Category Archives: leadership

Another damned expectation

I think one of the most useful qualities a headteacher can have is the ability to leave concerns behind at work. It’s never perfect – as I’m sure my family would attest – but if as a class teacher you find it hard to stop thinking about work in the evenings and weekends, then headship will only add to that challenge.

This weekend’s publication of a plan for music education feels like it was deliberately sent to test that ability.

True, you could say: never look at the news at weekends and never check your emails, but it’s not realistic. And so, early on Saturday morning I was presented with yet another document from the DfE telling me I’m failing. For that is how it feels.

Schools are different, so whatever you do, there will always be some school doing something better. Indeed because of the sheer volume of schools, you can usually guarantee that literally anything you do in a school will be done better somewhere. But as a head, so long as you can look at your own school and feel confident that you’re doing everything you can to offer the best deal on your priorities, you can live with that knowledge.

It becomes much harder when the government handpicks a small selection of examples and then tells every school in the land that what was the exemplar is now the expectation. It becomes an impossible task.

A couple of the case study examples in the new music plan talk about £20,000 annual budgets for music education in their schools. I just don’t have that money available. When I looked, half of the schools mentioned receive over £1000 more per pupil than my school: if someone put an extra £300,000 into my school next year, rest assured I’d find £20,000 for music!

Some of the (mostly urban) schools appear to be full, or even over subscribed. If each of my classes of 26 or 27 suddenly became 30, I might have another £60,000 in my budget which could certainly help music provision. But short of attempting to poach children from neighbouring villages or encourage more baby-making locally, there aren’t many options on that front.

None of which is to criticise what those schools achieve. The sharing of their practice is to be welcomed. We can always learn from other schools’ approaches, and can always strive to match those offers. But it’s not a level playing field.

So for government documents to state things like

The case studies included with this plan illustrate how excellent music education is being delivered now across the country within existing school budgets

is at best, unhelpful, and in truth disingenuous. Yet the DfE has chosen to all but insist that schools now create plans to bring their music curriculum up to the standard on offer in those schools.

Or, in fact beyond it. Even in their exemplar schools, not every one of the DfE’s bullet point list is met. Now you might argue that it’s important to be aspirational, but at what point are we setting people up to fail?

Music isn’t the only priority in schools. In the current climate, the massively underfunded need for recovery from the pandemic often tops the list; the near collapse of mental health services places a huge cost on schools both in terms of time and funding; demands for 90% attainment in English and maths will absorb both time and money. And neither of these things are in plentiful supply.

There isn’t a primary head in the land who wouldn’t like to give every child the opportunity to become proficient at piano. But for many, their first priority is ensuring that every child is fed, in a safe home, attending school in the first place, and hopefully mastering the basics that will set them up for their next steps.

None of that will be improved by a music development plan. Yet now school leaders will be forced to take time and money for other priorities to focus on this.

It’s demands like this that make me wonder how long the job is sustainable. Not because I don’t want to improve music education, but because I’m tired of constantly failing.

I’ve failed to get every child to attend school regularly.

I’ve failed to get 90% of my school working at the expected standard in maths.

I’ve failed to provide enough curriculum time for whatever subject Ofsted has lately pronounced upon.

And now I’ve failed to ensure that my school has enough practice rooms for music.

Never mind the fact that it doesn’t have enough space to provide calming spaces for all those children who need them because a special school place can’t be found for them. Never mind the fact that we don’t have enough teaching spaces to deliver decent interventions for those who desperately need to catch up. Never mind the fact that half of school leaders’ time is taken up with plugging the gaps left by failing local authority children’s services.

Now I must write a plan for how I’m going to create new practice rooms. Oh, and remove some teaching time from another subject to make room for more music lessons. Quite which subject they think we’re teaching too much of, I don’t know!

For me, this is the stuff that makes the job intolerable. I don’t mind there being SATs or an inspectorate. I can live with having to balance a challenging budget so long as it’s enough to pay for the basics. I can even cope with being on call on Christmas Eve to fill the gaps in the government’s pandemic strategy. But I’m tired of constantly being told to do more.

It’s exhausting to be told time and again that because one school has managed some accomplishment in some tiny part of their overall role, that we must now all do the same and more “within existing school budgets”.

When my time comes to jack it all in and walk, it won’t be the behaviour, or the parents, or the SATs that push me over the edge: it’ll be another damned expectation.


