#PauseOfsted Again

Caroline Derbyshire, Chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable

In 2020, The Headteachers Roundtable asked Ofsted to pause; to stop what it was doing and think about the harmful consequences of what had become a painful and bruising inspection regime for very many headteachers. It invited all school-based employees to consider standing down as inspectors.

A few months later there was a global pandemic and a pause occurred anyway, but in 2022-23 we are back to the pre-pandemic routine of regular school inspections and reports of career-breaking and community-destroying school gradings. Following the tragic suicide of Ruth Perry, her family has made a direct link between her school’s November Ofsted inspection outcome and her desperate state of mind and this has brought the issue to the forefront of the media this week. Finally, our calls to ‘Pause Ofsted’ are echoed across the teacher and headteacher unions and associations. Why does it always seem to take a terrible and avoidable tragedy to galvanise an orchestrated response?

Of course, in recent weeks there have also been some shards of light and hope thrown onto this issue. Bridget Phillipson MP, vowed to end Ofsted gradings at the recent ASCL Conference in favour of a School Report, but her proposals, which Headteachers Roundtable endorse, will only be implemented if Labour win the next General Election. A lot of damaging inspection outcomes can happen in 18 months.

Let’s remind ourselves of what needs to change. In our 2021 Alternative White Paper we addressed the problem of the high-stakes nature of Ofsted inspections and we made proposals around accountability:

1. Remove Ofsted grading – OFSTED inspection to be reformed with labelling and categorisation of schools and academies removed. The purpose of inspection should instead be to identify excellence, the capacity of an institution to assist in system-wide improvement, and the identification of areas requiring attention and support.

2. Contextualise school accountability – Inspection frameworks need to be fit for purpose and properly reflect the education sector that they are inspecting. Accountability judgements need to be informed by a full appreciation of a school’s unique circumstances and contextual challenges, including levels of disadvantage.

3. Create a Headteacher recruitment and retention strategy – All school leaders, including Headteachers, Executive Headteachers and CEOs, should have access to regular professional supervision and all new Headteachers should be provided with an experienced mentor and a programme of high-quality professional development.

4. Reframe the education accountability system – A commission should be established, involving all Headteacher organisations, to establish an enquiry and review into the support, management, protection, and accountability that surrounds Headteachers and make recommendations to achieve a more coherent and purposeful accountability system.

5. Introduce specialist safeguarding audits – Establish a national safeguarding service to oversee an annual safeguarding audit for all schools and colleges. This annual audit should be conducted on a similar basis to financial audit, with RAG rating against a set of criteria and specific recommended actions.

There has never been a more important time to take these proposals seriously. We can’t risk another 18 months of the same punitive approach.


Reflecting on a Moment

“Today, we face our own 1945 moment” boldly stated the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres in 2020. Since then, other sources have increasingly referenced calls to embrace a “Beveridge moment” from papers such as “Unequal Britain” (Duffy et al, 2021) to newspaper columnists, political papers and a radio interview I heard just this week, all suggesting our current political, socio-economic complexities offer a similar paradigm shift to that facing the nation in 1945; all inferring a signal for a comparable 5-year programme of reform and reconstruction.

Now I love a historical reference and there’s no doubting embracing a wartime rhetoric has worked for many in this country over the years, but a recent visit to Singapore courtesy of the British Council’s Building Educational Bridges Partnership and a passing knowledge of modern history tells me there is considerably more to solving our current complexities than soundbites and memories. The chance to observe another culture and country that has redefined itself in the face of significant political and cultural change enabled this school leader a moment of reflection on what can be learnt; a moment to consider how we might gain hope and inspiration from a former colony and now world-leading education system and economy.

After a history too complex for this blog (but fascinating), Singapore became independent in 1965.  Since that point, its journey from ‘third world to first’  (Yew, L., 2011) in one generation is one of Asia’s great success stories. The subsequent rapid and highly successful transformation of their education system and consistently high levels of performance (PISA, TIMSS etc.) have garnered international respect and interest.

It is an outward-looking cohesive nation with a diverse population of c.6 million. ‘Singapore’s education system aims to bring out the best in every child’ (Ministry of Education, 2022) and does so through just 181 primary schools, 136 secondaries and 27 mixed level or junior colleges. The system has regenerated throughout its nearly 70-year history from ‘survival’ and ‘efficiency’ driven first phases creating the workforce and skills needed to build a nation to the later ‘ability’ and ‘aspiration’ phases which placed education at the heart of a national identity providing the knowledge and skills to compete globally.

