Free Schools, Ofsted and Twitter (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly*)

*not necessarily in that order

Talk on Twitter tonight is of the newly-released Ofsted report which indicates that Greenwich Free School requires improvement. I don’t know the school at all, and don’t, therefore, intend to argue the rights and wrongs of the situation. Nevertheless, a few things spring to mind.

1. Free Schools have a tough audience

This is not their fault. Unfortunately, the way in which the Secretary of State for Education and his colleagues spoke about Free Schools before they were even up-and-running implied that they would, by the very virtue of their existence, be better than “ordinary” schools, raising standards all round and suchlike. Unfortunately, this inevitably upset and alienated may in the state sector who interpreted as a denigration of the work they did.

Reality has, rather unsurprisingly, indicated that free schools are – like all schools – liable to come in all forms and have all manner of amounts of success. The unfortunate consequence of the government’s claims for its schools is that any indication of this normality is ceased upon by opponents. It isn’t fair, but I’m afraid the blame lies squarely in the government’s court on this one. They started it.

Some of the ‘gloating’ that has been described on Twitter is a shame, but it is also wholly predictable. Many of those people will only see their shouts in the calling out the Emperor as he stands in his “new clothes”.

2. Internal data is always tricky

Many of those who support the work of the GFS are keen to point out the challenges presented by having only two year groups in school, and a lack, therefore, of any external data. I’m afraid my sympathy here is limited. I am a middle-school teacher by training (and heart), and so have only ever worked in schools where internal data has been key in determining progress and outcomes, and where Ofsted judgements could depend heavily on an inspector’s interpretation (or even notice taken) of that data.

There are middle schools in the country which are judged on data from KS2 tests after they’ve had their children for just over 2 terms. Everything for their remaining 6-10 terms is necessarily internal. It means middle school leaders have to work hard to ensure that their data is reliable. It means the National Middle Schools’ Forum has had to collate its own data to support schools about outcomes. It means that as a leader I scour all manner of sources to desperately try to find data against which we could reliably compare our school. It means I sought out supporting evidence from partner schools about moderation and other work we’d done to demonstrate the robustness of our internal systems when Ofsted came to call.

So it’s quite possible that GFS were caused unreasonable damage because of the lack of national systems to account for schools that only go up to Y8. But it certainly isn’t the first: every middle school in the land faces that battle.

3. Year 7 (and 8) data is tricky too (with or without levels)

One of the documents I picked apart as a middle school middle-leader was the thrillingly-entitled DfE Research Report “How do pupils
progress during Key Stages 2 and 3?” (DFE-RR096 if you’re interested). When final outcomes for a school are your Y7 pupils, then national comparisons are hard. There is lots of evidence about a ‘Year 7 dip’, but much less detail about how it plays out in schools and classrooms. But those comparisons were vital for us. It was essential that I knew that progress is significantly more ‘dippy’ in Reading than Writing or Maths. I had to scan every table and chart trying to interpret data in ways that were meaningful for comparison within just KS3. I also spent a great deal of time looking at assessment structures, discussing with other schools and finding out as much as I could about the progress children make in reality during Year 7, as opposed to the straight-line imagined from KS2 to KS4.

Whether GFS had used National Curriculum levels or not, the challenge for any school using non-standard outcome points (i.e. not KS1, KS2 or KS4) is to be able to know the story of your students *and* to know the comparison with others nationally. It’s much harder than the (relatively) simple task of comparing national results, but it is not less important. Perhaps it is even more so?

4. Playing the long game can backfire short-term (Be warned about PRP!)

Perhaps it’s inevitable that a new school looks to build itself over the longer term. Perhaps at the start of the GFS the focus was so much on setting the groundwork for outstanding learning and progress over the five-year period up to GCSE and beyond, that some short-term actions didn’t necessarily lead to short-term gains. There are plenty of examples of things teachers and schools can do to boost their results in the short-term, that don’t necessarily pay off over a period. Equally, there are good actions that could be taken for which rewards might not be reaped for some years. Maybe when their first cohort reaches GCSE, the evidence will show that the judgements made were right, and Ofsted’s interpretation was wrong. Perhaps that should be a warning to all of us of the risks of performance-related pay amongst other things?

5. Some things are universal

Greenwich will not be the only school to have had progress of particular groups highlighted as an issue. In this case it seems both internal data and the Ofsted judgement identify weaknesses in progress for various groups. The most recent frameworks have been very hot on this, and all schools – no matter how small their cohorts – face the same challenges. It doesn’t make this judgement any more or less fair than any other. It’s just the nature of the beast at the moment and isn’t unique to (or absent from) free schools.

6. Parental support counts for a lot

This is generally true in any case, but perhaps particularly when Ofsted come calling. If the parents are supportive of the direction of the school, then an RI judgement will be far less problematic than otherwise. Many of those parents will consider that Ofsted has its own failings and will continue to work with the school. If parents feel that Ofsted has confirmed their fears about a school and its leaders failing, then you’ve really got your work cut out.

7. All in all, a school’s a school

This is just a personal opinion, but no label, no status, no structure, no leader even, is enough on its own to create an exceptional school. And it’s even harder to do so overnight. Time will tell, but it’s quite clear that free schools are not some panacea to the problems of state education. They’re just schools.



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12 thoughts on “Free Schools, Ofsted and Twitter (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly*)

  1. mrbenney 24 April 2014 at 9:42 pm Reply

    Well written Michael. That last sentence says it all.