Annual reporting to parents – our approach

Having shared our annual report template with a few interested teachers, I thought it was worth sharing the main template more widely. If you’re not interested in reading about it, then feel free to scroll to the bottom just to download the template… I’ll never know 🙂

It’s always struck me as odd that we seem to have contradictory wisdom about the main forms of report to parents. New teachers are always told that there should be “no surprises” at a parents evening. If children are falling behind, or misbehaving, or perhaps failing to complete homework, then parents should already know this rather than finding out in their 10-minute slot.

Why is it then, so many seem to presume the opposite for report-writing, as though parents know nothing of their child’s learning and so need everything spelling out in detail? In truth, most parents receive broadly similar reports year after year, because children don’t change that much.

The need to fill extra lines of content means either repeating the banal detail of what has been taught (regardless of how well it has been learned), or of trying to find minutiae to discuss.

So, when it came to re-working the report template for my current school, I had a few things in mind:

  • I wanted to minimise the amount teachers have to write, while leaving room for comments about the important personal & social detail (the bit parents are really interested in!)
  • I wanted to be clear about where children met – or failed to meet – expectations, and to set clear expectations for excellence.
  • I wanted to give an opportunity to reflect on attainment in all subjects.

So, our report is made up of a number of sections (after the introductory statement):


This is clearly the most important part of the report, not least because this is the section memories are made of. In my school I do ask teachers to write a comment which incorporates the personal/social elements as well as some reference to attainment in the key subjects of English & Maths. It’s also the place to add in detail about any particular skill or expertise in other subject areas.
The whole box takes up to 10 lines – roughly 180 words max.


The subject attainment section is very brief in terms of outcomes, but quite clear for parents. I’m not a fan of the vocabulary of ‘Greater Depth’, but given its use in the statutory assessments, it seems to make sense to use it consistently across the school. Invariably these descriptors are not a great surprise to parents (mine, for example, were never going to expect me to achieve great things in PE!), but where they do highlight something, then parents can of course raise that at the open afternoon that follows shortly after reports are issued.


This section is something I brought with me from a previous school, and we had taken the idea from another school – so if your Nottinghamshire school was the originator, do let me know!
I like it because it’s a clear at-a-glance indicator of key areas of interest, including attendance which can sometimes come as a surprise to parents. I also like the clarity that “Good” is good, but that to be exceptional is, well, exceptional.


There is no doubt that adding a pupil comment creates additional work. I like to keep it as much because I think it’s something for pupils and families to look back on in years to come as it is an insight into their current achievements. It’s also a useful reflective opportunity for older pupils. (Pupils don’t see the rest of the report first; juniors type their entries and they get added electronically; infants write on smaller sheets of paper which are pasted in to the template – achievable in a 1fe school).

As for the targets, I don’t expect anything in-depth or insightful. For most children’s it’s at least one English and one maths target, often linked to key skills that can be practised at home, such as number bonds, key word spellings or regular reading. There might also be a personal/social target if appropriate, or behaviour in some cases. As I say to my staff, though, sometimes it’s also appropriate to put a target that just says “keep up the great work!”


I do manage a headteacher comment for every pupil, but as we only have 200 that’s perhaps more manageable than in some schools. (I haven’t pointed out to my staff that this means I actually write more for reports than any one teacher; I’m not sure the point would go down to well given all the other demands on them!)

Presenting the report

I’m always conscious that school reports are often kept for years, if not generations, and try to present them accordingly. Our template is set up as a 4-page document, which we print onto A3 white card and fold into A4 size. The front cover consists mainly of the large (attractive) logo and pupil name, and the back cover is pretty blank, but I think it makes the whole thing look a whole lot nicer.

As a school, we also currently track Key Performance Indicators in key subjects across the year, and so printed those out to accompany the report last year. I may take soundings from parents this year to see if they value that level of detail; I’m not clear that they would.

I also include a covering letter with reply slip. In theory this helps us to track receipt, but more importantly I hope it gives parents an opportunity to send positive responses and thanks to teachers which they might not otherwise have the opportunity to convey. I still keep some report reply slips from my teaching days – and I ditch others!

The Template

Well done if you read this far. No credit if you just skipped my words of wisdom. I have stripped out the school-specific content from the template (logos, etc.) and uploaded a version here which you are welcome to download, adopt, edit and re-share as you wish. No need to add any credit on the report (it’d look odd for a start!), but I’d be glad to hear if you found it useful.