Since 2020, Singapore has embarked on a ‘Learning for Life’ phase in response to the Covid-19 period, including a commitment to e-learning. So, what if anything, did I learn about this country, smaller than the Isle of Wight, that could be relevant to our larger more fragmented system in a UK of c.60 million with 16,791 primary schools and 3,456 secondary schools within England alone; a different scale and context completely.

I saw and learnt that Singapore has incredible national cohesion, there is immense optimism and pride in their collective endeavour. They see themselves as nation-builders, making the most of their small island where humans are the primary resource. Within a diverse population, temples, businesses and apartment blocks flourish where races, religions and languages co-habit in harmony, mutual respect and understanding.  It was a clean and safe environment where the overwhelming impression of its people was of generosity and kindness. A much-needed taxi ride from the city to our hotel in an hour of need left the distinct impression that our driver was not in fact a taxi at all but a well-intentioned citizen who simply wanted us to be well looked after.

Across the education system there is remarkable cohesion and trust; a sense of collective responsibility and common vision that drives decision-making and fidelity to implementation. Educating the next generation is seen as the most sustainable way of securing a prosperous future for the country, “education is viewed as investment not expenditure. It is the human enterprise of paying it forward.” (Pak Tee, N., 2023). As such, teaching is highly respected and recruitment is strong. Professional development is high-quality at all levels, career pathways are broad and focus on expertise rather than hierarchy, including developing teams of SEND practitioners in each school. There is no published school ranking and no high-stakes accountability. Checks and balances in the system ensure core principles are realised authentically in the local context.

Which raises interesting questions. How many of our much-heralded personal freedoms and liberties would we be willing to surrender for such unifying national cohesion. Headteachers/ Principals do not choose their leadership posts, they go where the Ministry sends them for the benefit of the country. They trust there is a greater purpose being served when they uproot their career and restart wherever sent. In 2022 Singapore was described by the Economist Intelligence Unit as a ‘flawed democracy’ raising questions about artistic freedom, same sex marriage and openness to government critique. Whilst there is evidence of cultural shift and change, personal destiny and educational pathway is still largely determined early in life. The safety I felt to walk around at night was a product of heavy fines and strict laws – not least with a serious ban on jay-walking. How far do our ideals of liberal freedoms and individual liberty mean we struggle to achieve the unity and sense of common purpose visible in this so-called “nanny state” (Harding, 2004)? And across the education system how much of our vaunted, hard-earned freedoms and autonomy would we be willing to surrender for cohesion, common purpose and consistency for all young people? And in a system so much larger and fragmented how possible even is that as a goal?

Conversely, although prior to meeting there was preconceived perception in the English participants that the Singaporean colleagues, sitting in harmonious cohesion at the top of the world rankings, would have little to learn from the English system – the reverse transpired to the true. Through their eyes there was much to admire in our own practice and success. Where we saw fragmentation, they saw a system created for individual creativity and innovation. Where we felt pandemic-weary and accountability-exhausted they saw determination throughout the system for high standards. They saw resilient leaders, determined to succeed for every child. They saw a research-informed profession, willing to debate, to collaborate and co-create. We know this professional control is a powerful factor in retention and wellbeing (Collie and Carroll, 2023).

There is no doubt that exceptional practise exists within our system. The question is why and in what context?

In March 2022, the DfE’s Schools White Paper, “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child” communicated a vision for a “school system that helps every child to fulfil their potential by ensuring that they receive the right support, in the right place, at the right time“. Whilst the White Paper has been withdrawn, many of the key ideas remain. the Green Paper for SEND: “right support, right place, right time” remains a live discussion.

From the remarkable leaders I was privileged to spend the journey with to the inspiring leaders we visited in London schools it is clear there is talent in the English system that is powerful and dynamic; there is practice in the English system that is aspirational and rooted in moral purpose. Galvanising this energy and talent into a national vision that has cross-party consensus would allow long term sustainable planning that could be transformational.

Whilst the baseline belief across the Singaporean system is that every school is a good school, there is by nature of scale, more variability in the English system. In high-performing schools, there is a clarity of vision driving improvement; a coherent curriculum, and a commitment to supporting the children who need it most; early identification of SEND and a determination all students should access and progress. There is clarity about what great teaching looks and feels like with focused CPD to ensure no student or teacher is left behind. Teachers are well supported with clear standards for all levels and pathways for development, culture and ethos is clear and tangible leading to consistent approaches to behaviour and routines for learning. These schools have an energy and purpose that serve their communities effectively despite barriers and contextual difficulties.

