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Stuck Schools: A Sticking Point

"What the remaining stuck schools need is tailored, specific and pragmatic advice that suits their circumstances - not a carousel of consultants…”

That’s Amanda Spielman’s recent Radio 4 assessment of “stuck schools”. And I’m livid.

Tarred and Feathered

It’s generalised and misleading statements like these that give good people a bad name. Worse still, when it comes from the top, the effect and potential backlash such comments can have on hardworking people are compounded. As Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman should know better than to make sweeping judgments like this.

Why is Ofsted suggesting that consultants do not offer specific and pragmatic advice that suits the circumstances of the schools they support? Some of us do!

Don’t tar and feather me because some consultants aren’t as meticulous or as conscientious as I am.

Don’t lump me in with and compare me to some of the less effective school improvement consultants out there.

And certainly don’t reduce the good work I do to a simplistic, misleading, jingoistic headline or soundbite.

To make such a flippant remark is unfair and unfounded. How can Ofsted deign to blame consultants for the predicament of stuck schools when they do not evaluate the work done by consultants?

It’s like blaming bus drivers for attendance figures.

To Evaluate, or Not to Evaluate

In January 2019 I got excited when I thought that Ofsted intended to evaluate the work of consultants during inspections. This is what they said in their draft non-association independent school inspection handbook which they published for consultation before the introduction of the 2019 EIF:

Evaluating the impact of external support

215. Where the school has received external support, inspectors will evaluate and report on the quality of the support and challenge and the impact on improvement in the school. (source)

At the time, I thought to myself, “this is excellent”. Now, when people like Sean Harford are openly disparaging about consultants (as he was in his diatribe The myth of Ofsted consultants: do not buy the snake oil), I’ll be able to say (with Ofsted’s backing), “Hey, we’re not all snake oil salesmen. Some of us do a great job. Just look at what Ofsted said about the support I gave to this school, that school, etc.”

However, to my disappointment, when Ofsted published the final version of the inspection framework, this is what they said:

Evaluating the impact of external support

236. If the school has received external support, inspectors will not evaluate and report on the quality and the impact of the support and challenge on improvement in the school. Instead, they will comment on the action that the school has taken and the impact that this has had on the quality of the school’s work. (source)

So, no Ofsted evaluation for us then.

Massive disappointment.

Hardly a progressive move, is it?

Hence my reaction to Amanda Spielman’s suggestion that “stuck schools” are stuck because of consultants.

How very dare they accuse us when they refuse to evaluate the work we do.

Dig Deeper. You’ll Be Amazed by What You Find.

After some close reading of the Ofsted report on which Amanda Spielman based her comments I found, to my amazement, that there is no mention of consultants anywhere in the report.

In fact, the report instead refers to schools receiving support from “leaders of education” who are made available by central and local government to failing schools.

Is this the “carousel of consultants” Amanda Spielman is talking about?

If so, why not say so? Why say, “consultants”?

The word “consultants” makes people think of independent consultants, not “National Leaders of Education”, “Local Leaders of Education”, or “Specialist Leaders of Education”.

In short, it is grossly misleading.

The report also outlines a multitude of school improvement support initiatives introduced by the government to support failing schools.

“Stuck schools” still exist despite all this support. So why smear the name “consultant”?

This is not only unjustified but incorrect and firmly belongs in a box marked ‘Fake News. Proceed With Caution.’

Independent Schools Aren’t Included

While I’m myth-busting it feels appropriate to mention that none of these “stuck schools” are independent schools.

In order to be classified as “stuck”, a school has to meet the following criteria:

… has had consistently weak inspection outcomes throughout the last 13 years… been judged to be inadequate, satisfactory or to require improvement in every inspection it has had between 1 September 2006 and 31 August 2019; had at least 4 full inspections in the period.

Independent schools inspected by Ofsted cannot go through 4 full inspections, get a “requires improvement” or “inadequate” grade and remain open. Fact.

Almost all independent schools who get these grades do so because they have not met the requirements of the independent school standards. It’s very rare for a school to meet all the standards and get a “requires improvement” and altogether impossible to do so and get “inadequate”. As a matter of fact, the DfE will not allow an independent school to continue operating if they consistently fail to meet the standards.

Knowing all this, it’s easy to see how harmful such flippant remarks can be when people aren’t in possession of all of the facts.

Your Friend. Not Mine.

Of course, after writing this, people are going to wonder what happened to “Ofsted is your friend”?

Well, Ofsted is definitely YOUR friend. But it seems as though it doesn’t want to be mine.

Let me explain.

The intention behind “Ofsted is your friend” is to motivate schools to change their mindset when it comes to Ofsted inspections. I feel it’s important to recognise that it is their job to ensure the quality of education delivered in schools.

Schools need to get to grips with their inspection framework and take it into account in their day-to-day operations and improvement efforts so that inspections cease to be a source of stress and fear.

That said, if you disagree with some aspects of the framework or part of Ofsted’s approach, I recommend you use the relevant channels to make yourself heard or solicit change. However, don’t lose focus on the fact that in the meantime you operate under the existing framework. And you need to understand it and take it into account in order to maintain a good grade and avoid getting into bother with the DfE.

Ofsted is like a qualification awarding body. In order to deliver their qualifications, you need to be accredited. This involves demonstrating that you are a suitable organisation to run the qualification. And it involves a site inspection.

There are also checks to maintain your accreditation. School leaders have to get to grips with the awarding body’s rules and regulations and make sure that they meet the requirements to offer their qualifications.

Ofsted inspections can also be seen as the examination or summative assessment for a subject.

To continue the analogy, teachers need to get to grips with their subject specification. They need to know the assessment objectives, attend training on delivery and assessment, review sample and examination papers in order to ensure their pupils are ready for examination when the time comes. Likewise with Ofsted inspections.

Of course, within a school setting, we should not teach to the exam only. We should develop pupils’ wider knowledge and understanding of the subject, not just focus on what is tested. But this isn’t the case with Ofsted preparation. You just need to know how they will evaluate your school. And have the systems in place to evaluate yourself against that framework while you go about your day-to-day operations. This way you can be ready to demonstrate how great your provision is on their terms.

So yes, Ofsted is your friend. It exists to provide you with the framework and feedback that ensures the delivery of a high standard of education. However, it does seem as though Ofsted is hell-bent on making an enemy of the consultant, running what is effectively a smear campaign on consultants and choosing not to evaluate their work thus slapping them with a gag order.

This school improvement consultant is having none of it.

The results speak for themselves.

Just ask the schools I work with.

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