Okay, I’ll stop… just download the Report Template!

Teachers aren’t that special

We’re a funny lot, teachers.

It’s different to most jobs I guess. For a start, we get 13 weeks holiday a year. We also work in strange circumstances that are simultaneously both very public and quite private.

We also seem to have an on-going struggle with what it means to a profession, that doesn’t seem to affect other roles. Or rather, an on-going clamour to be considered a profession, without being clear about what that means.

The College of Teaching has served to highlight some of those troubles, but also one other: we seem to have reached a point in the profession where “leaders” can be lumped together as a “them” who are not in any way connected to “us” at the chalkface. (Disclaimer: I don’t know which group I end up in according to those determined to divide in this way)

I suspect that this is based, in part, on a truth: some school leaders are awful. Some who reach the position of headteacher (or Executive Head for that matter, I suspect), probably weren’t very good classroom teachers, and aren’t very good leaders. They can damage schools, teachers and pupils in the process. But to presume that such negative experiences mean that all those who have a leadership responsibility are in opposition to those who teach in classrooms is childish. Not least because it fails to account for the huge number of people – particularly in primary schools – who manage both leadership roles and considerable classroom teaching commitments.

This has come to a head from the small group of vocal opponents to the College of Teaching, particularly since the appointment of a very experienced headteacher to the role of Chief Executive. For some, led by Andrew Smith (@oldandrewuk), only a practising classroom teacher would have been acceptable to lead an organisation that they don’t even think should exist.

The problem with that argument is clear: what experience does the average classroom teacher have that would equip them to lead a significant organisation? There will, of course, be a handful of classroom teachers who have prior experience in other roles that might match the job description, but they are rare. And often such people would quickly take on leadership roles within schools, hence disqualifying them from this very narrow field.

What’s more, I’d argue that being the CEO of a large organisation doesn’t require the skills of a classroom teacher, any more than running British Airways would require you to be trained pilot. Running large organisations requires  a specific skill-set, and if the College is to be a success, then it needs the right people with those skills at its head. The fact that within teaching we have excellent school leaders who have the appropriate skills means we are able to appoint the combination of leadership and teaching experience.

Looking at other professional organisations, there is a mix  when it comes to the CEO role: the CEO of the Law Society is a trained solicitor with considerable leadership experience; the CEO of the Royal College of GPs has a background in social work and charities and isn’t medically trained at all; the CEO of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has a background in marketing. I haven’t yet found a single professional body that has an entry-level professional at its head.

The reality is, teachers aren’t some superhuman species imbued with some professional brilliance that makes them better than GPs or Chartered Surveyors. We are trained for a job. And all the while that some of those teachers also acquire the skills to lead large organisations, it is great that we can have a qualified and experienced teacher at the head of a professional body; but let’s be serious: it’s not the talent for imparting phonics knowledge that is required to manage a large charity.

Of course, the real issue here is not the appointment of  the CEO. Those who are wholeheartedly opposed to the College – or who object to the way it has been developed – would likely have opposed any appointment, just as those who object to the existence of the BBC would never welcome a new Director General.

For those of us who would like to see if this thing can work, it strikes me that you would struggle to find a better starting point as CEO than Dame Alison Peacock – an experienced teacher and headteacher, a strong figurehead who is widely supported by the profession, and someone who has publicly spoken in the past against proposals from government.

Some will always be happy to throw stones, just as there are those who continue to criticise the BBC. Personally I hope that both groups are proven to be in a minority.

A foolish consistency – the Primary School disease?

Let me start by saying that I think consistency is vital in schools. Pupils need to know that the behaviour policy will apply equally to everyone, and be applied equally by everyone. If a school has a uniform, then rules about it should be fairly and consistently applied to all. Children in Year 4 are entitled to just as good teaching as children in Year 6.

But there are limits. And it seems that too many primary headteachers cross them, to my mind. Not all, of course, but too many. On Twitter today a perfect example was shared by Rosie Watson (@Trundling17):

There is a headteacher – or senior leadership team – somewhere that thought it was an useful use of its time to come up with a list of 30 “must haves” that include how the classroom door must be signed, and that pegs must be labelled in week 1.

