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Can Ofsted Fix Schools that are Stuck in ‘Requires Improvement’?

Will the investigation into schools that have been RI for over a decade get to the real heart of the matter, asks the Primary Head...

  • Can Ofsted Fix Schools that are Stuck in ‘Requires Improvement’?

Amanda Spielman is surprised that some ‘requires improvement’ schools are ‘stuck’. It is, she says, ‘nothing short of a scandal’ that these 290 primaries have not improved since 2005.

Now, while I agree with her that the thought of some children being unable to ever attend a ‘good’ school is something to be concerned over, I am a little sceptical of her plan to launch an investigation to find out why interventions that were put in place to support these schools have not worked.

First up, there’s the fact that these schools are RI in the first place and, as such, are under regular Ofsted scrutiny.

I don’t mean that they shouldn’t be regularly visited, but rather that being under ‘regular’ Ofsted scrutiny – as in subject to the full spectrum of the Ofsted framework – may not be entirely fair.

It may not be fair because it is likely that these schools will be going through hell and high water to improve teaching and learning so that outcomes improve.

This is no mean feat for any school, but especially for those in challenging circumstances. And these particular 290 schools are in challenging circumstances.

These are institutions where ‘the proportions of pupils who are eligible for free school meals and those who are white British pupils eligible for free school meals are well above the national average.’ Rapidly improving standards in these schools is hard.

This task is made harder when, as RI schools, they are also expected to be simultaneously implementing and improving every single facet of the Ofsted inspection handbook.

I’m not advocating that these schools should be cut some slack when it comes to providing high-quality teaching and learning, but I do wonder if, when they are next inspected, being judged against a scaled-down set of criteria might give them the space to focus on what is needed.

This idea is only going to be more relevant with the proposed update to the inspection framework.

If I was in a challenging and under-performing school and was focusing on ensuring that the basic skills of reading, writing and maths were being delivered effectively so that outcomes for children improve, the last thing I would want during an inspection was an inspector prodding around my wider curriculum, checking to see if it matched their own idea of what a school’s curriculum should be like.

I can almost hear my argument with the inspector who is challenging me on the breadth and balance of my school’s knowledge-rich curriculum: ‘But I haven’t had time for that, yet!’

It’s an unfortunate reality that when you are pushing to raise standards in a challenging context, you may have to prioritise the core curriculum – through which we are judged annually – and not the wider curriculum.

Nobody wants to do this but, sometimes, you have to. Because sometimes that is what your school will need for the immediate future.

So why can’t the inspectorate reflect that? I think a graduated inspection framework would be a great idea. It would steady the nerves of leaders in challenging circumstances.

It would light a fire under those coasting schools who should be innovating their curriculum. It would send a signal to outstanding schools that if they wish to continue displaying the ‘best school in the authority’ banner then they should be out there supporting other schools around them.

The other reason why I think Amanda Spielman’s proposed investigation might be misguided is because it may not take into account the real root of the problem. Chances are, these interventions that have been ‘supporting’ schools are likely to have been Ofsted facing: swift action based on what can be statistically measured. This does not take into account the needs of these schools’ communities.

How many of these interventions were linked to tackling poverty? How many sought to reduce the 26% of Y6 children from disadvantaged areas who are growing up obese? Did any of the interventions seek to help a school improve the quality of life for its pupils and families? Swiftly improving exam pass rates will have an impact on a child’s life chances, but I wish it wasn’t merely a drop in the ocean after taking into account the diminishing levels of equity afforded to our most vulnerable children and the dwindling of school budgets. And sadly, that is why I imagine the interventions in these schools have failed, but I’m not sure Amanda ‘no evidence cuts are harming education’ Spielman will see that.

The Primary Head is the headteacher of a UK primary school. Find them at theprimaryhead.com and on Twitter at @theprimaryhead.

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