Ofsted need to take a long hard look at themselves. If they really do claim to be there to make sure the children and young people are getting the best education possible, then they are misguided.
What our children need right now are teachers and school leaders who are able to focus on their job so that they can help them get back to some form of normality following the worst period of school disruption in living memory. What they don’t need is for their teachers to be placed under an additional pressure right now that could so easily be avoided.
Any outfit that still chooses to operate using essentially the same model and approach in a post-Covid world as if nothing has happened, has clearly not read the latest research on organisational development.
Thankfully, school leaders have. This is why they have modified their ways of working to adapt to these challenging and unprecedented times. This is why schools are far more flexible in their approach to all manner of operational procedures, such as timetabling, assemblies, homework expectations, flexible ways of working, budget priorities, staff cover, meeting schedules.
Civic leadership, for example, is as strong as ever as headteachers choose, quite rightly, to face outwards to ensure they are there to prop up and to serve their local community. All of this means that they have to divert their resources and attention elsewhere.
To do this requires what Michael Fullan (2018) refers to as Nuance, where heads seek to solve ever-more complex problems, not as ‘surfacers’, but as ‘nuancers’, by diving deep below the surface and are left to get on with it. Why? Because they are trusted.
Nuanced leadership is necessary when having to make “any decision that requires judgement, getting people on board, drawing on local knowledge, ingenuity, commitment etc.” and has never been as relevant than when emerging from a period of great volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). Ofsted as an organisation would be well advised to do the same.
There are loads of examples of this kind of brave leadership going on in our schools at the moment, but unfortunately it doesn’t always get noticed. All Ofsted seem to want you to do is stick to the manual. Schools are still being put into special measures.
The clue is in the name. The Office for Standards in Education. In a post-pandemic world, there are no standards. We have never been here before. All bets are off.
Even Ofsted do not know the answer. This is why they insisted on sending their inspectors into our schools with their clipboards during the pandemic to tag along behind busy people to try and find out.
As school leaders, we are forever being told to carry on as normal when an inspection team arrives. 'Don’t do anything more than you would do normally,' they tell us. This is reassuring, and right. An inspection visit is all about typicality, and Ofsted are always the first - quite rightly - to remind us of this.
But there is nothing typical or normal in our schools at the moment. This is why the framework has been shot to pieces so many times with amendments and is now peppered with holes, and that DfE guidance comes in on an hourly basis almost, as if fired from a Gatling Gun. This. Is. Not. Normal.
Heads have barely had a day off during the past 18 months. Their staff are decimated with illness, sadness and stress. Children have not had a ‘normal’ experience for almost three years now and the data is next to worthless. Budgets have never been so poor and in some areas you cannot get a supply teacher for love nor money.
Headteachers in smaller schools are even harder hit, often covering all teacher absence to the point that their own mental and physical health is at breaking point. And still they have to do their day job and face outwards to help their troubled communities. These are the real heroes throughout it all, but of course none of this is taken into account when we have a framework obsessed with sheep dipping.
Let me be clear. An external inspectorate should exist in some form or other. We need a system of independent regulation. Even today, I have no problem with inspectors going in, so long as they only look at safeguarding and other statutory obligations. It’s a binary decision; either you meet the requirements, or you don’t.
What we do not need are pointless judgements based on a framework that is no longer fit-for-purpose, written for a different world, one that was not gripped by an international pandemic.
In the piecemeal April amendments to the schedule, Ofsted state clearly that they will not use internal assessment data as evidence, focusing instead on a curriculum that for the past 18 months has been under continual review, often flipped this way and that.
Instead of your internal data, ‘Inspectors will use published national performance data on inspection, where it is available.’ It is not, and if it is, it is unreliable and unfair, given that it is no longer a level playing field for all.
So, as we are no longer using any form of data, the curriculum has basically been rewritten in light of Covid, and there are no real meaningful trends, what is the point of an inspection right now? How can schools be judged and placed into a category? (Notwithstanding safeguarding etc.) Why are we allowing this to happen?
If Ofsted still want to grade, they should rewrite the framework properly as an interim one, so that it reflects current typicality. Simply sticking plasters all over it won’t be enough; the stakes are far too high. Do it properly, or don’t do it at all.
Schools have shown that they have intelligently evolved. Our inspectorate has not.
The reasons why Ofsted will not do this are many, but mainly because; (a) it will cost too much money; (b) they will have to consult widely on it, and there isn’t the time or inclination, and; (c) nobody really knows the answer anyway, and besides the solution might not fit the narrative. Best let sleeping dogs lie.
So we stick with the easier option and carry on regardless, complete with square pegs and round holes, leaving vulnerable school leaders to have to suffer the consequences. Heads should be receiving support from their unions to challenge the legal validity of the process given it's current irrelevance and status. I am confident they will win if it ended up in court.
The problem with Ofsted, is that they operate within a closed-loop. Nobody can complain or raise issues because they are shut down. Appealing a judgement is almost impossible and Ofsted simply cannot accept that sometimes inspectors get it wrong, mess up or have a bad day.
In researching for my new book, I’ve been reading all about Matthew Syed’s Rebel Ideas. He talks about the best organisations having lots of ‘cognitive diversity’ and 'rebel ideas' – those that ensure that there is diversity of thinking in order to prevent ‘collective blindness’.
We need more rebels than clones. We need constructive dissent and not echo chambers. We need a system of open-loop feedback, so that when things go wrong we learn from it in an open and honest manner.
I appreciate how difficult it is for many of you to speak out. When you are funded by tax-payers’ money you have a duty of responsibility towards your employer. I get that and respect it.
But I no longer have that burden, and having seen it from every angle, as a chair of governors, as an inspector, as a headteacher, as a CEO in outstanding schools and those in special measures, in LA schools and academies, as a coach and independent consultant, I tell you now: It has got to stop.
I do not claim to speak on behalf of anyone, other than those headteachers who have contacted me recently, who themselves are doing so on behalf of the young people and local communities they serve. They are at the end of their tether.
I urge as many of you as possible to pick up the cause if you are able to, because if we don’t act collectively as a profession, there will be nobody left to stick up for in the first place.
New book: The Authentic Leader. A four-part model to lead your school to success will be published by Bloomsbury in Autumn 2022.