How can teachers support and challenge the status quo to build a fairer system for all?
It’s been six months since I resigned from my school leadership position as a deputy headteacher and when I wrote part 10 of a leadership series of reflections. This post explains why I have made the transition from school leader to university tutor and teacher trainer, how I have utilised those skills and adapt to work in a different way. At least for now, this is the last in the series of The Life of a Deputy Headteacher.
Bittersweet Inspection Outcomes
It has taken me many months to get over the fact that an OfSTED outcome resulted in the closure of my school. A school sixth form performing within the top 10% of all schools nationally, and sitting in the middle 40% for progress 8 at -0.01. But then, it’s ‘not all about outcomes’ so we are told.
I’ve probably had bad luck with OfSTED inspections too. I’ve lived through 9 of them with the last being the most unfair – observing how inspector unreliability and bias operates within the system and how it still exists, even if it is a rare occurrence. Worse? This continues to prove a self-fulfilling virtue (or stance) OfSTED appear to take – the moral high ground – demanding high standards for all even when your backs are against the wall.
Datalab research suggests “inspections are data-led, or are at least producing judgements broadly in line with historic assessment data.” There’s a good reason many challenge OfSTED’s notion of artificial intelligence being used to predict where inspectors should visit next. It’s a cost-saving exercise using a whole heap of prior data to calculate schools at risk. Yet, OfSTED won’t share the parameters of how this is calculated. And on the question of inspection reliability, research by the Department for Education reports that 8% of OfSTED outcomes are inaccurate. I feel for those schools. If ‘reliability’ cannot be guaranteed, then we still need further modification of the system.
Where Are You Now?
For those who choose to take on schools operating in difficult circumstances, the lack of a context value added approach within the inspection framework fuels Football-Manager-Syndrome; that the end of your career is only one inspection away. This may explain my social media timeline (frustrations) and why I wholeheartedly disagree with Amanda Spielman – “You can’t come up with even one busload of heads who lose their jobs because of an inspection.”
The fear narrative is very real.
Where does the lead inspector vanish when a school needs the support? If a team of inspectors can assess a school’s performance accurately in a matter of 24 hours (in total) on-site, why not give at least 24 hours back to support the school and help get them off their knees?
I’ve observed good colleagues who have chosen to work in challenging situations – one after the other – leaving this school, with others leaving the country and a state school system they have loved – all tarnished. Brilliant teachers our profession needs!
Over the past few days, I have been involved in various discussions on social media. With teachers, inspectors and those who do want a fairer system for students – and for those colleagues who actively choose to work in tough schools. Others view this as a desire to lower the bar – accusations of soft bigotry in some cases (not expecting disadvantaged people or minorities to meet the same standard of behaviour or achievement set for most people – a more subtle and subconscious form of prejudice).
This cannot be further from the truth.
No-one ever reduces their standards deliberately. I’ve not met one teacher in 25 years who wants to see school standards decline. Not one. The crux of the matter for colleagues who choose to work in challenging schools, is that they just want to see a fairer inspection model that does not result in unnecessary teacher-wastage in the profession – ending careers prematurely. If you’ve worked in a tough school and have ‘been done to and survived’, then everything’s fine. “What’s the problem? Get on with it!” some shout out.
Others refuse to have colleagues on their premises because they’re deemed a failure, perhaps ‘chirping from high above’ on the ladder of success, perhaps because they chose to work in another setting or they came out okay. Who knows? But I do know this rhetoric exists. I’ll never get over hearing from the words of a Multi Academy Trust leader; “Our version of Outstanding is better than everyone else’s.”
This is the monster we have created.
The research is clear. Label a school and place it into a category and 5% of the school staff will leave, compared with 0% when a school is judged Good or Outstanding. And I am not denying that there are poor leaders and/or teachers within the system, and school turnover is healthy, but I do wonder how OfSTED inspections actually may be driving attrition and the recruitment and retention crisis.
Secondary schools with a higher % of pupil premium students are also ‘more likely’ to be judged Requires Improvement. Get rid of the grades Amanda Spielman – and I’ll ignore the fact that ‘I told you so’ when I asked OfSTED for a new measure in 2015.
Can OfSTED Get It Right This Time?
With the OfSTED inspection framework due for an overhaul in 2019 and after a frustrating online discussion, I took it upon myself to poll my followers.
When OfSTED talk about a common standard for judging / inspecting schools, what is your view? (Outcomes in a wider sense; data, welfare and wellbeing; T&L etc.)
- One framework for all?
- or context considered?
The results speak for itself.
We Need People Like You
Until OfSTED change the dialogue, I won’t be signing up for headship anytime soon. And I’m not ruling out returning to school, but if I do return to work in those challenging settings I love, I know it will never be full-time (again) and my god, will I think very carefully about where I want to go and who I want to work with.
It’s great to see a Shared Headship Network evolving from a brilliant colleague I use to work with. And I do already miss school life to some degree, but the 9-5 repeat-repeat lifestyle after 25 years of teaching was starting to wear me down and I have been rejuvenated by recent travels and a wide range of environments in which to work.
