Ofsted. Six little letters that strike fear into the heart of everyone working in education. My children’s school, Weyfield Primary Academy, was last inspected in January 2013 and was judged to be ‘Good’ across the board after a transformational year where our socks were well and truly pulled up from being ‘inadequate’. At the time, every parent, teacher and staff member was over the moon – hence this overexcited blog post at the time. (You can read the actual report here )
Most parents want their child to go to a ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ school, right? So why on Earth have I and several other parents written to Ofsted in the past couple of weeks asking them to reinspect the school with a view to downgrading our Good rating? I don’t know if there’s any precedent for this, it’s so counter-intuitive. So let me try and explain my personal thinking.
The fact is that our ‘current’ Ofsted report is a historical document. It is an account of our school at another time entirely and I believe – as do many other parents – that it is now seriously misleading for prospective parents. The day after we were inspected, the academy group TKAT took over our school, and it has gone into sharp decline. Schools can change frighteningly quickly – and not just for the better – when they become academies.
We now have concerns about all four areas covered in an Ofsted report:
- The leadership and management. You know this already: just 18 months after that glowing report, the much-missed Simon Wood, our head who was so good that Ofsted’s lead inspector described the school as ‘magical’ left suddenly in January this year. We also lost our fab deputy, and many other senior teachers have since left or resigned. (TKAT, by all accounts, is not a favourite organisation of teachers and heads, who seem to leave in droves, often under mysterious circumstances, whenever the trust goes into a school). The new head Neil McDonough, who started at Easter, is a consultant who is in school three days a week. He’s still settling in, and as I said in my last post we will fully support him and his team, but the fact is that the current Ofsted report is not about TKAT’s management or his leadership.
- The behaviour and safety of pupils. A small but very disruptive group of children in Year 6 have been pretty much out of control since January. There have been worrying reports of bullying and appalling behaviour. Rules have been routinely broken and not enforced. Some challenging children are apparently no longer being properly supported.
- The quality of teaching. The teachers who are still at the school and were part of the previous head’s team are great, but they are now being spread thin on the ground and I gather there is over-reliance on temporary staff. I am not convinced that the most able children are being pushed or supported adequately, since so much time is taken up dealing with the more challenging children. I hear staff morale is still low.
- The achievement of pupils. We were on track for significantly improved SATs this year, up from being officially ‘below floor’ – ie one of the worst in the country – but I would not be surprised if they end up not being quite as stellar as anticipated. A number of children in Year 6 were due to take the advanced Level 6 SATs papers – the first time in the school’s history that this would have happened – but in the end none of them sat the papers, without parents being informed or consulted. This does not seem to be serving the most able children in the school – what happened to our ‘reach for the stars’ ethos? I do wonder if this decision was taken to avoid the risk of the children taking the papers but not achieving this level after all the disruption at the school, as this would negatively impact our SATs and reflect badly on TKAT. This possibility is deeply worrying.
I know that being ‘Ofstedded’ is a hideous and deeply stressful experience for heads, deputies and teachers in schools. And because I think our remaining teaching team is fab and has been through an awful lot in the past six months, I kind of don’t want them to have to deal with inspectors again so soon. But I believe, in the end, it will be in the best interests of the school.
A new Ofsted inspection would draw a line under the past six months and give the new leadership team, and parents, a true picture of where we are now, and what our journey from here needs to look like. Coasting on an old report that reflects a completely different set of staff, ideas, values, actions and plans doesn’t do anyone any favours. Our previous head was first inspected two weeks after he arrived, and it was the best thing that could have happened, as the follow-up 12 months later, just before TKAT arrived, demonstrated just how far and fast we had come.
When any new leader comes into an organisation, there is fall-out among the current team, and people leave. Some people won’t like, accept or respect the new boss or their ideas or style; some will be loyal to the old regime; some will not meet the needs or standards of the new leader. For others, it’s simply an opportune time to move on. It’s hard to lead a team that isn’t ‘yours’. When our previous head arrived, a lot of people left by mutual consent and a lot of new faces arrived. The same is true now. We’re losing a worrying number of talented teachers, who will be missed, but our new head needs to build his own team to move the school forward according to his own vision. Whatever page we are on, all the staff need to be on the same one, for the sake of their own enthusiasm, commitment and job satisfaction, and for the sake of the children.
Neil has already made at least one brilliant appointment: our deputy head Mei Lim. She arrived just over two weeks ago via the Teach First programme to get the highest-calibre graduates into education, and already it’s clear that she will be a significant factor in getting the school back on track. She’s super-bright, approachable, a great communicator and clearly knows her stuff. My kids are a bit in love her already – as DD said, ‘she’s just like Mr Wood – she is really strict when she needs to be, but the rest of the time she is really friendly’. She already seems to know the names of all the staff and children, and is highly visible on the front gate every morning and afternoon. And she has good shoes. We have high hopes of Mei: she may yet turn out to be our silver lining.
There’s some confusion over whether Ofsted still inspects individual schools once they become academies, if they are not in special measures, or if they only inspect all the schools in a chain. Our local MP is writing to Ofsted to find out under what circumstances Ofsted might be likely to inspect either just Weyfield or all TKAT’s 39 schools. Recent blitzes of the E-Act academy chain (where a number of failing schools were taken away from the trust) and the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ schools affair indicate that the way academy chains run their schools is certainly on the inspection agenda. There’s little evidence that parents can have enough influence to ‘trigger’ an inspection, but with all the bad press, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if one was on the cards anyway.
I have championed and defended Weyfield for a long time, and have no personal complaint against the school or anyone in it. My smalls are fortunately still perfectly OK, happy, safe and engaged in their Year 1 and Year 3 classes. But my children are the most important things in the world to me, and there has been such a lot of upheaval that I am concerned that the school may not actually be currently delivering them a ‘Good’ education, or is a place where they can achieve their potential. Much as I love my kids being at an officially ‘Good’ school, if we’re honest, the current Ofsted report is not an accurate, up-to-date reflection of where we are today.
I would be absolutely delighted if Ofsted came in and confirmed we were still a different sort of Good. The new leadership team seems convinced that their three-year plan and vision for the school, outlined last week and sent home today, means that we can still reach Outstanding. Although as one dad said last week, ‘I’d rather the school got back to Good and was still magical, than reached Outstanding and was dull’. Mei Lim responded confidently at a parents meeting last week that being creative and outstanding aren’t mutually exclusive. I really, really hope she’s right, and that we eventually get there after our major setback. In the meantime, I still think it’s time that an inspector called…