OfSTED Outstanding? Just gimme some truth.

I’m sick and tired of hearing things
From uptight, short-sighted, narrow-minded hypocritics
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth
I’ve had enough of reading things
By neurotic, psychotic, pig-headed politicians
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth

I’m sick to death of seeing things
From tight-lipped, condescending, mamas little chauvinists
All I want is the truth
Just gimme some truth now

I’ve had enough of watching scenes
Of schizophrenic, ego-centric, paranoiac, prima-donnas
All I want is the truth now
Just gimme some truth

No short-haired, yellow-bellied, son of tricky dicky
Is gonna mother hubbard soft soap me
With just a pocketful of hope
Its money for dope
Money for rope

(A link to The Sean Harford response is in the Update at the bottom of this post. )

Ok, so John Lennon wasn’t talking about OfSTED inspections,  the farce of grading schools or the tendency for educational complexity to be brushed under the carpet of simplicity, as if everyone is too stupid to understand.

But the chorus kind of works doesn’t it?  Just Gimme Some Truth!! 

Well it does if, like me, your idea of ‘truth’ is something that encompasses the real complexity of the notions of educational standards, quality, school effectiveness, leadership, attainment, progress and so on.

As I’ve said before, fundamentally I reject the idea that schools can be judged in a meaningful way via inspections.  By ‘judged’, I am not talking about an experienced visitor giving some insightful developmental feedback based on an analysis of the available data and their observations; no doubt, there are some people out there who can do this well enough.  I am talking about the process of distilling this mass of qualitative and quantitative information into a simple set of final grades, with one overall Judgement Grade. The extent to which we accept this in our system despite the enormous flaws and the absence of proper validity trials  continues to astonish me.   The data delusions that underpin RAISEOnline hold sway where they have no right to and the complex truth of how good a school is continues to be reduced to the absurd simplicity of two or three data points.  At the end, we get told that School X is Good. School Y is Outstanding. School Z Requires Improvement.  It’s like we’ve been overrun by The Emperor’s New Scientologists and Homeopaths but everyone’s too scared to say anything.

Why am I bothered right now? Three reasons.

1. Getting ready for the term ahead, I’ve been analysing my school’s RAISEOnline and, after I suspend disbelief and start working within the (slightly bonkers) framework of convoluted algorithms,  it’s a complicated story.  Some areas are Green; some are White and one or two are Blue.  Our figures for Disadvantaged Pupils are strong – mostly Green.  Despite being well below national average on raw overall outcomes, the cohort was 70% disadvantaged with a low entry profile and VA is very strong.  You see, it’s a complex picture.  I’m starting to think about the likely inspection this term and our SEF and I’m not sure what line to take.  We’ll probably go for ‘Good’. It’s a ‘best fit’.  But what’s that about? Why should we need to find a best fit? Why can’t we tell our complicated story? Who benefits from reducing it all to a one-word descriptor?  I can’t think of a good reason to do it.

2. One thing I love about my school is that there’s a certain healthy fatigue about talking things up the whole time; that’s the old regime. Now we’d rather focus on real improvement and telling it how it is.  But, to be absolutely honest, the OfSTED Handbook is making me think bad thoughts.  I’ve started tarting my school up in my mind as those ‘Outstanding’ descriptors tempt me with their promises of glory and public acclaim.  I’m starting to have mock conversations in my head with Phantom Inspectors and finding that I’m less honest than I should be.  I’m spinning a story, putting on some gloss, papering over the cracks, hiding my dirty linen……this is all WRONG!. I would love to have a frank exchange based on my detailed knowledge of my school so that the inspection would help me do my job – but when these people arrive for real, I won’t know them, I won’t trust them (how could I?), the stakes will be high for the school and I will tell little LIES!  I can see it coming.  What kind of system is this?   I’ll be torn between giving a nuanced story of strengths and areas for improvement and putting on a show to get the best overall grade we can – which will matter (too much) to parents and others looking in from the outside.

3. I met a good friend today who is also a Head. He’s been burned so badly in the last 12 months it makes me angry.  His school went from Good to ‘Serious Weaknesses’ based on one year’s outcomes in one subject and an inspection that took place on the day of their biggest ever community event with hundreds of visitors. The inspection team included someone who wouldn’t shake hands with women (for religious reasons) and someone who didn’t understand the Sixth Form data.  They didn’t listen to the Head at the time but the recent RAISE based on the most recent results (the results they were working towards at the time of the inspection) is Green all over – in every area.  The school never had serious weaknesses; the inspection was Wrong.  The judgement will remain in place until another inspection; they will claim that the inspection kicked the school into gear and delivered a good outcome but this will be a delusion. The results were on the way anyway – and the inspection got in the way, doing significant harm to the school’s reputation and to my friend’s health and self-esteem.  He was crushed by it – and he’s a strong person.  The nonsense is real – it has teeth.  There are still teams of Sons of Tricky Dicky out there doing harm to people in the name of accountability; people who barely understand the term ‘confidence interval’ and actually think that  ‘levels of progress’ is something you can measure with the accuracy of a ruler.  It’s got to stop!