So, what might be the “moment to embrace” here, what learning can be taken from a system that is a continent away and a 10th of the scale and complexity? I have some emerging thoughts:

  1. There is huge power in a common and compelling narrative with moral purpose. This could be and currently often is created to great effect within federations/trusts and partnerships but could be super-charged in its impact if rooted in a commonly understood and collectively embraced national sense of purpose and vision for education.
  2. Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration at every level: within and between schools, across and between trusts and systemically across the system. Together we are significantly more than the sum of our parts and for our current challenges we absolutely need to be.
  3. Recruitment to a highly valued and revered profession of experts is competitive, retention is secured through the autonomy, mastery and purpose (Deci and Ryan, 2012) ensured through generous and purposeful CPL. Dedicated time in schools and out for development in post and for future posts, supports the implementation of accepted effective practice relative to context, developing expertise and excellence at every level. 
  4. Cohesion through fidelity to a consistent understanding of “what works” (curriculum and pedagogy) combined with respect, professional trust and autonomy for context and ability to innovate. An end to frequent change for ideological purposes. The Singaporean model creates expertise sustained over time ensuring 6-7 yrs. for any new development: through phases of research, pilot, review and launch. Such time and consultation would enable review and innovation but ensure authenticity and commitment to any change, reducing the influence of political cycles that can prove so distracting.
  5. Commitment to early identification and expert intervention for SEND, the streamed pathways seen in Singapore would need a much more open view to vocational and technical education than we have currently but commitment to expertise in every mainstream classroom would achieve a great deal; clarity and confidence in all teachers, guided by knowledgeable leadership, in every school for every child, inspiring trust and genuine partnership with parents.
  6. Digital understanding and skills. We may not be able to replicate at scale the Singaporean model of a device for every child, but we do need to equip all our young people (and staff) with an understanding of what it means to work effectively and be safe and healthy in an online environment.  That will not happen if we eschew digital learning as a fad in education.

The famous Merlion statue (part lion part fish) in Singapore’s harbour represents the courage, strength and resilience needed to build a nation. We have yet (rightly) to see the benefit of combining the traditional Lion, Oak and Rose into a single English symbol but channelling the strength and endurance of the former and the unifying symbolism of the Tudor Rose might not be a bad start. However, history has many valuable lessons. In reimagining a 1945 spirit we might not be so keen to embrace the austerity, rationing and cold winters of a post-war period with escalating international tensions.

Instead of post-pandemic re-construction, maybe we should be focused on the co-construction of a new vision, a future-focused approach; investing in and building on our collective strengths, recognising context and embracing diversity within a clearly-articulated, nonpartisan, long-term aspiration. That could be a moment.

Caroline Barlow, Vice-Chair of Headteachers’ Roundtable


Collie, R. J., & Carroll, A. (2023). Autonomy-pressure profiles among teachers: Changes over a school term, leadership predictors, and workplace outcomes. Teaching and Teacher Education124, 103998.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory.

Duffy, B., Hewlett, K., Hesketh, R., Benson, R., & Wager, A. (2021). Unequal Britain: attitudes to inequalities after Covid-19.

Economist Intelligence Unit (2022). Democracy Index 2022

Harding, Andrew (16 August 2004). “Singapore slings a little caution to the wind”. BBC News. Retrieved 27 February 2011.

Yew, L. K. (2011). From third to first world.

Bastions of Hope

I started my first headship under collation rule in 2011, serving one of the most deprived schools in the country. In easy walking distance of the Academy was a walk-in health centre where families could get treated quickly and we could send students with bumps and grazes. There were numerous ‘Sure Start’ centres where pre-school children and their families were supported and educated. Help was sought and given and these centres fed into the nurseries of local primary schools. Next to the Academy was a fully staffed, operating police station and the local officers were out and about, known to the community and part of a collective of services whose drive hugely reduced anti-social behaviour in the area. In the evenings, there was a range of youth provision, led by dedicated and inspiring youth workers. When I left this school in 2018, all this infrastructure, all these professionals, all this kindness and capacity was gone.

In suburbia, no one noticed for a long time. There was an assumption that all these services were luxurious, added extras that could no longer be afforded. Austerity’s bite was less severe when you have a thick padded jacket and could still see your GP. A candidate knocked on my door in a local election and I told them that we were now regularly buying footwear for our students, providing food for large numbers of children and had to fully finance most of the school trips that so enriched the lives of our children. She called me a socialist, laughed and knocked on more welcoming doors. She won the election.

