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Ofsted – why it’s not a force for good, but a Sword of Damocles hanging over education

Continuing inspections at a time like this doesn't work, says Simon Smith...

  • Ofsted – why it’s not a force for good, but a Sword of Damocles hanging over education

Picture this. It’s the winter of 2021, and in my one-form entry school, eight staff are off sick. Eight!

These staff are fully jabbed, and yet are so poorly that they can’t move – fatigued to the point of constant bed rest. Three of them are already beyond the 10-days-off mark, and are still far too ill to come to work. 

My supply budget is shot (it wasn’t very big to begin with) and I’m seeing the worst attendance in my eight years at the school; even so, at 93 per cent during the second autumn term, I know we’re still an awful lot better off than many primaries. 

And yet, amongst this melange of less-than-ideal circumstances, looms Ofsted. 

Ofsted ratings

After two years locked in the cupboard, the dreaded inspectorate is back – not as a force for good or improvement, but as a dark villain wielding its Sword of Damocles. 

Ofsted seems to have no understanding of what we’ve been through over the past 24 months. I’ve seen heads in recent terms more worried than they’ve ever been, and so much is being done in the name of HMI that you can smell the burnout a mile off. 

For instance, if you’re a small primary, the workload for all staff is immense. Yet, from reports it seems that Ofsted is leaping on every inconsistency, and taking no account of the sterling work done over the last two years.

Meanwhile, other services have been so overwhelmed that schools have been left to pick up the slack. Mental health, speech and language, early interventions and social care are all running beyond capacity – don’t even start me on SEND.

But these are all necessary services, and so if they’re not provided elsewhere, schools feel they have to try and do something, for the good of the pupils. If only we could hand the government our non-negotiables! 

Trying our best

I bet you can already hear those sanctimonious voices at this point, too, saying “Don’t do anything just for Ofsted,” but actually there is a significant amount of self-preservation that goes into jumping through the hoops.

Every day is a fresh challenge, and to be honest I’ve had to become much better at compartmentalising the stresses and not losing sight of the job. As have many in my position. 

But despite all this effort from teachers up and down the country, MPs are blaming schools, and trying to instate laws that make it a lot more difficult for us to close. What a kick in the teeth.

I don’t disagree that kids should be in school, but the rhetoric stings when the government itself has done practically nothing to keep schools open safely. 

There have been barely any mitigations – the CO2 monitor rollout was totally tone-deaf, masks have only just been mandated in secondaries two years into the pandemic, not to mention, to add insult to injury, recent comments about schools feeding children instead of educating them

On top of all that, exams and SATs are planned to go ahead. They will be far from fair. Personally, it saddens me to feel those pressures returning to KS2.

I’m sure many of you would agree that circumstances were much better for Year 6, and often made children more ready for secondary school, by leaving out SATs.

Not having to cram for standardised tests meant time for a broader curriculum offer, and we didn’t have a post-SATs drop-off in engagement (and attendance). 

So, where does this leave me? Sat here at five o’clock in the morning, laughing at it all. Because what else can I do? Who knows the eventual toll this will take on us, or where we’ll be at the end of it.

Like most teachers and heads across the UK, I will plough on and try and do what’s best for my pupils and my staff. 

All I know for sure is it’s laugh or cry right now, and the former scares my colleagues less. 

Simon Smith is a principal and teacher at the Enquire Trust. Follow Simon on Twitter @smithsmm

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