Take a look at these descriptors from the Inspection Handbook:

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 17.56.09 Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 17.56.31

If I rate my school against them, I could pick out bits from each box that apply.  I could probably find some areas that actually Require Improvement.  What’s the value in averaging it all out into a single grade? Why not simply list the statements that apply – assuming that the linguistic/semantic differences are enough to be sufficiently meaningful for the judgements to be made in the first place?  Why on Earth did anyone suggest the idea that it was helpful or meaningful to draw a line between Good and Outstanding and give it VALUE.? And why do we continue to accept it? I know two London schools (from the inside) where recent inspections came down on opposite sides of this artificial line.  The truth?  The Outstanding school really isn’t; the Good school was probably short-changed.  That’s my truth.  Obviously, both are on a continuum; both schools are on a journey of improvement – the G/O grade is utterly inadequate as a tool to capture the issues in those schools. The O school is more complacent than it should be; the G school has wasted energy picking people up after a bruising downgrading.

What would the ‘Gimme some truth’ version of all this look like?  Well, I’d suggest a few things:

1. Get rid of the whole idea of grades and report inspection outcomes in the form of areas of strength and priorities for improvement.  An Inadequate grade could remain if this was based on a much longer and deeper inspection process; beyond that – it’s just untenable (and I say this knowing there is widespread, passive acceptance of grading).

2. Report the data outcomes in a detailed data report that includes much of the RAISE Online profiling – with as much complexity as necessary and no less.  Schools could update their online Data Profile annually immediately after each set of results – instead of waiting until December.

3. Introduce a School Response section to be written by the Head and Chair of Governors, published with the report.  This would give due weight to the school’s Self Evaluation; if the inspectors disagree with the school, the school could still assert its position with reasons, especially in the many cases when inspectors simply arrive looking to find the evidence they need to back-up the judgement they’ve already decided on from the data.   It would also allow the school space to cite any procedural concerns about the conduct of the inspection itself – instead of the Kafkaesque complaints process that is often too slow and too late to prevent damage being done. (As reported by several colleagues in recent years.)

4. Ensure that at least one member of the inspection team is someone who actually knows the school on the basis of regular visits and interactions.  There are some elements of the framework that simply cannot be delivered in two days with any credible level of validity. Here is an example:

Screen Shot 2014-12-29 at 18.57.05I’d argue that it is literally impossible to ‘consider’ this meaningfully during an inspection. There simply isn’t time to identify whether there is a causal link between outcomes and classroom practice in this area.  It’s false to suggest otherwise – and yet there it is alongside many other similar ‘Inspectors should’ statements that cannot be actioned without making a giant guess.

5. Begin every inspection with a meeting to establish the terms of reference and the code of conduct for all parties. During this meeting, a Head could establish the intellectual credibility of the team members, their knowledge of assessment systems and issues of data validity, their understanding of the terms Good and Outstanding as applied to teaching  and their understanding of the limits of all the evidence at their disposal –  before anyone goes any further.   Of course this exchange might cut both ways but I think we’re entitled to know who we’re dealing with when the stakes are so high.

Is there hope?  We’ll see.

Meanwhile, I’ll need to play the system the way it is.  Those inspectors had better know their stuff – because we will be on it like they won’t believe! It’s our agenda, not theirs and I’m not having my teachers dance to any tune but our own.

Money for Rope.

Related Post: Here is John Dexter attacking the same issues from a different angle. http://mrjdexter.com/2014/06/27/friday-period-1-simple-not-really/

UPDATE: Following publication of this post, it was widely read on the first day and brought to the attention of Sean Harford, OfSTED’s new National Director for Schools.  To his great credit, he has responded in depth, maintaining a very measured tone.

Here is his response – pasted into my original, if you can bear to read it twice:

Screen shot 2014-12-31 at 16.49.57

I’ll be interested to follow up on some of validity questions I have raised – but I am delighted to hear that a grade-free SEF would be considered an option. That is something we may well explore.  I will ask my friend (from Reason 3) if he’d welcome a follow-up – that may be worth doing for his school.

Thanks to Sean for such a prompt and detailed response. Once again, I need to remind myself that blogs can reach beyond the twittersphere and have direct impact.  Mind you, I might not have written quite so freely and honestly if I’d thought about that at the time!


  1. This is great Tom and as a fellow head, I too wrestle with telling it as it is and attempting to put a positive spin on things . I and a fellow colleague have rewritten our SEF about a dozen times now so we get a “best fit” !

    I like your ideas on improving inspections . I think that the SIP model was a good idea and having a single conversation with an experienced ex or serving head could return and fit in with the new slimmed down inspection proposals .