Yet like the cliched frog, who doesn’t notice the water is boiling around her until it’s too late, it was becoming clear to most citizens that the cosy assumption that there were woven threads that bind society were unravelling. There was a pay freeze for school staff and budgeting became more frightening. Heads looking around at valued staff who heroically inspired and nurtured the students, hoping they could afford this support network the school relied upon. No one came if you dialled in a burglary, you dreaded taking your child to A&E as it was guaranteed to be a length of stay where you became mind numbed at memorising all the treats in the waiting room snack machine. Things were getting worse. There was a referendum and in school many of the local support staff cheered the results, an expression of their anger, many of the teachers were in despair. This disconnect humbling but troubling.

As a global pandemic swept across the world, there seemed a chance for a reboot. We celebrated the community connectivity of schools, the heroism of public sector workers, we thanked people we had previously not thought of for too long, who fed and provided for us and helped us navigate through the pressing basic needs of life. We clapped for NHS workers, for our imaginations did not want to peak at the horrors they were healing. There was a belief that we would recalibrate to prioritise the roles which care and contribute with compassion. It seems we have forgotten.

Yet the enthusiastic, bold young trainee teachers still emerge and inspire. Cover managers cope with another winter of challenge as supply colleagues are scarce and everyone else is coughing away. Staff collaborate and share, learning from each other, from research and from the generous experts whose command of classrooms is like watching Nina Simone, inspiring and electric. School site staff keep boilers working, mend rooves on the cheap, make pots of paint last and become such DIY experts that Channel 5 could run a reality hit based on their know how. Support staff do just this, support – cajole, care, smile, know when to be firm, know when to shut up and listen. We could all do with such support in our lives. Leaders juggle duties, inspections and improvement and toil often on ground that feels so unstable it might swallow and banish them from the jobs they love.

This Christmas and into 2023, I say a huge thank you to my staff and to all school staff. You are bastions of hope in complex and troubled times. Your continuity, reliability, smiles and determination make cold days better. Your willingness to stay whilst a child practices a sum, to ref a fixture when it’s pouring down, to praise a perceptive quotation make you bastions of hope. Burn bright so our children can emerge from our mess.

James Eldon, Principal, Manchester Academy

However You Read It: Drop the Ofsted Grades

On 22 November 2022, a palindromic but otherwise dreary November Tuesday, Ofsted issued a report entitled ‘A Return to Inspection: the story (so far) of previously exempt outstanding schools’. The report rather revelled in the news that during the period when outstanding grades schools were given exemption from inspection, that those high standards had not been maintained. 71%, it revealed, with thinly veiled glee, had not maintained their Outstanding judgement; following this period of respite half of those had been downgraded to Good with a smaller percentage described as less than Good. The purpose of the report, I believe, is to remind the public and His Majesty’s Government that without the regular clunky clicking of Ofsted Chromebook judgements, that our schools would descend into unregulated chaos. Please don’t cut our funding, you’ll regret it, goes the argument.

I did not read it that way, however. The first thing to note is that the decision to exempt Outstanding schools from inspection was Ofsted’s own and it has been a cheap and expedient one. The exempt schools were asked to lead system-wide improvement after Local Authorities were starved of funding to do so. Outstanding Schools were encouraged to set up as Trusts and sponsor schools with inadequate judgements; they set up Teaching School Alliances and Curriculum Hubs and they did so with minimal incentives because they felt special and rewarded for excellence. The system had lent very heavily indeed upon the leaders and staff in those schools. It was accepted that the givers in the system would need special licence and that if they lost this system-leader status the structures that they had worked so selflessly to establish would fall with them. The removal of exemption status is a signal that this work is done. MATs now take up the mantle of school improvement, Teaching School Hubs co-ordinate training and development and the outstanding criteria is no longer used to lever system change and there is no need for the Outstanding tier. The leaders of those schools are either Trust leaders now or are left feeling bitter, used and stripped of the status that made them feel valued. Little wonder that so many of them are retiring early.

The second thing to note is that the Ofsted framework has changed dramatically. What it was to be Outstanding is no longer what it was to be so eight years ago. A decade ago, judgements about schools focused almost entirely on the achievement metrics and which ever metric was seen as the most valuable is what schools pursued with unrelenting focus. In my 17 years as a secondary school leader I pursued three different definitions of GCSE success in order to secure Outstanding judgements. Agile schools adapted quickly to each new game. The curriculum and interventions offered were the keys to success and headteachers furiously traded their secrets to it. In 2022, however, we now have had no performance data that we can rely on as comparable for three years in a row. Ofsted have to ignore that data and instead make judgements based on triangulating experiential and written evidence about quality based on some quite ideological notions of what learning looks like and how ‘rich’ the knowledge taught and remembered is. The game is different and the winners of it will look different as well. Of course schools that were on the  ‘Outstanding’ list in 2014 will not necessarily be the same ones as those on the 2022 list. Apart from anything else, that list is much shorter because the system no longer needs Outstanding schools to exist.