I wasn’t even that surprised when I saw it, because I’ve known far too many schools get caught up in such nonsense. Display policies can sometimes be the most read in a primary school, and I’ve known them include things like:

  • drapes must be used to soften the edges of displays
  • all work should be double-mounted
  • topic boards must be changed at least every 2 weeks
  • all classrooms must display a hundred square
  • all staples must point in the same direction

The point is that none of these things is necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, the one about staples appeals to my slightly frenzied mind. But to dictate it to a staff of highly-trained professionals? To expect teachers to spend their time and energy on such things rather than planning and preparing for learning strikes me as crazy.

What surprised me most about Rosie’s post, though, was not the content –  I fear that’s all too common – but the fact that some headteachers then tried to defend such approaches. The claims were that it was a useful reminder, or helpful for new teachers.

I have two issues with this. Firstly, the list is very clearly presented as a list of expectations to be met and judged against – not just helpful reminders. Secondly, these are not all good uses of someone’s time. If they were recommendations that I was free to ignore (and believe me, I would ignore a good number of them), then that’s fine, but that’s clearly not the case here.

If a school is insistent that its classroom doors have name labels in a certain style, then it should organise this administrative task, not simply demand it of teachers. Teachers’ time should be spent on things that directly impact teaching and learning, and precious few of these do.

Sadly, such “non-negotiables” seem to have become something of  a norm in school, with headteachers thinking that the way they ran their classrooms is now the way that others should follow suit. But it’s madness.

Headteachers are well aware of the strategic/operational divide between governors and heads, but they should consider a similar separation from the involvement in classrooms. Absolutely it is the place of the headteacher to lead on matters of curriculum and learning, and even to set the broad principles and expectations for the “learning environment” (oh, how I hate that term!), but that’s not the same as specifying the date by which your pegs are labelled.

The only other argument that was tentatively put forward was for schools which are in “a category”. Now here, I have some sympathy with heads who take on a school where things are a mess. Sometimes a clear list of expectations helps to brings things out of a pit – but that clearly isn’t the case here. If classrooms are untidy, it’s reasonable to expect that they be tidy; if disorganised cloakrooms are delaying learning, then it’s reasonable to expect something to be done about it. But no school was ever put in Special Measures because boards were backed with ‘inappropriate’ colours, or because  a Year 6 classroom didn’t have a carpet area.

And if  a school is in measures, then it probably shouldn’t be wasting its attention on how the classroom door is labelled! Both the leadership team and the teachers more widely should be focusing on the things that make the most difference to teaching and learning. Of course expectations should be raised, but that doesn’t need to be done through a foolish consistency.

Headteachers and Senior Leadership teams: you are busy enough – don’t sweat the small stuff, and certainly don’t make others sweat it for you!

(P.S. I’m a real rebel: I don’t label pegs at all!)

For an indication of some of the mad things that are dictated in primary schools, take a look at this Storify in response to my tweet:

RSCs… you ought to know better!

This week, Schools Week also have an article sharing the news that Russell Hobby of the NAHT has made a similar point to RSCs, but probably far more professionally. You can read the article here:


Last month I wrote about how I feared that Local Authorities were preventing schools from moving confidently away from levels.

Today, I have Regional Schools Commissioners in my sights. I’ve been concerned about this for a while because increasingly I see people who are doing their best to cope in a world without levels suddenly faced with demands for data from external agencies.

And in the case of Regional Schools Commissioners: they ought to know better. Yet clearly they don’t, otherwise we wouldn’t be seeing queries like these:

“We’re asked to predict progress for current Y6 (by RSC). How would you suggest we go about it?”

One of the most significant changes in the world after levels is the way in which progress is to be calculated across primary schools. It has deliberately moved away from a threshold model, so that schools can focus on improving the attainment of all pupils, instead of focussing disproportionately on those who are close to a threshold. It’s a shift that I happen to think is an excellent idea.

But it’s also a shift that means that it’s very difficult to predict outcomes, and impossible to predict progress measures. Attainment is hard to predict because we don’t know where the thresholds will lay. You can estimate what you think children need to be able to do, and guess where the threshold might be set, and then try to estimate which children are on track… but that’s a lot of approximation.

