Just reflecting on the recent debate about school shaming, it seems to me that the biggest culprit in the whole issue got away lightly: Ofsted Grading.
I’ve been in a school-shaming situation at the hands of local papers several times at various different schools. Once, one student’s dad died in tragic circumstances. He went to pieces, didn’t take any exams. Our 100% 5A*-C figure (fully expected for a selective school like ours) became 99%. This dropped the school in the Telegraph rankings and the local paper thought a full front page headline ‘School drops out of top 200’ was a useful bit of public information. It’s a low-level example but that’s how these things go. School shaming is fair game in local-rag world.
I’ve had much more serious instances for example around knife crime when a reporter came to a community policing event hosted at our school. I didn’t know he was there. I was asked about a case about a young student we had permanently excluded. The paper thought it would be in the public interest to tell everyone that young kids carried knives at the school. This was a lie. We were red hot on this. There were specific circumstances but we had still taken decisive action. Because of the press response, no other school wanted to host these events any more. Knife crime continues. The paper succeeded in shaming us but also made the borough less safe. Good work team!
On another occasion we dealt with a teacher’s gender reassignment at a school really well. There was no story. The editor wanted to publish the teacher’s name and I made a massive fuss about it in an angry exchange with him. They didn’t but, instead put my face under the headline about gender reassignment in a deliberate ‘two fingers’ attempt to shame me. It didn’t work because I’m proud of what we did. But they tried; it’s what papers do.
Another time I foolishly wrote an article about an emerging behaviour system where I explained how it worked and the impact it had. This was packaged by the TES with images of Big Brother cameras (why???) and the Daily Mail picked it up…days of shaming continued. It was pretty awful. I got it in the neck from all sides and was cross with myself for being so naive. The truth is that this did then influence me to hold back on some aspects of the system which weakened it – and that cost us dearly.
So, look: school shaming is bad. It’s wrong. It can’t be justified -even if you think you’re fighting a noble cause, you have to stick to generic discussions of policy ideas, not individual schools. The community is affected, the kids you care about so much are affected.. it’s deeply unhelpful. If you don’t like what a school does, write to the Head or the Governors but don’t imagine you’re doing good work by pointing a finger at one school in public.
But here’s the thing…… all of this is NOTHING compared to the institutionalised school shaming represented by a Special Measures/Inadequate judgement. Even if we put aside the deep, deep flaws in the validity of the whole inspection process, it’s quite a staggering fact that we have a national system that uses the term ‘Inadequate’ and publishes Head-on-Stick reports that rubbish schools. The damage this does is massive: parents leave, teachers leave; reputational damage takes years to recover. It’s absolutely brutal and totally disproportionate.
This term I’ve met at least five different headteachers who have suffered the fate of being labelled ‘inadequate’ by the system. Each of them has been deeply affected – forever scarred by the deep psychological impact this has had on them. Ever seen the Walk of Shame episode in Game of Thrones? A public Grade 4, Inadequate report has the same effect with about the same level of justice. I know a Headteacher now running an immensely impressive school (even Ofsted think so) who was judged ‘inadequate’ by an Ofsted Inspector. Their account of the experience at the hands of a well-known bully-boy inspector was heart-breaking. The scars remain years after it happened. The head’s pain was felt all around them. That’s what real public shaming does. And it goes on and on. Only today I had to deal with some sad soul on twitter trying to use a now defunct Ofsted grade to discredit me as if a report written by a mediocre bunch of misguided strangers can define you. I’m a grown up; I don’t rise to it – but the sense of being tainted runs deep. It’s pretty messed up that this is embedded in our system.
My hope is that the new Ofsted crew take a good hard look at the toxic damage they do. It’s great that they champion workload and mental health etc – but I’d say, unless they change the public shaming they enact with every Grade 4 report, they’re not going to be walking the talk. It’s lip service only. I’m not optimistic it will change – I can only raise the issue and hope.
So yes, let’s campaign to stop school shaming but let’s remember where the real harm gets done.