    • I am sitting down on this glorious Sunday morning to rewrite my SEF. No time to do this during the working week, as I am too busy as Headteacher of this challenging secondary school, leading, managing and teaching. My school, which OFSTED judged to be good 2 years ago, will be lucky to get RI if they drop by unexpectedly in the next few months because the RAISE data this year, following the GCSE volatility, does not look good. oh sure, there are areas of green, lots of white but those persistent blue blobs worry me. Of course I have a story but I am afraid this sounds like excuses and I am afraid that the great team work of the last few years that has taken a school from rock bottom to ‘on its way’, with a hard won improved reputation in the community, will have been in vain.
      I have worked in various schools over the past 18 years in positions of leadership. I have been a member of teams that have improved schools in special measures to become good and even outstanding and I have had the pleasure of working with HMI who knew their stuff and understood the challenges of the circumstances in which we found ourselves.
      However, I have met OFSTED teams who consisted of people who at best had been heads of department and then advisers; not one headteacher, let alone HMI among them. The judgements of these teams were highly questionable. The threat of complaints meant that they wound their necks in and listened to what we had to say – after all they didn’t need the hassle or the paperwork of a complaint.
      While I am pleased that Sean Harford has taken the time to respond to Tom’s blog, he is to a large extent saying what we would expect him to say. I am dismayed that he avoided responding to the example given of an inspector who would not shake the hands of women because of his religion; where are the British values here? This may be the same inspector, who has refused to shake the hands of 2 female headteacher colleagues inspected last year and who was so combative that he reduced the female SENCO to tears – in spite of the SEND students making good progress – many achieving beyond expectations.
      So, what am I going to do about it? Well, I am going to rewrite my SEF. I am going to highlight the strengths and the areas that we know need developing. I am going to judge us to be good and be prepared to fight my corner and on the 31st August 2015 I am going to leave education because I no longer feel that I am doing my best for all of the students in my care. I cannot seem to do enough, despite a hard working and committed staff, to raise the aspirations of the students in my school, so that they are squeezed out of the sausage machine having made 4 levels of progress, to enable us to close those gaps that persist from when they were first measured in Y1.
      And if a sexist inspector turns up at my school before the end of July and refuses to shake my hand I will ask him to leave, make a formal complaint to OFSTED and ask the Guardian to run the story – because I might just have one more fight left in me and anyway, I have nothing more to lose!


    • Having gone through an Ofsted inspection as a governor over a year ago, I completely get Toms observations and concerns. My primary school went from an interim inspection of ‘good’ in Jan 2013 to ‘inadequate’ in Nov 2014! It seemed to be a data driven inspection and was traumatising for the school and local community. Immense work has gone on since to meet Ofsted requirements. However, I feel strongly that the inspection system is flawed, over politicised, and ours was finally executed in a brutal manner. We were asked to sit in a classroom on small chairs and told ‘we had failed’. I am very surprised that in the 21st century inspectors acting on behalf of the state can behave this way. Having read of similar stories happening around the rest of the country, especially around issues of reliabilty and inconsistency, I think the system should be scraped and replaced with something more humane and understanding. Interestingly we were offered a route into academisation very shortly after the inspection (which we resisted).


      • Sorry got my dates wrong…interim inspection Jan 2012 and Ofsted inspection Nov 2013! and meant to reply to main article!


  2. Dear Tom, Absolutely! The damage to schools wrought by this inspection system is criminal. I have endured several inspections over my 45 year career and watched the diversions in time and thinking that the threat of impending inspections causes. Poachers turned gamekeepers our inspectors.How can they do such a corrosive activity? It greatly saddens me to see such a divisive system being accepted by successive political parties. It has wiped out a generation of cooperation and giving between schools. Schools guarding their ‘success secrets’ was fortunately not my experience for most of my career. My local authority was so supportive as were the majority and colleagues would share expertise freely. After Ofted? A wasting away of teachers natural instincts to give away their ideas and skills to establishments literally charging for their hubris to other less fortunate in the lottery of catchment. The manipulation within schools to survive an inspection is cancerous. Now looking from the outside in I wish your colleagues and yourself all the educationally best in the coming year.


  3. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and frank post. As a relatively new HT of a tiny primary, I am genuinely angered by the worrying trend of inspectors visiting merely to find evidence to back up decisions already made on data. How much more ludicrous is this when cohorts in my school are maximum size 15 pupils! On top of that, we only get one inspector, so if you draw a short straw and get one with minimum/no primary experience, then you’re stuffed.
    Like you, I have a friend who has recently been crushed by a damning, and in my view, unfair judgement; he is a shadow of his former exuberant, creative self. What a loss to those children as now he expends all his energy trying to bolster up his devastated team and chart a course out of the doldrums. Recently, a respected local HT colleague who has fallen foul of ‘the tendency for educational complexity to be brushed under the carpet of simplicity, as if everyone is too stupid to understand’ told me sadly, “I underestimated how much I’d need to fight. My advice to you, be prepared to fight for every inch of ground, on everything.”
    Quite simply, I don’t want to have to fight: I want to be able to confidently trumpet about the things I know we do well, with evidence to back it up, of course; to talk honestly and frankly about what we are not doing so well, and the improvements we are making; and most importantly, to get an inspector who knows their onions in terms of having experience matched to our situation.
    Sadly, like you, when our time comes, I feel I will have to sacrifice myself upon the altar of the Big Performance: I will undoubtedly find myself telling white lies, papering over the cracks, and feebly attempting to put lipstick on a few pigs in an attempt to retain, let alone elevate the school’s two-gong status. The travesty of this is that it will take a huge amount of energy, energy which would be much better spent doing my actual job to the best of my ability.