For progress, there is simply nothing you can do. Your school’s progress score will depend not on how many cross that magic 100 threshold, but on exactly how many marks each child gets on each test. And then on how every other child in the country scores. Even after the tests are completed, it will take the DfE months to calculate the first sets of progress scores; what hope has anyone got of predicting a measure based on so many complex factors?

The problem, of course, is that these people are still stuck on “old thinking”. Of course you can attempt to replicate the old systems. You can look at the number of children working at Level 2 in KS1 who you hope will reach the expected standard. But that brings us back to the guesses about attainment. You can look at the number of children who were working at Level 3, who you hope will reach some greater measure… except no such threshold exists. And even if we did know the thresholds, they’re virtually insignificant. The difference between a child getting 99 or 100 is far less important than the difference between another child getting 91 or 97 – even if they don’t meet the “expected standard”.

The aim of the new system is to stop schools from focussing on borderline pupils. To do that, you have to remove as many borderlines as you can. For RSCs not to understand that is concerning, and for them to put additional pressures and demands on schools for imaginary data that won’t help school improvement at all is unacceptable. Indeed, far from helping, they may end up driving exactly the sort of flawed behaviour that went on before that we’re trying to get rid of!

Or as Jamie Pembroke put it far more succinctly than have I:


The appraisal elephant in the assessment room

One of the most useful things in the recent Assessment Commission report was the clarity with which it set out the three main purposes of assessment:


It’s quite clear that the purposes of day-to-day assessment (which I like to call ‘feedback’) and summative assessment are separate. The formative stuff is about what happens in the classroom: the information the teacher needs, the impact on the pupils. The summative stuff is simply that: a single data point that gives us an indication of outcomes.

When it comes to appraisal, many schools are struggling to work out how to replace the sorts of targets that used to be based on levels and sub-levels. Personally, given the choice, I’d scrap them altogether, but I realise that’s a long way off in most schools. So what in the interim?

Historically, teachers used their on-going assessments in the classroom to fill in things like the APP grids. Then the judgements they made fed into an overall level for each child, and summary data was thus produced, collated, and turned into an outcome on which teachers were judged. And in many cases, teachers would tick or untick as many boxes as it took to make the official judgement match the level they had already decided upon. I know it happened: I’ve seen it done, and I’ve done it plenty.

If we try to use our formative assessments to create a summative judgement against which we can judge teachers, then we have no hope of maintaining that separation of formative from summative. I don’t think that teachers are out to cheat the system in the slightest. Nor do I think that teachers will do anything for a pay rise. But I do think that the judgements made in appraisal meetings weigh heavy on teachers’ minds, and that consciously or otherwise these are likely to affect the accuracy and integrity of teacher assessment data. Not because they want the pay rise, but because they want to be thought of as good teachers.

If we insist on setting data-based targets, then surely it is much clearer and fairer to separate that judgement of the teacher from the teachers’ judgements of pupils. All the time we use teachers’ own assessments as a tool to judge them, we can only expect one to influence the other. If we just have data targets, then lets use a simple baseline and end-of-year test, where teachers know that the expectation is to improve attainment in a key area, but aren’t then expected also to produce the data that proves the impact they’ve had.

Otherwise, no matter how good your assessment system’s design, it’s destined to fail.

Top dog? No, thanks!

This morning, Sean Harford posted a fascinating question on Twitter:

And so I wrote this:

When I was looking for a deputy post, I couldn’t help but notice how few there were compared to the number of headships being advertised. I came to the conclusion that many people were reaching the position of deputy… And then sitting tight.

I deliberately sought out schools that Ofsted deemed to Require Improvement. Having been on the journey to Good as a middle leader I’d eventually enjoyed the challenge and the pleasure of reaching that goal (if not necessarily the whole journey). So now I am deputy in an RI-graded school, trying to do everything I can to help the school to improve.

I’m prepared to put in the hours. I’m certainly open to new evidence and approaches. I’m trying as hard as I can to strike the right balance between challenge and support of my colleagues in school.

But you can be sure that if my school’s headteacher decided to pack it all in tomorrow, I wouldn’t be putting my name in the hat!

That’s not to say that I’d never want to be a Head: my mind changes on that pretty much weekly. But who in their right mind would take on that challenge in the knowledge of what fate might befall you if things take a badly-timed turn?

Consider an example RI school. It’s not on a rough inner city sink estate or anything of the sort, but it has its challenges. Attendance is definitely a tougher challenge than in many schools in leafy suburbs. Attainment is definitely lower on intake. Parents naturally want the best for their children, but are not always able to provide it. Recruitment is hugely challenging.

