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Pause for thought?

During the last CollectivEd Advisory Board meeting in November 2019 our board members made a robust argument for the need to create and support a counter-narrative to the hyper-accountability culture that schools in England find themselves subjected too.

Pause for thought

There was as shared concern that performance measures based on exams, league tables, Ofsted inspections and system built on competition have had too many negative impacts on schools, teachers, pupils and communities.  It was of interest therefore that in February 2020 an unprecedented call has been made to Pause Ofsted. While it is not unusual to hear individuals in the English Education system to make a case for radical reform or even abandonment of the inspection regime, this new campaign marks a turning point.

The call comes from two organisations, firstly the Headteachers’ Roundtable (HTRT) followed by the National Education Union (NEU). The campaign is sparking debate on twitter with the hashtag #PauseOfsted and is revealing interesting tensions and emotions. Perhaps that is indicator enough that something needs to change. Notably it is not a campaign meant to remove the statutory responsibilities of Ofsted, but instead to start a ‘quiet revolution’. The case being made by the HTRT and the NEU is that the past and current Ofsted inspection practices have done harm to the education system. They highlight the impacts on teachers and school leaders, some of whom have been removed from schools following inspection, and others of whom have experienced work-related stress and exhaustion as a result of meeting the demands of the frequently changing inspection frameworks. They are also concerned that it is demonstrably harder for schools in deprived areas to gain good inspection gradings, and that this results in some cases in difficulty recruiting teachers, and unwanted Multi-Academy Trust take-overs. The case being made to Pause Ofsted is to provide a break in activity during which the role of the organisation can be re-thought and the ways that it influences schools can be more carefully considered through a period of reflection.

The principle request from both organisations, and the means by which they propose to start the ‘quiet revolution’ is that all school-based employees should resign as Ofsted Additional Inspectors, with immediate effect. This may seem a limited move, but it would have significant impact. Inspection of schools in England is dependent on a workforce of inspectors including large numbers of school and academy senior leaders, headteachers, principals and CEOs. There is an argument that this working arrangement ensures that inspectors include senior staff grappling with the same challenges as those being inspected, and that by becoming a trained inspector senior staff become more familiar with the inspection frameworks and can use them to develop policy and practice in schools.

So, given the new campaign I thought it would be interesting to hear what our CollectivED Advisory Board members thought. An email request for comments resulted in six responses, five in favour of the campaign and one with concerns about it. Rather than edit these and risk losing their meaning, I am reproducing them here.

Former headteachers Andrew Mears, Charmaine Roche and James Pope all agree with the campaign.

“Experience as a school principal, National Leader in Education, inspector and governor all make me think that a pause is warranted. For me, the inspection process is, on balance, undermining solutions to the biggest issues schools face; recruitment, retention, morale and valuing people, including children who have diverse barriers to learning”. Andrew Mears

“I whole-heartedly support the #PauseOfsted campaign and would like to see it extended to include all education professionals who make up the school improvement eco-system. Ofsted inspections are part of a technology of performativity that deliberately creates instability and disruption. Each time a change is made to the framework it creates new terms to describe old things - in the current phase curriculum intent, or subject deep dives - creating panic around a new set of standards to be met in order to even just stand still. Those with the moral courage not to be driven by this learned behaviour are few and far between. #PauseOfsted creates an opportunity to increase their ranks. However, it will be undermined if it applies to heads alone. Local Authority school improvement support including governor development, independent consultants, coaches, trainers and training companies need to join in too as they often press the Ofsted panic button in order to market their services. It's a good place to start a quiet revolution.” Charmaine Roche

“There can be no doubt that OFSTED inspections, regardless of outcome, have a serious negative impact on our school system. From the high levels of anxiety created for leaders whilst they are awaiting an inspection phone call, through to the stress created whilst managing the inspection process, leaders and school staff, already working hard and in some schools under significant pressure to drive improvement, find themselves with additional workload and pressure. If the inspection goes well, then these feeling are quickly forgotten, if the inspection outcome does not go well the impact is long lasting. The ‘unintended consequences’ of our high-stakes system are far reaching, changing the way leaders and their teams behave. Many school leaders pay for these consequences with negative impacts on their physical and mental health. At @HeadsUp4HTs we hear from and support school leaders weekly who are in various states of crisis, the root cause is nearly always related to OFSTED. With little sign that the concerns of leaders across the school system are being listened to we fully support the Pause Ofsted campaign, as a positive disruption to the inspection system.” James Pope

These views are countered by Phil Mellen who is currently Leeds City Council’s Deputy Director of Children’s Services, with responsibility for Learning in Leeds, and is also a former headteacher. Phil responded that “I have been through in excess of 15 Ofsted inspections in various roles since 1994 and while I recognise the concerns about Ofsted’s role and the pressure it causes, I also worry about the fragmentation of the school system which could leave some of our most vulnerable children and young people dangerously unprotected. Ofsted does provide some kind of a safety net to challenge and change the worst practice and the current framework has made some positive moves in that direction. A pause, therefore, may undo some of that and leave some schools unscrutinised around safeguarding and inclusion.”

While not currently included in the campaign FE is also inspected by Ofsted and similar tensions and debates about its impact are common in the sector. Lou Mycroft gave a personal response based on her time as a practitioner in Further Education. Lou wrote, “I'm not ashamed to say that I left further education after a period of stress-related illness, where driving past a school's Ofsted banner caused me to have a panic attack. The writer and researcher Brené Brown makes links between cultures of perfectionism, blame and self-shame, and illness. We have an epidemic of mental ill-health in our education services, and we have cultures of perfectionism where 'outstanding' no longer means 'to stand out' but is imposed as the norm. How is no-one connecting these two things?”

The debate will no doubt rumble on and this is illustrated in opinion pieces as by Laura McInerney writing in the Guardian on 18th February, and the themes will no doubt resonate through the future discussions of the CollectivEd Advisory Board and at our conference in June. It may be that the @PauseOfsted campaign secures some changes to the inspection regime, even if it does not succeed in its overall aims.  At the very least it has shone a light on a system which is not uniformly welcomed by professionals working in the English education system. I wonder how many will agree with Peter Hall-Jones (former Leeds headteacher) whose pithy comment was as follows, ‘Ofsted - time to put it in the attic as with all fire guards no longer needed.’

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Professor Rachel Lofthouse

Rachel Lofthouse is Professor of Teacher Education in the Carnegie School of Education. She has a specific research interest in professional learning, exploring how teachers learn and how they can be supported to put that learning into practice.

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