  2. Ian Lynch 24 April 2014 at 10:34 pm Reply

    I was part of the SLT that set up the first CTC back in 1988 before OFSTED. But a lot of resonance in that post Michael. Good work.

  3. cazzypot2013 24 April 2014 at 10:43 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  4. missmcinerney 24 April 2014 at 10:52 pm Reply

    Not only are schools just a school…but they’re also hard to run. When I wrote The 6 Predictable Failures the entire thesis was that people will open schools assuming that there is something special about themselves which everyone else is missing. And then it will turn out, for the most part, they aren’t that magical. Sometimes you hit lucky. The right conditions line up and it works. Other times you plug away at it for ages. People keep thinking of Ark as an overnight success – the proof that letting independent groups loose on academies can be the answer! – but they forget that Ark has been working hard at this for the best part of 10 years, with an enormous amount of financial and political support to boot.

    It is no secret that I have great admiration for the people at Greenwich Free School. Harry Fletcher-Wood is one of the most talented teachers I’ve ever met, Sarah Jones (the Deputy) is a brilliant leader. And the school did lots of things right. But also fell prey to some of the classics – not least being on a building site that is taking longer than expected and losing senior staff at pivotal moments. That latter one is what has taken many a school from good to inadequate in the past. Why Frees ever thought they would be different is beyond me.

    The thing with gloating on Twitter is that it matters what you use it for. There’s no point people saying “I told you it would fail” you have to say why, and what needs to be done next to improve things. A problem for many people is that they thought GFS had it right. I had thought this too. So the inevitable thing to do is call ‘foul play’ or blame the system. However, and this is where you are right Michael, other people don’t get that same opportunity. And certainly I didn’t hear many free school leaders saying to people in struggling schools at the time “the reason why the local schools near here are struggling is because of Ofsted” – instead they talked about lack of aspiration or the need for new models. So, while it would be comforting to fall back on this simplistic ‘see, free schools are rubbish’ rhetoric, we simply mustn’t. In return, free school leaders need to lay off other schools too.

    The fact is, Greenwich needs to improve. It needs to put in place progress checks. It needs to look out for its SEN kids more. (Another classic issue for free schools, btw, because they have so few staff). These are not massively problematic. BUT – and this is where the current government made a rod for its own back – by making the label ‘requires improvement’ and by Wilshaw saying this was a terrible label, and by having Gove saying even good wasn’t good enough, the government have made the ‘requires improvement’ tag sound like a curse, when really it is just a sign that not everything is well.

    The positive in all this is that the pupils’ behaviour and safeguarding is good. From what I know of the school, the achievement will get there. Just as long as everyone is sensible…and continues working to improve, as that school’s staff have done from the day it first opened.

    • Michael Tidd 24 April 2014 at 11:31 pm Reply

      Brilliantly put, Laura. As I said, I don’t know the school at all other than by reading about it and of people like Harry.
      I think RI can present a much-needed challenge some schools to spur them on, and doubtless this will make many of the GFS staff even more determined.
      We also do well to remember that one advantage of the “only y7/8 issue” is that the work here is not done.
      There’s plenty of time to make improvements and build on strengths to help those kids achieve. May it go on to have great success, along with schools of all make-ups!

  5. chemistrypoet 25 April 2014 at 11:55 pm Reply

    Leaving the GFS to one side, the thing that alarmed me most in your blog was the effort, time and skill that you appear to have put into evidencing the progress made by the children in your school by linking to external sources. I understand why this is necessary under the current accountability structure (Ofsted), but the key questions are: did this improve the outcomes for the students? Was the opportunity cost very high? If you hadn’t had to do this, what would you have done instead? Is there a heavy psychological consequence of being in this position?

    • Michael Tidd 26 April 2014 at 12:16 am Reply

      Very reasonable questions.
      Did it improve outcomes? Perhaps marginally in the sense that it helped to make clear wherever things might be falling short, and avoided the risk of not valuing the progress made outside of the main judgement years. (It’s tempting for a middle school to focus only on KS2 since that’s where the Raise data is based.
      Opportunity cost?
      It is, unfortunately, a burden that many schools in non-standard situations bear. The issue of variability among inspectors is widely understood. Many inspectors are unfamiliar with the many varied age ranges of middle schools and so might struggle to make reasoned judgements – particularly if they are dependent on Raise data which doesn’t properly reflect the school.
      However, had we not taken the time and made the effort to present our data against what national and comparable data we could, and made clear that we were holding ourselves robustly to account, there is a risk that any given inspector might have misjudged us.
      It is no surprise that since the increasing reliance on data in inspections, and more widely, that middle schools have been slated for closure left, right and centre.

  6. chemistrypoet 26 April 2014 at 12:30 am Reply

    Thank you for your answers. I know that the current accountability system effectively requires the sort of efforts that you go to. I am quite saddened, though, that it is necessary for you to have to do it. I don’t mean that you shouldn’t arrive at methods to seek to improve progress….but I can’t help thinking that under a different accountability structure your skills, commitment and mental energy could be put to more directly beneficial use with respect to improving teaching and learning. I hope that Government see the light sooner rather than later.

  7. […] interesting posts on the subject are below: Michael Tidd: Free Schools, Ofsted and Twitter (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) Martin Robinson: To have done with the Judgment of […]

  8. […] Free Schools, Ofsted and Twitter (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) […]

  9. […] Free Schools, Ofsted and Twitter (The Good, The Bad and The Ugly) […]

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