Raising standards in these schools takes the work of the whole school community. But the buck stops in one place.

Imagine such a school gets an unexpectedly bad set of results one year. We know it happens.
And imagine it then gets a badly-led inspection team visit that year. We know it happens.

What then, the consequences for a headteacher who has perhaps been in post for 20 months? The stakes now are massive.

Of course, I’m not arguing that leading ‘Good’ schools is easy. But look at the data on Ofsted outcomes compared to intakes and you can see why the risks might at least be lessened. And true, there’s the risk of being deemed to be coasting now, so perhaps all headships will become equally unappealing in due course, which I guess certainly alters, if not solves, the problem.

But there is a reality to face about schools in challenging circumstances. Firstly they’re not rare. The catastrophic environments that make the press might be, but there are plenty of schools dealing with challenges in their communities and trying to do the best by the families they serve. Secondly, there’s no over-supply of excellent leaders ready to leap in and save them.
And high stakes inspection isn’t always helping.

So what should Ofsted do?

Firstly, I’d like to see new leaders given time. Not unfettered freedom to fail, but time to make the changes that will lead to visible impact before inspectors are forced to nail colours to the mast, and leaders to the cross.

Ideally, Ofsted would still have an involvement with the school. I think the link between an RI school and its HMI should be strengthened. In fact, ideally, I’d like to see all inspections led by an HMI who then remains responsible for any schools put into a category or RI. And that responsibility should be greater than a single check-up after twelve weeks. I’d like to see HMIs visiting at least termly to provide the robust challenge and guidance that may well be needed. That way, the same inspector who made the initial recommendations can also follow up on progress. There is still an issue of HMI having to judge progress against recommendations which they might not really agree with. And perhaps still a case of too many lead inspectors writing reports offering spurious targets for improvement, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be somebody else’s problem.

If inspectors stayed with a school on its journey to Good, then they could offer both challenge and support to leaders – particularly new ones – for up to 2 years before a new inspection takes place.

Of course, schools shouldn’t be allowed to avoid ever being inspected by repeatedly replacing the headteacher. But a linked HMI could recommend further inspection at any time if s/he felt it were needed or appropriate. If a school can be turned around in 12 months then early confirmation could be welcomed; if an HMI recognises progress towards Good is being made at an appropriate rate, then delaying an inspection to allow the school to focus on the task at hand ought not to be feared.

Of course, that means having enough high quality HMI available, and I don’t know if Ofsted yet has that capacity. But if not, perhaps that should be a priority?

Do I think that these changes alone will magic away the recruitment challenge, and encourage all those sitting deputies to step up? Probably not – there’s a lot more needs to be done by DfE ministers to change their tone in that respect… But it would certainly go a way to reducing the risk that we might one day end up with a nation of sitting deputies!

You can have too much of an Outstanding thing

I’ve never been a fan of the “Outstanding” label. I’m generally of the view that Ofsted would be much better focusing its energies on simply whether or not schools meet a required standard.
But in recent years the reverence afforded to schools which have at some point been graded as Outstanding has begun to far outstrip that which they necessarily deserve. And perhaps more importantly, the scrutiny which they are given does not match the freedoms they are afforded.
The decision to exempt Outstanding schools from inspection was always a mistake. We know from inspections forced upon previously Outstanding schools that they can slip from the pedestal – some dropping directly into RI or a category. Yet we continue to allow some schools to work for years unexamined. That’s particularly surprising considering the changes due to come in from September for ‘Good’ schools. The new ‘light-touch’ one-day review process could – indeed should – have been extended to all Outstanding schools too. Currently schools can trade for too long on an Outstanding label undeservedly. How soon would a desk analysis pick up weakness? When the school slipped so far as to Require Improvement? Only when things a more serious?
And perhaps none of this would be so problematic if it weren’t for the power we afford these schools. Teaching Schools must be Outstanding; when Ofsted looks for new additional inspectors, it turns only to Good and Outstanding schools; headteacher representatives on regional boards are drawn exclusively from Outstanding academies. If you’re fortunate enough to inherit a strong school, then barring disaster, the world is your Oyster.
But notice, none of these rules require Outstanding individuals. Rather it is those associated with Outstanding schools that are lauded. What of the excellent headteacher who has turned around three failing schools to make them consistently Good? Or the headteacher who leads his school through astounding challenges from external influences? Do these deserve less influence than the fortunate individual who inherits a school that happened to be Outstanding in 2007? How long can we keep this up. Is a ten-year-old Outstanding grade under completely different leadership still valid? Fifteen years?
The decision by Ofsted raises particular doubts. Most colleagues welcome the inclusion of more practising school leaders in inspection teams, but are leaders who are themselves exempt from inspection really the best candidates for the role? As the inspectorate attempts to salvage its reputation from the nonsense of preferred methodology and approaches, are the headteachers who profited under the older, increasingly discredited, system really likely to be the drivers of change?
Of course, there will be many headteachers who have turned schools around in difficult circumstances, and whose wisdom and experience we out to use art the system level. But let’s not confuse outstanding headteachers with Outstanding schools; the two are not always synonymous.