  4. Given that the entire project is unreliable and invalid it is strange that until relatively recently complaints from anyone above footsoldier level have been rare and muted. The reason for this is that again, until quite recently, there have been more winners than losers. So, a Good/Outstanding school is not going to shout about a flawed system that has declared them a winner. Quite the reverse, instead it offers to help the losers by sharing some of their expertise and outstanding practice. In doing so they have offered validity to the sham, and have been culpable in its development.

    Up until this point, anyone complaining about the system have simply been enemies of promise. Unions, Teachers, ‘the blob’, losing schools – all stopping school improvement. Instead Headteachers of Outstanding and Good schools were lauded for their genius in turning things round. Headteachers of ‘failing’ schools and the staff in them on the other hand, were publicly named and shamed. Winning Heads didn’t stop for a moment as they collected the gongs, cash and rewards. Why question a system that declares you a winner?

    Well now we have fewer winners and more losers and the system in now broken apparently.


    • You could be right. I think we are slowly waking up out of a compliance coma with a new understanding of the validity limits on evidence. The winners are less likely to shout for sure but with lesson grading gone, there is hope of further reform.


  5. It has become abundantly clear that the whole accountability structure is not fit for purpose and has been doing real harm. Ofsted should be abolished. It’s replacement should not be imposed until it is clear that it will definitely serve the edu-world (and our children) well. How do I know this? Well, for a start, you are one of the more self-confident Heads, and even you couldn’t contemplate seriously bucking this accountability system yet; the stakes are still too high……….[It’s madness].


  6. I’ve never regarded myself as particularly clever (3 Ds at A level sum that up). Mainly because I’m not. More than ever I just don’t know what to think about OFSTED and inspection. Having benefitted from an “Outstanding” summary in Dec/Jan 12-13 under the old, new, now old framework, I understand, disagree, and support practically everyone’s view at some point. Perhaps this is a major issue – We just don’t know where we are, or more importantly, where we’re going. In terms of my day to day role helping to lead our school, I’m reminded of something Alistair Campbell once name-dropped at a conference in reference to a dinner he had with the Blairs and the Clintons. On one side of the room the gents moved on to the topic of the Monica Lewinsky affair. When asked “How did get through it all practically unscathed?” Clinton replied “I had a job (inappropriate choice of words from Clinton, I know) to do – The Stormont Agreement, the middle east, reforming US politics – and that’s all I did, I concentrated on the job. The rest was just noise”. When asked what my job is, it’s simple – facilitating an environment where other people can be amazing..the rest is just noise.


  7. Tom, Thanks for a thoughtful and honest post about this issue. I agree with so much of what you said and have felt this way for a while.
    I’m a member of SLT in a special school that was graded good overall at our last inspection. We felt that we had to do a lot of explaining (“fighting”) to convince the inspectors about some of our assertions. Clearly, in special, there are issues around personalisation and progress that the current framework doesn’t take into account. Leaving that aside, the good and outstanding descriptors don’t cover where we think we are now as we’ve prepared our current SEF. We are better than good in many areas, but probably not quite outstanding. I don’t think we should inflate the grades we give ourselves. We should be open and honest about strengths and areas for development. On the other hand, we want to be fair to our staff and ensure they get the credit they deserve. We have made progress since our last inspection and they work incredibly hard to provide broad, valuable experiences for our pupils. After a lot of discussion between SLT and middle leaders we opted for outstanding overall in our SEF, but we realise we may have to “explain” again and we’ll do that vigorously. We’re not outstanding in all areas, but feel the need to be better than good – surely that’s wrong.
    A move away from what feels like an adversarial approach to more of a partnership, perhaps as Kevin says a modified SIP model, would help us to stop wasting energy on appearances so that we can concentrate on substance. It’s not going to happen this time around, but there’s time to improve things before the next time.
    Best wishes.


