On Monday February 10th, six members of the Headteachers’ Roundtable had a meeting at the DFE with the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, HMCI, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Mike Cladingbowl, Head of Schools for OfSTED.
The meeting was arranged following our previous meeting with Michael Gove in August 2013 when our discussions often led us into areas that the SoS argued were really OfSTED territory, not the DFE’s. He offered to arrange a meeting with Sir Michael and we were delighted that this commitment was honoured.
Following the recent HTRT gathering in York, where we discussed a range of alternative accountability models, we agreed that our agenda for the SoS-HMCI meeting would be based on these issues:
1. The existing OfSTED framework
- consistency of implementation
- the evidence base for the validity of judgments based on 2-day inspections and 25 minute lesson observations.
- the negative/inhibiting effect of an OfSTED-driven compliance culture.
- the need to reflect a school’s context.
2. Alternative models of accountability
- the scope to engage in a debate about entirely different inspection and accountability models.
- the role that peer-review and local knowledge could have in deepening the evidence base.
Once at the DFE, the meeting in Michael Gove’s office was conducted in a very open manner which was very helpful. The SoS and HMCI were open to questions and created a dialogue that enabled us to talk freely and frankly. Mike Cladingbowl is also very easy to engage in dialogue. We managed to get across most of the points we wanted to make, with just enough anecdotal material to illustrate the issues.
At the same time, we were also pushed back a fair bit. As you’d imagine, both SoS and HMCI have a coherent narrative in their respective frames of reference, that relate their decision-making to their sense of having secured improvements in the system. They both believe that they are acting in the interests of improving schools and, in particular, they feel entitled to challenge Headteachers to shoulder a range of responsibilities. The Secretary of State was at pains to express his support for work OfSTED has done in the last two years. They both believe that changing the framework and terminology from Satisfactory to Requires Improvement has been significant and acknowledged that there has been a heightened stress in the system as a consequence.
Within the hour, some of the key discussions included:
Consistency of Inspections:
We aired this issue comprehensively, making it clear that there is too much variability, too many inspectors deviate from the framework, Headteachers are not always given sufficient credit for their knowledge of their own schools, data is sometimes overly dominant in determining judgements – and so on. The response was a clear acknowledgement that there is work to be done within OfSTED to improve on this. Mike Cladingbowl was very explicit in suggesting that Heads must report to OfSTED if they have information about inspectors who are not following the framework.
Significantly, Sir Michael was keen to relay their headline feedback statistics: 9 out of 10 Heads report that they are satisfied with the inspection process and over 8/10 believe that the judgements are fair. As far as they are concerned, this supports their belief that OfSTED is doing an effective job with reasonable accuracy.
A key issue in the consistency discussion is the inherent time-lag in communicating changes to the framework. There are inspectors who are not up to speed with the latest direction of thought at OfSTED HQ and this has an impact on schools. There was some acknowledgement of this although, again, the response was ‘tell us’.
The role of lesson observations:
We raised the issue of the validity of lesson observation judgements. Mike Cladingbowl in particular was keen to emphasise what is currently stated in the framework: that judgements apply to teaching overall; NOT lessons. We explored the problem that the notion of lesson grading is firmly embedded in the system and went on to discuss the value of observing lessons during inspections. Inspectors are meant to use lesson observations to help them gather evidence about teaching in the school; not to judge each lesson separately. We agreed that, without lesson observations, there’s a greater risk of inspections being more heavily data driven. Both Michael Wilshaw and Mike Cladingbowl re-affirmed their sense that good inspectors can gain a reasonably accurate impressionistic measure of the quality of teaching by visiting lessons during a two-day inspection to gather evidence. Even with individual lesson grades removed, there remains a commitment to the value and validity of inspectors forming an overall judgement of the quality of teaching. However, they were very clear that they do not think schools should undertake ‘mocksteds’ and were very positive about schools that do not grade lessons. This is the direction of travel.
The role of Headteachers:
Significantly, HMCI and Mike Cladingbowl regard Headteachers as having a key role in shaping an inspection. The view expressed was that Heads are more highly paid and have more formal autonomy than ever before and should be able to represent their schools in a confident, evidence-rich manner, whoever the inspector is. When we suggested that inspections should include the views of professionals who know schools well over time – as in a peer-review model – the push-back was ‘but isn’t that what a Headteacher should be doing?’ There wasn’t a lot of sympathy for Headteachers who can’t make a case that the quality of teaching or attainment is better than an inspector may be suggesting. A very strong case was put forward by HMCI to have more serving Heads on inspection teams. He suggested that Heads should take control of the system by becoming trained inspectors; (as I recall) currently about 60% of inspections include a Head or former Head on the team; it used to be a much smaller percentage but needs to be more. Again – this was a challenge to us.
We discussed the general OfSTED fear-factor and the cliff-edge effect of schools going into categories. We did a good job communicating the extent to which OfSTED is driving too much of the discourse that goes on in schools with negative consequences such as a tendency towards risk-averse compliance cultures. Again, the response was along the lines that good Headteachers have a role in protecting their staff from this. They don’t exactly accept responsibility for teachers being stressed by OfSTED; that is another role of a Headteacher, to create the culture where that doesn’t happen. We suggested that even very good Heads felt too vulnerable to resist creating an OfSTED-driven culture in their schools and we expressed the view, very directly, that both HMCI and SoS had a responsibility to turn down the intensity of the current OfSTED-fear that schools experience. They listened without giving too much away.
There was some acknowledgement from the Secretary of State that the high-stakes consequences of a poor judgement are a problem for Headteachers. He suggested that Heads should not be assumed to have failed if a school receives a poor judgement. We expressed concern that the expectations of Heads are so high with such serious consequences for leading schools into a category that recruitment of Heads is likely to be a problem in the system. The Michaels seemed less worried about this. The responsibilities of Heads and the support they receive seems to be a central area for future debate if we are going to resolve this tension.
Very briefly we touched on some future developments that might emerge. There is a possibility of changing the nature and frequency of some inspections so that, based on desk-top exercises, more schools that appear to be improving or thriving are given a very light touch inspection compared to others where the indicators suggest a more thorough process is needed. That is not a policy as such; it is an indication of a general direction of travel.
The Secretary of State indicated that he would like to meet the Headteachers’ Roundtable again in the future and asked what other issues we’d like to raise. The phrase ‘we’d like our National College back’ informed our response. So, next time, we will be looking at the framework for developing the next generation of school leaders; the Headteachers who will be shouldering ever more responsibility in the system.
To conclude, we received a firm commitment from the Secretary of State to engage with the HTRT Education Manifesto when it is published in May. That is an incentive to all readers to put forward clear policy proposals so that we can present a coherent set of ideas. Similarly, Mike Cladingbowl requested that HTRT stays in touch with OfSTED, with further meetings in future to explore these issues further. It is clear that OfSTED recognises that there are some problems and that there is value in maintaining dialogue with groups like HTRT to resolve.
on behalf of the Headteachers’ Roundtable.