As an aside, it’s worth noting that the threshold to reach Outstanding may just become a little more challenging from September, in terms of inspection if not quality. Good schools will face a single day’s inspection to check they are still good before being hit with a further two-day visit to complete a full Section 5 inspection to consider whether they are outstanding. One might wonder if there aren’t incentives there for school leaders who want to be left alone to do their job well to ensure that they aren’t at risk of being thought outstanding. Increasingly we see good heads aiming for their own excellence rather than that of the Ofsted ilk. Might we miss out on more good systems leaders simply because they refuse to play the Ofsted game?

The Challenge for the DfE with Workload

Who’d be a politician, eh?

You get the blame for everything, and yet relatively little power to do much about it.

It seems that the response to the Workload Challenge has not been received with great joy… but then, was it ever going to be? The results of the survey speak for themselves. Over 40,000 teachers responded, and the two biggest drivers of workload according to those responses? Ofsted and School Leaders, neither of which are directly within the control of the department.

The two most often-mentioned tasks that added to workload? Excessive data and excessive marking. No prizes for guessing who the main drivers of those excessive demands are.

One has to ask what people were really looking for from the DfE in response to these challenges.


The reality is that the DfE had tasked itself with a mission of improving something that it really couldn’t control. It’s true, they’ve worked with Ofsted to take some small steps to try to alleviate that problem, continuing in an existing vein, but they have gone to some lengths over recent years to stop micro-managing school leaders.

The sad truth for teachers is that the vast majority of the excessive workload we suffer is caused by school leaders, trying to dance to the tune of an inadequate and inconsistent inspectorate.

So what of the proposals from the response? When taken in the context of what the department can actually control, it’s a mixed bag.

Some things to welcome:

  • Minimum lead-in times for major changes – one of the worst things about the current government’s approach has been its endless rush to change things, without any thought about the impact on schools, or any preparation itself for implementation.
  • No changes to examination subjects during a course cycle – it’s frankly a disgrace that this would even ever be in doubt, but certainly a relief to see that it’s here.
  • Commitment to improved Quality Assurance for Ofsted reports – a major issue, although QA for the whole Ofsted process is probably just as necessary
  • Focus on coaching of headteachers – too many of the workload demands in our schools are caused by ineffective school leaders trying to cover all bases with paperwork. We need to support good headteachers more effectively, and challenge weaker ones.
  • Work with the EEF to link research to more practical advice about implementation – feedback has become king on the back of research, but is too often interpreted as “more marking”. We need more direction for schools – especially those with weak leaders – on what these things look like.
  • DfE taking a closer look at data collection and analysis challenges – it’s an on-going challenge, again driven by Ofsted and weak leaders, so evidence of effective practice that isn’t unmanageable should be welcomed.

Some missed opportunities:

  • The minimum lead-in times have too many caveats, and significantly leave out the key elements of assessment; assessment is such a driver in schools now that the lead-in time should include it and all parts of policy. I’d also have liked to have seen a longer period, and much higher expectations that no changes are made that affect students within a key stage. No change is that important educationally; it’s only politics that forces the rush.
  • It’s a shame that there isn’t a role for Ofsted in providing good practice evidence of manageability of workload; the department can say all it likes about workload, but until the inspectorate is singing from the same hymn sheet, schools will still feel compelled to produce more and more paperwork to satiate any of the random selection of inspectors they might be faced with.

