Bernard's pieces for the Tes

It’s time to put Ofsted out of its misery

16 September 2018 

Schools need to be accountable, but the current system doesn’t sharpen accountability – it muddles and confuses it 

Few teachers will have resisted a feeling of schadenfreude on reading how Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman “disappointed” MPs, according to a report published by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

Little appears to please the honourable members. Short of cash and inspectors, Ofsted is struggling to maintain its inspection programme. The committee report says the inspectorate’s lost 52 per cent of its funding in real terms since 2000. Currently, it has a mere £44 million (from its overall budget of £151 million) to spend on schools.

Far be it from me to suggest that those millions might be more usefully employed in providing three additional classroom assistants in every school (even shared among some 20,000 English schools, £151 million is a tidy sum), or that inspectors might cover the shortfall by behaving like teachers in underfunded schools, working ever longer hours for no additional pay.

MPs disapprove of the fact that schools previously rated outstanding are not re-inspected, and are unhappy that one-day short inspections provide insufficient information. Above all, they complain that Ofsted is “not providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need".

There’s more grief for Ms Spielman. MPs want her to use her position more to “speak freely, without fear or favour”. By contrast, her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was seldom short of an opinion, frequently to MPs’ chagrin.

She says it’s not her role to generalise. Sticking rigidly to the HMCI brief – to make judgements based solely on evidence rigorously (we’re assured) gathered by her teams of inspectors – she declined to offer broader views about the effectiveness of the school system or the effects on schools of the funding squeeze.

This week saw the publication of NAHT’s Accountability Commission report. This important and welcome document urges a complete rethink of inspection. But for me, it doesn’t go far enough.

Ofsted is failing in its mission. Its schedule is slipping. MPs reckon one-day inspections aren’t delivering the goods: and schools know that such snapshot judgements are dangerous when the stakes are so high. The Inspectorate and the Department for Education are at loggerheads about both the narrowing of the curriculum and the very nature of inspection.

It gets worse. MPs’ insistence that inspections must give “valuable information to parents” is founded on the deeply flawed assumption that it’s possible to do that in the required shorthand, that one-word overall judgments have any useful meaning. The NAHT commission rightly deplores the use of “outstanding”.

The early 1990s saw huge teams of inspectors diving into every aspect of schools’ operation. Laudable thoroughness, perhaps, but it was clear such massive operations would quickly collapse under their own weight. The cumbersome system was saved by the exponential growth of computerised data-collection, though that technological breakthrough brought a damaging consequence in its wake. Over-reliance on data created intolerable pressure on schools and teachers: in Tes this week ASCL’s Geoff Barton rightly complains that Ofsted has become synonymous with teaching, rather than learning.

Ms Spielman wants to turn the clock back and revert to a broader, more qualitative judgement of schools. We’ve been there before: the proposal would merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic once more. How many times must we go round the same loop before someone has the courage to admit that inspection itself will never be made to work satisfactorily?

Make no mistake: schools must be accountable – accountable above all to the pupils and parents they serve. But our centralised and expensive top-down mechanism doesn’t sharpen accountability, it muddles and confuses it, promotes the measurable over the important – and pushes schools in directions they shouldn’t take.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee appears to have glimpsed this truth momentarily but remains stubbornly blind to the fact that it is scrutinising what Boris Johnson might term a turd – one which, moreover, will not be improved by any amount of French-polishing.

Schools know the truth: it’s time to put Ofsted out of its – and their – misery.

The teacher pay 'rise' is a slap in the face

08 September 2018

As if the inadequate pay rise wasn't insulting enough, the DfE now want struggling schools to cut costs further – it's outrageous 

In all the 59 years I knew my Mum, I rarely saw her angry, but one occasion sticks in my mind. She was entertaining some visiting Americans, a nice enough family, who displayed their somewhat complacent, if understandable, ignorance of what ordinary people here lived through during the Second World War (Mum was 17 in 1939).

She went rather pink, drew herself up to her full 5’ 3” and declared: “We were hungry. For six years we went without, made do and mended. We didn’t waste anything: and what we couldn’t eat went in the pig bin at the end of the street.”

I don’t recall what precisely touched that nerve: but it connects in my memory with that oft-repeated Dad’s Army rhetorical question: “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”

In his recent Tes interview, secretary of state Damian Hinds adopted a similar tone, albeit in a 21st-century austerity-era context: “Within the financial constraints that we had, and we did have financial constraints, and you saw that not just in the Department for Education but across the government departments in terms of having to have some continued restraint on pay…”

Crikey! There I was thinking that the DfE’s monotonously robotic spokesperson was some lowly functionary (or machine), not the boss!

