Congratulations on your speech at the Education Festival on Friday which I was fortunate to attend. I thought you spoke clearly and boldly about the big challenges ahead for education and Ofsted. I wish you luck in your important role, particularly with any attempts to ensure that we do not lose the real ‘substance of education’ in the current world of high-stakes testing and narrow accountability measures. I write to you as a father of three, Headteacher and Education Director for a Multi-Academy Trust of 8 primary schools. I want all of my children in these 3 contexts to have an education which offers them a wealth of relevant knowledge and skills through a rich curriculum with both breadth and depth of experience and opportunity, the side-effects of which should be high academic outcomes. Unfortunately, I think that the substance has long-since been eroded in many parts of the system and so I therefore welcome your clear direction and challenge to us all in standing up for an education system worth having. I sincerely hope that significant change can be made on the issue of flawed accountability which drives many of the unhelpful and unhealthy practices such as gamification of pupil outcomes and reduced breadth of curriculum that we too often see in our schools and which you highlighted.
In order for real change to come about, I do think that it needs acknowledging more clearly the role of ‘main protagonist’ that OFSTED has played in creating this chaotic culture of unwanted behaviour as well as highlighting the obvious problems with such behaviours. Take, as an example, this letter that all Headteachers in Northamptonshire received a year ago from OFSTED raising ‘concerns about the quality of education’ and highlighting the ‘systemic underperformance’ in our county which is written entirely on the basis of narrow high-stakes performance data. As you rightly pointed out yesterday, ‘If our job depends on clearing a particular bar, we will try to give ourselves the best chance of securing that outcome‘. It is this type of lever, in the context of an increasingly fragmented system, that has led to further narrowing of curricular, challenges with recruitment and more short-term intervention focusing on borderline groups of children on high stakes test outcomes – certainly in our locality. I am keen to learn more about how OFSTED could be part of the solution in our context in the future rather than part of the problem.
I also valued your comments around ensuring that leaders in tough schools are valued by OFSTED and thought these were very relevant to Northampton Town where I work. I was interested that you referenced the Education Policy Institute report which highlights the fact that schools in disadvantaged areas find it far more difficult to achieve good and outstanding OFSTED grades. Although you pointed out in your speech that often the Leadership and Management judgement is higher than the overall judgement in deprived areas, this is of little consolation to Headteachers who are routinely losing their jobs in challenging contexts due to overall judgements and the inevitable impact that this has on the morale of communities, staff in schools and recruitment to these areas. The impact of such pressures is exemplified by the current catastrophe around school leadership in Northampton Town where, in our total of 11 mainstream Secondary Schools, there is only a single Headteacher that has now been in post for 5 years or more. I have seen first-hand many talented and capable leaders and educators broken from their experiences of trying to take on the biggest challenges without been given the time to do so and I therefore respectfully disagree with your comment that, ‘OfSTED really does recognise the leadership challenge in tough schools’.
Your comments around the importance of effective school ‘management’ as opposed to the established narrative of heroic leadership and ‘Super Heads’ are also very important. I believe that the removal of the outstanding grade would be a useful consideration when looking at how a reformed OFSTED could drive more community and system-focused leaders as opposed to ambitious leaders focusing on achieving an outstanding OFSTED as either a career target or to satisfy an ego. I have laid out some of these reasons separately here as to why I feel that removing the outstanding tag would help drive system-wide school improvement rather than disparate islands of excellence.
Overall, I believe that there is also room for a much better conversation between the regulators, paymasters and policy makers around how areas of educational challenge can be addressed and that OFSTED can play a better role in encouraging great teachers and school leaders to want to take on the steepest climbs. We must remember that, fundamentally, we all serve the same outcomes; that every child should belong to every school and every leader should feel responsible for improving the schools around us.
There are huge challenges for us all in education and I believe that this week, you showed the system that you have picked the right battles. Like many others, I look forward to being able to play my part in these challenges and to be part of a better conversation in the months and years ahead.
I hope you receive my comments in the constructive manner that they are intended.