The final thing to note is that grading only helped the school system to improve while it was expedient to expect ‘Outstanding’ schools to do their community service by leading the system. There is no evidence that the grading helped those schools for their own sake. The fact that many are no longer seen to be as strong as they once were suggests that grading schools in no way helps to improve them. As a Trust Leader I have now seen two of my schools experience a supposedly ‘ungraded’ two day inspection this month. If only this ‘ungraded’ notion was genuinely the case. An ungraded inspection is very far from ungraded. There are four possible outcomes and all four of them are about grades: 1. The school could get a letter to say that its current grade remains the same. This option is rather an attractive one to its staff, I would suggest. 2.It could be better than that and, horror of horrors, be given a more intensive inspection to determine whether it deserves such an accolade. Since there are few advantages in being Outstanding anymore, this option looks less and less attractive. 3. It could be worse than it is and have a follow-up inspection to determine that. Can you imagine the misery of that kind of purgatory? 4.The ungraded inspection is converted to a graded one because the school is inadequate in a key area such as safeguarding. Why wait four years to discover this? Absolutely everything about the so-called ungraded inspection is about grades. The system could be so much better, effective and kinder. Allow me to explain:

In the ‘ungraded’ inspections our schools have experienced we have been visited by very small teams of one or two inspectors. They have worked intensively and looked forensically at the school’s provision (in a positive and friendly way that reminds me of a financial audit) and had they been concerned they could have immediately called a bigger team in. All of this seems fine to me. Schools need auditing and if done forensically but kindly, nobody would mind that. The issue and fears all surround the grading. A genuine ungraded inspection would involve exactly that: no grades. You would be approved or unapproved. If unapproved you would be given a list of things you had to improve as a matter of urgency and then be visited again in no more than a year to see if those matters had been attended to. If approved, then you might have another short visit in 3 or 4 years time. Grades change this entirely. A drop in grade makes it harder to improve because you then struggle with your reputation, your recruitment of staff and students and your budgeting.  Grading just does not help schools to improve. Even Ofsted seemed to recognise that on November 22nd 2022. A day that read the same forwards as backwards. That has to be telling us something, right?

Caroline Derbyshire, Chair of Headteachers’ Roundtable

Name and Shamed – dealing with negative attention for your school

James Eldon, Principal of Manchester Academy

This weekend, around the country there will be school staff and school leaders who are burying themselves away from the world and especially the online universe. Their school will have hit the press for an incident, or a policy, or something that fuels clicks now these are the metrics that measure journalistic success. Hopefully the leader will receive support from their Trust, governors, colleagues, peers and friends. Someone will undoubtedly tell them that it’s not personal, it’s not them under attack and that today’s headlines are tomorrow’s internet archive.

Yet there is a loyalty, a love, that leaders intrinsically have for their schools. Negative attention can inspire anxiety about your job, your career but over that lonely weekend the hardest emotion to combat is that you’ve let down those you are dedicated to. Young people will make mistakes and occasionally behave in shocking ways. We cannot be accountable for all their actions – especially outside of school. But we carry the weight of their errors like a parent, reflecting on how we could have made things better or different and this worry solidifies in your soul as guilt. We think of our colleagues who support us every day, inspire us and stand by us and we want to deflect any negativity from them as they don’t deserve it and we know that in their own families and friendships they will be asked about the headlines and WhatsApp whispers that make clear everyone’s picked up on the tale.

Heads increasingly share tales of the stress placed on them through social media, the press and other groups. It’s ‘part of the job’ but it’s one of the factors that can make the job, for aspiring heads, seem too hard and exposed. Schools often don’t have a right to reply due to confidentiality issues and so we have to endure the slow torment of angry headlines fading down the ‘most read’ lists until the noise quietens down enough that one is able to peek online in a way that is safe for your soul.

So, to colleagues around the country hurting in shame over negative attention for their school, I offer the best and most powerful antidote. Gate duty. Stand on the school gate and have those wonderfully comic conversations that you have with students arriving for the school day. See their faces as they come into your school and charge your week with this kinetic energy. Visit lessons to reaffirm the actual reality of your wonderful school and the work your staff do. In your castle, the world is flourishing and the catapults of clicks will ultimately be deflected by the walls of love and success your loyalty and hard work have built.