are at play, especially relevant in the past decade where the DFE’s desire for schools to join MATS seems to lead them to pull on a variety of levers to force this through, one such lever being OFSTED and those schools they have deemed ‘Require Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’.  All three of these issues contribute to the culture but stand alone as issues for the system).

  1. Let’s once again presume that this conclusion is correct (niftily setting aside the point that this is questionable – see here)… it’s unnecessary to state at what cost.  We have seen the devastation for Ruth Perry’s family and her school community… but there are hundreds if not thousands of others who have seen their careers ruined, their well-being damaged (with many of those we support in the HeadsUp4Hts community, severely so) a mostly untold human impact.  

Thankfully, many find different ways to work in education (ahem!) which reveals the dedication and passion these people have for the collective endeavour that education is… but at a time of recruitment and retention crisis in education and in this case specifically with Headteachers, can we really afford for this to be the case?  At an individual and system level the approach is devastating.  

The ‘end justifies the means’ argument has always been cleverly defended by OFSTED seizing the moral high ground and playing the moral imperative card… “we do it for the children” but again in playing this card they demonstrate their lack of respect for the profession… why do they think the staff in 24000 plus schools got out of bed this morning? For the glory? The money? NO, because they care deeply about their work and the children and families that they serve.

Do they always get it right? no, are they always striving to be better? yes, are they capable of holding themselves to account? yes (see the first lockdown period in education, no OFSTED… school staff worked as hard as ever to look after their communities).  If that argument doesn’t work for OFSTED…? Well, they can always duck their responsibility by looking into the darkness whispering ‘unintended consequences’.

In his defence Sir Michael reveals the heart of OFSTED… 

Being a Headteacher is the best job in the world, however the way in with which OFSTED goes about its business and the system wide culture this creates, means that many of our amazing Headteachers lose their connection with their purpose and the sheer joy and privilege of being a Headteacher.  At HeadsUp4HTs we work with HTs to rediscover that connection, positively impacting on their well-being as a result but we also campaign to change the culture of negativity recognising that it shouldn’t be like that in the first place.  

It isn’t the early ‘90s anymore, the world has evolved, and we don’t need fear as the driving force to develop our schools for the benefit of current and future generations of children – we have many thousands of dedicated and passionate staff and they are accepting of the accountability that comes with their job.  They are more than capable of holding themselves and each other to account and want a regulator who works in partnership with them to make this happen.

OFSTED – “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”… change your culture and as a step in that direction get rid of the simplistic, reductive and pejorative judgement categories that do more harm than they do good.  Then we would welcome you with open arms.