My contact with students and colleagues has been replaced with collegiality in another way; I’m visiting more schools than ever before and I am still teaching in classrooms – primary classrooms too which is a fascinating experience – but the majority of my work now is supporting teachers which I believe is also a great honour.
Choose Life or Choose Bias?
Challenging habits, supporting teachers with practical ideas – especially marking – with lack of time and funding appear to be reoccurring themes in all sorts of school settings.
Having travelled all over the United Kingdom visiting schools, it is now my conclusion that teachers who leave the system do so simply because there is a significant trigger in their work. Something goes wrong. An incorrect judgement. A workload or mental health crisis. Whatever it is, something reaches a tipping point and it’s jump or swim.
Choose life? Choose your career or family? Toe the line or pay the mortgage doing something else?
The problem for most teachers, is that they are already drowning. It’s just harder for some schools to demonstrate progress when compared to all schools by value-added measures. As Paul Garvey writes, “It’s an enormous OfSTED straw man to cover up what they know full well – that inspection is stacked against schools working in challenging circumstances.”
Widening The Lense
The reason I left my school was three-fold.
First. Sixty-plus-hour-weeks were not enough to keep on top of things. After three years of doing this, I suspect anyone would break.
Two, a growing Teacher Toolkit community made the day job and time at home to keep this blog operating saw me working 18 hour days, seven days a week … and it was growing bigger and bigger. So, something had to give.
Three. In December 2017, I made a part-time request to work 0.8 a week. This was accepted prior to OfSTED, then place in jeopardy 3 weeks later after the inspection. After one week of reflection at February half-term 2018, it was then I knew it was continue in my current role and lifestyle, seek headship elsewhere or go with Teacher Toolkit.
With an increasing workload that had become normalised for 3 years, it was slowly eating away at my mental health. It took me six months before I could share this photo publicly. On returning to school I resigned and the inspection outcome was published three months later. It was there I knew I had to do things for me and my family from now on. So, I chose to close one door and open another – and I also knew I was lucky enough to be able to do so.
The pressure of school leadership alongside the demands of managing Teacher Toolkit made wanting to become a headteacher a more difficult decision to accept. Not many people will know, that I’ve been spending in excess of £1,500 per year (if not more) to make this website work. Why? Well, when one article is shared with 250,000 people, it’s very easy for a humble blog to crash. So, the need to increase server capacity and meet the demands for content, more writers and a team of freelancers does not come out of laziness, nor does it happen for free. The costs have increased tenfold since resigning as I have made commitments to make TT the go-to platform for teacher voice. For avid followers, you will know the real reasons why I started this blog in 2010. This was not something I was prepared to repeat …
In the last 6 months, I have been using the skills I have developed as a teacher and school leader in other ways.
I’ve worked with more teachers and have visited schools in the past 6 months that in my 25 years of teaching. It has been an amazing privilege and has widened my lense. The wonderful benefit of ‘giving back’ to teachers and schools in a training role, is that my presence is non-threatening. This is unique and something OfSTED inspectors do not bring; school leaders and teachers open up and share their genuine passions and frustrations. They yearn for practical ideas to be able to apply into their setting; they benefit from support and challenge and want recognition for all the wide-ranging work they do – without it being defined or fixed to a single word.
I’ve been working with the University of Buckingham as a visiting lecturer and a PGCE tutor. I’ve finalised my fourth book contract with Bloomsbury and have four TT bloggers also writing books with John Catt Ltd. This on top of many projects, offering social media training and exposure, being a Teaching Awards judge and commencing my doctorate in education (accepted this week) at Cambridge University in October 2018, will see me being just as fulfilled, but making choices under my control.
This term I’ve also been part of the NAHT’s accountability forum group who will be sharing an alternative proposal for the profession. It won’t please everyone and certainly there will need to be ‘trade offs’ for all stakeholders. Yet for me, whether I’m a parent, a teacher, a school leader or a civil servant working at the Department for Education and/or OfSTED, if we want to genuinely raise the status of the profession and have teachers working in our schools, regardless of setting, we could do a darn sight better than we are doing if we simple choose to acknowledge that we do need accountability framework, but a fairer system that doesn’t end teacher careers or simply push individuals into a workload spiral of despair.
Ultimately, it’s all students who suffer, not just those living in disadvantage situations.
Recent research suggested that OfSTED’s credibility is dropping amongst parents with only 20% reading the full report! When I asked the DfE last month at the NAHT meeting, “How do you know parents want OfSTED reports in their current form?” the response was “We don’t.”
If we want to publish OfSTED outcomes for parents in their current form, and to maintain high standards for all students, then let’s save the taxpayer £millions and resolve the recruitment and retention crisis together. We simply need to get back to basics. And if I can help steer this conversation in my new role working with schools, casting my net wider across the U.K., then that’s what I’m going to do.
Maybe it was inevitable that balancing school leadership in a tough setting, against the demands of managing Teacher Toolkit would eventually see me stick or twist, but let’s all change the dialogue and start with the most obvious. End OfSTED gradings and let’s all avoid the poisonous sound bytes.