  8. A depressing read, as your sensible views will never be adopted! I wholeheartedly agree with what you propose, but how do we do it? In the meantime, I know I will be inspected by July 15 and I have to play by the ‘rules of the game” or I will be out on my ear! When I took my school on, it was in special measures and regularly in the 99th percentile for VA. We are now RI and 18 months on we are now in the middle, with no green or blue! Like you, our data is complicated – of course it is, the school was failing! It’s a shame that Ofsted seem to be very uninterested in the story, just the data. I sometimes wonder why the bother to vists, since they have already decided based on RAISE! My one suggestion for any new framework – inspectors are banned from seeing RAISE until the evening of the first day of inspections and the school has presented their analysis.


  9. Nothing said here about Ofsted is any surprise to me and there’s no point in repeating all too familiar experiences. But I tracked down our Ofsted inspectors who came to our school in May 2013 and this is what I found. It started when an inspector came into my room where I was teaching a final Y11 History GCSE class. After 10 minutes she asked me ‘Is this a D&T lesson?’ When I replied, ‘I don’t think so’, she announced that she was in the wrong room and left. That was my Ofsted. Ah, ha, I thought and went and found all their names from the noticeboard and set to work online with information from SERCO, from whom they were all subcontracted. The lead inspector was a seconded headteacher from a school with no 6th form (ours has one) and which has never achieved the Holy Grail of ‘outstanding’. Good to see then that he had been selected to lead an inspection of our school and that his own school could spare him. The so-called ‘science specialist’ was an ‘independent educational consultant’ who took a science course, not specified as a degree, more than thirty years ago in a college and not a university. Twenty years ago he took a part-time degree in History. What about teaching? Interestingly, while nebulously claiming to have worked as a ‘teacher’ he made no claim either to have taught in a school or to have been trained as a teacher. So I think we can assume he has done neither. Inspector No. 3’s previous experience ‘included evaluating school practice and provision in a range of roles’. Er, what? No mention of teaching there then. Oh, hold on, there is some teaching experience. She, wait for it, ‘currently works as the Headteacher of a virtual school’. No, I didn’t believe that when I read it the first time either. But that’s what it says. Inspector No. 4 appeared to be a career additional inspector. Her name pops up in dozens of Ofsted reports. She claims to have been ‘head of an alternative provision and deputy head of a special school’. But whenever that was, it was so long ago I couldn’t track down any further details. She was the one who took ten minutes to work out that I wasn’t teaching a D&T lesson.

    In the end we were judged by four random individuals whose current classroom experience appeared to amount to almost nil, apart from running Ofsted inspections. None was a practitioner whose own school has achieved the cherished ‘1’ and three seem to have no current, or indeed much at any time, practical experience as qualified teachers in a school.

    We ended up with a ‘2’, much to our SLT’s despair. They had spent months if not years working us up to this farce. They were devastated. Since then our every waking moment has been devoted in some way to rectifying this setback in retrospect by seeking to shut gates after horses bolted and second-guess every last possible tickable box for the next Ofsted inspection. We are exhorted to make sure every exercise book, every essay, every lesson has to be a showcase Ofsted pleasing winner packed with dialogue, DIRT, tick-box progress stickers, regardless of the price to education, morale, or anything else and all recorded on statistically meaningless ‘flight paths’ where any deviation from the mean is regarded as a crisis for an individual student. The SLT crave that ‘1’ like junkies; no matter that this is a already high-performing ex-grammar school. Thank God I’m 57. I came into teaching at the age of 49. It ought to be a fantastic experience and sometimes it is, but pleasing Ofsted is the road to ruin and it is totally depressing.

    The truth is that if a school’s vision is simply to obtain that ‘outstanding’ verdict from Ofsted there is no surer way to stifle imagination, initiative, inspiration or innovation. Ofsted is a box-ticking exercise and if all a school seeks to do is to tick those boxes then it is en route to the arid plain where only data matters. There is nothing more depressing than seeing students who have been taught to believe that education is about scoring levels and that progress and learning means merely advancing through a barren score sheet in pro-forma lessons delivered by automatons.


  10. As a retired secondary teacher, head of year, head of department, head of house, head of sixth form, deputy head, acting head – and Ofsted inspector of 100 secondary inspections who finally saw the light and worked against Ofsted in the ‘Summerhill’ court case (Ofsted ‘lost’) I find myself shouting ‘Why in God’s name do you put up with this???’ Teachers and head teachers have unions. Where are they? Why do you not stand collectively behind your professional judgement that this process is harming children’s learning? Would the medical profession endure a process that harmed patients? Of course not. If head teachers refused to engage with inspectors arriving at the school and teachers were instructed to leave their classrooms as soon as the ‘expert’ inspector entered it people like me would have had to pack up and go home. If all heads and all teachers did this the system would collapse within a month and the teaching ‘occupation’ would become a profession again. It would rediscover self-respect and the respect of the community. Look to Finland for your inspiration.


    • Why, Derry Hanham asks, do teachers put up with this? The answer is fairly simple but in several different ways:

      1. Schools now have to market themselves and the Ofsted grade has become part of selling the school to credulous parents. It would take an enormous amount of moral courage for a head and his/her team to sidestep that and I doubt if they could always rely on a governing body to back them up. It could happen but it would be unusual.