So, no, the department won’t get praise from every quarter – they never would have. But we’ve made some small steps of progress, and it seems that there is a genuine understanding that this is a serious issue that needs tackling. As professionals we have a duty to begin to get our own house in order, but certainly as a member of the Teacher Reference Group I’ll also be pushing for workload to remain on the department’s agenda, and to see more changes in the future.

At least we’re heading in the right direction.


Is Ofsted leading schools to mis-direct their energies?

There is much to be said for Ofsted’s willingness to change over recent years, and for its recognition of the limitations of its capability. Its decision to bring all inspectors in-house should probably be welcomed; its abandonment of lesson gradings has been widely praised… but is it actually achieving its purpose of raising standards?

As both inspections and reports become briefer, there is a risk that the guidance that schools are given on improvements, rather than raising standards may actually serve to distract a school from the work of improving its provision. After all, 10 hours is barely long enough to get any idea of what a school is like, let alone to accurately work out what it needs to do to improve. Yet, for some reason, inspection reports now insist on setting out what needs to be done.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that seems only to have arisen as inspections have shortened. Take one school as an example – a primary school in my hometown. When inspected in 2004 it was satisfactory, ten years later it requires improvement. Reading of the reports suggests that the reasons are similar in both cases: progress in core subjects was not good enough (and hence outcomes not high enough given the favoured intake).

In 2004 it was inspected by 5 inspectors over 3 days (15 inspector-days in total, still a reduction from earlier inspections); in 2014 it had just 3 inspectors for 2 days – less than half the time. In 2004, inspectors limited themselves to indicating what needed to be improved, based on its more thorough inspection: it was for the governors (supported by the professionals who knew the school well) to set out a plan of how this was to be achieved:


Compare this to the 2014 inspection, where after just 6 inspector-days of work it seems that Ofsted feels that it can tell exactly what needs to be done:


Notice that the essential problem was the same: children were deemed to be making insufficient progress from their starting points. In the former case, it was for the school to set about improving that: Ofsted merely reported what it found. By 2014 Ofsted seems to see its role as directing those improvements.

This is almost certainly an understandable reaction to claims that Ofsted merely sat in judgement and failed to support schools to improve. However, does this really achieve that?

It strikes me that if children are not making enough progress during their primary years then the issues may well run deeper than making sure they’ve understood tasks in lessons and responding to marking. In fact, I’d argue that the first bullet point would be a ridiculous claim to make on the basis of a few lesson observations over 2 days. But isn’t that exactly the problem? That’s all the inspectors had to go on.

And so, no doubt, that school will now be investing its time and efforts into the bullet points put forward by Ofsted. When inspectors next return, tasks will be well-explained (although not necessarily well-chosen or used), mini-plenaries will abound to check that children know what they’re doing (although not necessarily learning), a new marking policy will have been developed (with the resulting dialogue, despite the recent clarification) and leaders will be checking on the quality of teaching and learning… by checking that tasks are being explained and mini-plenaries used.

Nowhere is there any advice that the school might look at the quality of its curriculum provision, or evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of its teaching and set out a plan accordingly. No: Ofsted has made its judgements on the basis of a few drop-ins, and that will now direct the school’s efforts for the next 2 years.

The fact is, two days is not long enough for an inspection team to ascertain what needs to be done to improve provision in a school. If it were, being a headteacher would be easy; consultants would be redundant; school improvement would be a picnic. By imagining that an inspection team have the knowledge or understanding of a school’s situation to effect improvements, we are being fooled. And by letting them dictate the direction of school improvement, how much time is being wasted in schools up and down the country in making changes to meet the bullet points, rather than to improve provision?

Increasingly it is becoming clear that flying inspection visits are not adequate for the real detail of school improvement; they can provide but a snapshot – even over a week. That’s not to say that the snapshot might not be useful; merely to note that an identification of the issues is not necessarily enough to propose a cure.

Maybe a medical model is worth considering? Inspectors can do a fair job as General Practitioners: brief check-ups and dealing with minor ailments, but where a school really needs improvement, perhaps it should be referred to the appropriate specialist for further examination and treatment. Otherwise we risk simply issuing the same simplistic treatments to everyone for everything.

Doubtless in many other schools there are teachers who know that they’re focussing on the wrong things because of Ofsted ‘bullet points’ – I’d welcome your comments telling me about them (anonymous comments welcome)