Well. Last week’s top news was the Geography Department winning a national award from the PTI, the curriculum training charity from where we get the bulk of our external training. The judges were blown away by the vision, the enthusiasm of teachers and students and the vast range of extra-curricular activities. Top sausage!
We had a wonderful music concert on Monday last with superb performances. I wrote my report to Governors for the spring term and had a phone call from the Chair. We had a grilling from the people who look over our results. I talked to a former colleague who’s now a Head. I went to a few meetings and advertised some posts for September. We’ve dealt with staff absences and crises. We had a visit from the Leader of the Council, to find out about the pressures in schools and how we’re doing. There was a Governors’ Achievement Committee meeting and a touring dance performance form our friends at Trinity Laban. Year 8 have been weighed and measured. I’ve had countless cheerful conversations with staff and a couple of trickier ones. We had a virtual meeting with a school who can help us improve our TOFFS project. We’ve absorbed the fallout from some nasty incidents in the streets after school and tried to balance next year’s budget. We’ve put a few children right on some misapprehensions. We’ve taught, marked, planned, monitored, worried and celebrated. We’ve sorted out scuffles and rumours and home lives breaking up. I’ve responded formally to a long complaint.
On one of the teachers strike days I looked out of the window on the glorious sight of a year 11s progressing coolly from one thing to another whirling his jumper around his head like a toddler pretending to be a helicopter. He may have mastered the vertical take-off by the time the examiners call.
And throughout all this, every time the blessed phone rings in the morning I leap from my moorings. Why? Because mornings, Monday to Wednesday are when Ofsted ring telling us they’ll be in tomorrow, and we’re sort-of due. That’s worrying in itself but nothing compared to sitting in the daily meeting with the assembled clipboarders while they attend to their idiosyncratic knitting and assemble a judgement in one word or two.
And so to Ruth Perry, a victim of the system: not the only one. What are we to make of this? No-one knows what’s in the mind of a person who makes this decision, but there’s context that’s now becoming more widely known and, unsurprisingly, I’d like to offer my two penn’orth.
It’s perfectly reasonable for the state to inspect its schools, but they need to do it properly. Inspection can’t be done properly on the cheap. It should take time and combine critical analysis with expertise and support. Large expert teams should visit for longer. Areas that need improving should be explained and the school given a chance to work with inspectors on the headlines of a plan. The final report should assess all aspects of the school and be expressed clearly in a balanced, detailed and rational manner. Parents are perfectly capable of reading.
Inspectors perform a public service and they should be valued. I understand the argument that values school leaders as inspectors, but I’m no longer convinced. Inspection is a profession, with its own expertise and body of knowledge. The consistency required to inspect a whole system cannot be achieved with an army of contracted folks temporarily out of their schools, no matter how brilliant they are. The costs – standardised language and template judgments - are too high and the quality control of rogue inspectors too weak. I’d perhaps put one serving leader on a team, to give practical advice to inspectors and support to the inspected head.
Obviously, urgent and dangerous issues in a school need swift restorative action. No one would argue with that. Some schools will get bad reports for good reasons and no one would want to prevent that. The problem with the current system is that, in the name of public accountability and easy reading, a complex and critical universal service is reduced to terminology that cannot possibly convey its fullness. As the writer of the Book of Sirach (fka Ecclesiasticus) said of judges in the second century BCE:
They may cast the lot against you…..and then stand aside to see what happens to you.
When we wrote the Framework for Ethical Leadership in Education in 2019 we couldn’t express the ‘wisdom’ briefly. We said that leaders needed to use experience, knowledge and insight, moderation and self-awareness, and act calmly and rationally serving schools with propriety and good sense. That’s what we need from our inspectors. It costs, but the price of the alternative is too high.