      2. Like it or lump it, some senior teachers in schools are largely ambitious in a self-serving way, and this is becoming ever truer as the headteacher job becomes less and less attractive to teachers with sincere and honourable educational values. The ambitious ones want the status, the salary and the kudos of leading Ofsted-branded ‘successful’ schools, and who have bought the nonsense that schools are businesses and need corporate values. That means doing it within the system, not bucking it, and bullying their staff into creating Ofsted-pleasing establishments. Their primary interest is their own advancement and prestige. Since schools have been decoupled from the balancing effect of local authorities and made into academies they have become petty fiefdoms far more defined by the personal skills, greed, ambitions or inadequacies of their leaders in a way they were not originally. The result is that some schools are brilliantly led, while others range from mediocre to the downright criminal (witness the prosecution now proceeding against a former principal of a ‘successful’ Lincolnshire academy).

      3. The whole context resembles that of Stalinist Five-Year Plans in which impossible targets and aspirations are set. Factory managers scuttle around fiddling figures to save their own skins, punishing staff not ‘on message’, deploying the nonsense of financial incentives, and thereby score party privileges and personal advancement. So it is in all too many schools where ‘outstanding’ teachers are decided on by SLTs who believe these individuals tick all the Ofsted boxes. These Alexei Stakhanovs are then rammed down the throats of the rest of the staff as the model workers they should aspire to emulate. These star workers are of course earmarked as future leaders and so it goes on.

      Don’t misunderstand me. Some schools remain run by imaginative and inspired teams. But that’s more by luck than design. I’m afraid far too many heads lack the guts to fight the system because they believe their own interests are more easily served by trying to work (and compete) within it. Their greatest dream is their name and that ‘1’ on the entrance to the school, made even more triumphant if the school down the road got a ‘2’, ‘3’ or ‘4’, and it’s that selfish lack of collective vision which means they are as much as a part of the problem as Ofsted because they’ll never work together to fight back. ‘Twas ever thus.


      • If Carausius has it right the SLTs he/she describes are a bunch of lemmings rushing to the cliff edge. The improvement to schools in London (London Challenge) did not come from fragmentation, competition, and trying to outdo the school down the road – it came from thoughtful and systematic cooperation, collaboration and a realisation that everyone has something to learn from everyone else. This necessitated the openness, honesty and truth of the John Lennon lyric. I am sure this was an inconvenient outcome for Gove and his corporate friends who seem to want the state sector to ‘fail’ rather than demonstrate its capacity to collectively improve itself under its own steam. It seems to me that the government knows full well that the Ofsted system is flawed, that its methodology cannot possible support its claims. It appears to be designed to induce and then describe failure. Cui bono? The ‘for profit’ corporates waiting in the wings for the conservatives to win the next election perhaps? The private schools which perpetuate the big lie that they are the true guardians of ‘standards’ justifying their tax breaks by deigning to teach some Latin irregular verbs to plebs at the local comp for an hour a month?

        From my experience many inspectors, including me until I could perpetrate the con no longer, know that they would struggle to demonstrate the competence that they claim to possess in order to make the judgements that they do. Some are individually not up to it, but more to the point the system/methodology cannot by its very nature deliver reliable information from which the judgements purport to be made. Tom rightly dissects and destroys this claim.

        If heads and teachers cannot find collective backing from their unions that is very sad – but if I were a head or indeed a teacher at any level I would mercilessly interrogate the experience and competence of the individual inspectors and the methods they proposed to use. I would brief the parent body and seek the prior support of the governors in this. I would also brief the staff and the student council to be observant for any professional error on the part of any inspector. The inspectors should know that they are being inspected. The temptation to ‘cosy up’ to the inspectors in the hope of fair treatment from an unfair system should be resisted. Inspectors who cannot sleep are much more likely to make further mistakes and expose themselves to telling criticism. Their job can be made as impossible as they make the job of the teachers and the head. My feelings are strong as these people are destroying the happiness and learning of my school-age grandchildren.


  11. Outstanding article Tom, thank you. As if headteachers need any more stress with the extraordinary job they have to do. Keep sharing your wisdom. You are an inspiration. Your students are very lucky to have you! Happy New Year x


  12. Derry Hanham highlights the success of cooperation in London. Would that this was ubiquitous, but the system is loaded against it because of the government’s belief that competition at every level will ‘improve’ education. By definition an ‘outstanding’ verdict denotes being better than the majority. It would be meaningless if all or even most schools were awarded it, and so – obviously – it isn’t. It is awarded arbitrarily by random and inconsistent teams of inspectors who use all sorts of pretexts not to award an ‘outstanding’ and thus retain the illusion of its totemic value. As I explained in an earlier post, tracking the background of the inspectors who came to my school was very instructive; they were patently unqualified to pass judgment, and especially not so on the basis of a day and half’s inspection. But, in any system based on punishment, surveillance and denunciation the safest place to be is to be a denouncer. No wonder so many teachers become inspectors.

    Like any crown an ‘outstanding’ judgment can of course be lost in an instant at the next inspection (if not before), and thus a climate of paranoia and fear is sustained. The very arbitrary nature of an inspection further promotes a sense of vulnerability and fear of the ritual denunciation of a ‘3’ or ‘4’; awarding a school either of those has the added advantage of striking terror into nearby schools.

    If an ‘outstanding’ judgment ever became the norm for most schools you can be sure it would be soon superseded by the Ofsted equivalent of an A*, which would be become the new badge of the elite school – like, say, ‘Supremely Wonderful’ or some other nonsense.

    Deregulation has made it possible for schools to devote resources to competing with one another for what they believe are the best staff and even the best students in the bid to secure that ‘outstanding’ judgment and thereby gain their market position. PRP and capability procedures are used to force existing staff either to conform to what the SLT believes is Ofsted-pleasing box-ticking behaviour (often this is a figment of their imaginations), or to get out and be replaced by the mythical army of wonderful teachers waiting to be hired. Money is used to lure teachers away from other schools and attract the most promising new recruits, justified on the basis that its students will ‘benefit’, and never mind students at the schools from which the staff were hired. Marketing and PR is used, at more expense, to advertise the school to students from other schools. This is particularly commonplace at sixth form level. Since schools are not equally resourced or located and each has its own unique problems or challenges this inevitably means some schools are better at poaching staff and students than others. As one school grows so another withers. But this all contributes to a spectacular collective waste of money on trying to make each school more attractive than its competitors.

    Of course the whole thing is an illusion. The market in staff and students creates a mirage of dynamic improvement as each chases the Holy Grail of ‘outstanding’ only to discover that the Holy Grail, too, is a mirage. Today’s ‘1’ is tomorrow’s ‘3’ or even ‘4’ as many schools have discovered. Some schools are then subjected to the crushing humiliation of a litany of follow-up inspections leading to staff leaving left, right and centre and a struggle to find any replacements while Oftsed castigates the beleaguered establishment for failing to improve. In all too many other cases a ‘3’ or ‘4’ is followed by a head’s resignation and a Stalinist purge of teachers. More money is poured into poaching a super head from somewhere else, and on hiring an influx of new blood harvested from other schools and training. The school is brainwashed into being an Ofsted-pleasing machine. The ‘4’ is cranked back to a ‘1’, the head and his/her team slap themselves on their backs and the governors are jubilant, but at what price to other schools, and for how long will this parochial blaze across the firmament last?

    It’s dog eat dog out there. Thankfully there are some heads who retain the moral courage to withstand the onslaught and maintain their schools with some semblance of dignity and recognition of a caring ethos, without turning them into petty empires, and who refuse to turn their schools into machines. In their schools the kids are happy and the staff content to know they are trusted to make their own decisions about teaching, because they love it and because their leadership teams respect them more than the idiot pronouncements of Ofsted. But such teams are a dying breed. Fear is a state of mind. By fearing Ofsted and not resisting by acting collectvely, all too many schools are facilitating this destructive descent into futile and wasteful paranoid competition for a prize not worth having.


  13. I missed this blog probably because I was incensed by OFSTED and was busy blogging OFSTED Updates for implementation in January 2015 http://wp.me/p2mxks-jW The blog starts ‘Just as teachers are about to embark on the Christmas holidays OFSTED have just published a few documents for implementation in January.’ In the mix was a document about safeguarding – how can schools possibly implement them for the start of term if they are only having them once school for the term has ended.
    Last year OFSTED changed the criteria, as I have blogged before, which means that most schools will drop a level from outstanding to good etc. Again unfair and schools were just informed without any discussion. Cynically I wonder if this has paved the way for them to sell back services with the demise of LA’s? I totally agree with these comments and ask OFSTED to just be fair and honest our schools, communities and the people within it deserve this.


  14. A really fantastic blog! I think your point 3 in the ‘Why I’m bothered section?’, hits a cord with me, because I have so many colleagues suffering in RI category, all working in areas with significant deprivation, much like our school. I am a serving primary head and I love my job, but Ofsted, and this top down culture is suffocating schools, and we are losing good people from the profession. I can see a looming recruitment crisis particularly for heads in working in areas with significant deprivation, because the job is becoming so precarious. These are the areas that need, and deserve the very best people, but these are also the areas that present the most challenges and the deep rooted problems (including those outside of education) that take much, much longer to change and improve. We experienced a dip in results last year. Our Raise Online was poor and we were acutely aware of this! We had a knee jerk response for a rather over zealous LA Advisor (yes we still have them in our area) trying to put the frighteners on us saying it would trigger inspection etc. etc. This experience was unpleasant enough! Thankfully our Raise is good again this year so we’re on an upward section of the roller coaster for now, and I feel little less fearful of my head being put on the chopping block!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Oh, Right! Not like the farce of grading pupils or the tendency for individual intellectual complexity to be brushed under the carpet of simplicity that is imposed by teachers then! Why do pupils have to put up with being judged and sorted into egg boxes and teachers, schools and head-teachers do not? I expect John Lennon would have rejected both of these repressive activities….


  16. As a non-teacher I though it might be useful to explain why outsiders like myself find OFSTED useful (even though I agree with many of the criticisms made about it). I am a Councillor who is heavily reliant on OFSTED inspection reports to judge the quality of schools in my borough, Tower Hamlets.

    1. How does somebody outside of the school system know whether a school or not is doing a good job both in absolute terms and relative terms? Parents will have a view but unless they have children in more then one school how can they compare different schools? We can look at exam results as a guide but they might reflect better the personal achievements of pupils rather then the quality of the school.

    2. As a Councillor I need to be able to track the quality of all schools in the borough over time and against other schools, with 68 primary schools alone in Tower Hamlets there is no way of being able to visit them all or gathering information so the OFSTED data view website makes the job a lot easier especially because I can then compare our performance against similar boroughs. As a result I know that our secondary schools have been getting ‘better’ over the last five years but that our primary schools in the northern part of the borough have been getting ‘worse’ but that other boroughs schools have on the whole been slowly getting better. It provides some kind of objective, easy to access and easy to understand analysis. Yes, it is simplistic but with over 20,000 schools in England that is inevitable.

    and if you think a Councillor has no need to know whether schools are doing a good job then you are making an argument for removing all schools from local authority control. Education is simply too important to be left just to the teaching profession. Most private and public organisations in the UK have some form of external review process i.e. CQC in the health sector.

    The outside world and the teaching profession need to know whether schools are doing a good job so we need some method for judging the quality of schools independent of pupil results. OFSTED for all of its flaws is the only game in town.

    So as a teaching profession you have three options;
    1. Prove that English schools are so good that you do not need to have OFSTED but then England needs to be a lot higher in the PISA ranking if you are going to make that argument
    2. Learn to live with OFSTED, like any external review process you can learn how to match its expectations
    3. Improve OFSTED so that it is more reliable and more useful for you and for outsiders which would be my strong preference

    Just in case you think I fully support OFSTED I do have these concerns about it;
    1. Who guards the guardian problem – who ensures that OFSTED is doing a good job?
    2. Inspection results for good or outstanding schools are too far apart ! a school can under certain circumstances change quite quickly and as a result coast along with the outside world not realising things are going wrong, there was 9 years between the last full inspection of Sir John Cass and the one that marked it as Inadequate
    3. Reliability is key – does Outstanding look the same in Kensington & Chelsea as in Tower Hamlets?
    4. That schools that are different suffer because they do not meet OFSTEDs expectations of outstanding i.e. we have a one size fits all model
    5. Most people outside of the profession mis-understand what OFSTED is meant to be about – for example my fellow councillors seem to be convinced that either OFSTED is purely political in its judgements or only reports on pupil outcomes so that you cannot compare OFSTED results in Tower Hamlets to any other school elsewhere i.e. inspection reports are not comparable


    • Thanks for sharing this perspective. I think we need accountability – no mistake about that. However, for external stakeholders to understand how good any number of schools is, they need a process that can be relied on. Very simply, in Tower Hamlets, I’d suggest that you could find 10 or more schools with the wrong grade – or where grades could be swapped between them by interpreting the same information differently. The truth is that you only have a rough idea of how good the schools are but actions may have been taken on the assumption that, say, the Outstanding schools were all definitely better than the Good schools. There’s so much error in the system but, until recently, the possibility of that error – never mind the scale of it – was never even acknowledged.


  17. Hi Tom. As a parent of a 4 year old; I already have no faith at all in OFSTED. At my child’s ex-nursery a year ago, the staff-to-child ratio was not always met. One day a mother came to pick up her just-turned-3 year old and found him in an understaffed room holding metal scissors and cutting the power cable to the PC. The nursery refused to make changes such as putting scissors out of reach unless being used for an activity or covering up the power cable. The mother of the same child then saw a few weeks later her son rush into nursery right up to the scissor area and there was no staff there supervising. The owner said they were being supervised from the staff member outside from the window. Children were then expelled a few months after as their parents had “bullied staff”by informing OFSTED and wanting something done about the power cable/scissors. In the inspection OFSTED deemed the nursery to be sufficiently supervising the “craft area” – of course they were with the inspectors there and OFSTED have no role in the exclusions of children at private nurseries. There is no room here for common sense, just tickboxes. A few of the children are now happily at another trusted nursery together which does allow for common sense and puts the metal scissors out of reach when not being used for an activity. I am at least happy that if anything similar did happen at this nursery; the owner would take steps to ensure it does not happen again.


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