Having justified the government’s meanness, Mr Hinds slapped school leaders in the face by defending what is, in effect, a pay-cut.Sanctimoniously he observed, “it was most important to focus more of the money on those in the lower half of the pay distribution”.

Now, on one level that might be fair. If, in a tight spot, we have only one cake to share, presumably an equitable division would give more to those most in need. But there’s a willful disingenuousness in the education secretary’s utterances.

To be sure, ministers have to fight their corner with Treasury, and the push for austerity continues. But that doesn’t render the decision just –there should be more money!

“Don’t you know there’s austerity on?” Mr Hinds didn’t quite cry, Corporal Jones-like, but his own government determined the size of the cake.

To claim some kind of virtue in giving that inadequate sum to lower-paid teachers is dishonest. All teachers should have received 3.5 per cent: that’s the collegial approach. Anything else is insulting to those excluded.

It’s smoke and mirrors. The government says it will find the extra money in October, but schools must find the first 1 per cent of the cost of living increase when they are already cutting staffing and subjects.Adding insult to injury, the department has recently issued guidance on money-saving and fundraising, as if schools hadn’t already tried everything! Some 4 per cent of school turnover is currently achieved through extra income raised by such activities as renting out facilities.


But it’s the classic Catch-22. Try telling politicians you can’t manage, and you get a pretty dusty response. Add to that 4 per cent with some creative income-creation or cost-cutting, and you’re congratulated – but you’ll be required to do still more with even less in future years.

Besides, it’s not raising the last 4 per cent that’s the problem: it’s making do with 96 per cent of an inadequate 100 per cent.

I burn with resentment on behalf of my former colleagues in schools, academies and, still more, FE colleges who do the impossible and, when it comes to their own salaries, get a slap in the face, with mealy-mouthed justification from the minister in charge.

Perhaps Westminster doesn’t know the story of the farmer who, fearing his horse was costing him too much to keep, gave it a little less food each day. When, after a couple of months, the horse died, its owner commented: “That’s a shame, it had almost got used to living on nothing at all.”

No. They wouldn’t get it.

Differential pay won't make teaching great again

1 September 2018

Increasing salaries for maths and science teachers in a bid to attract more graduates into teaching is unlikely to work

 “There are no great schools without great teachers.” So proclaims education secretary Damian Hinds. But there’s a teacher shortage.

We’ve been saying it for years, decades even: now the Education Policy Institute reports that maths and physics are being taught up and down the country (mostly outside London) by people who haven’t got a degree in them.

Of course, responding to a Times report on Thursday, the Department for Education issued its usual bland, robotic half-acknowledgement (and, inevitably, half-denial), quoting Mr Hinds’ dictum and reminding us that his “top priority is to make sure teaching remains an attractive and fulfilling profession”. No mention of how.

The EPI (Education Policy Institute) proposes paying more to teachers in shortage subjects. I’m unconvinced. The past few years have seen golden hellos offered, tuition fees waived and other wheezes tried: yet the crisis persists.

Perhaps the commercial world can indeed attract talent by accepting the reality of the market and paying more where shortages occur. But teachers don’t expect to get rich, and research demonstrates time after time that the decision to teach – or not – is not about money. Teachers are certainly driven by a sense of vocation: so why do too many who might go into teaching decide not to? Or leave soon after?

There are many answers, all of them partial. One lies in recent debates about exam malpractice, schools off-rolling pupils and other dirty tricks employed to improve exam results. An ex-headteacher myself (ex for just a few days), and appreciating the pressures they feel, I can understand why some school leaders succumb to such temptations, though I can’t excuse them.

Understandably, other viewpoints condemn such heads, believing that they should find the moral strength to withstand both pressure and temptation.

Arguments on both sides serve to illustrate the pressure in the system, in itself another answer. Great headteachers absorb pressure, trust their staff as professionals and thus grow great teachers and get great results. But where the pressure is transmitted downward, teachers feel it and suffer the resulting workload.

Media messages may deter would-be teachers.  How often do you read anything that would encourage them? The same (Thursday) edition of The Times that reported “half of maths and physics teachers quit in five years” included other education-related headlines: a proposed government ban on children buying energy drinks (hyperactivity and behaviour issues); girls put off careers in science by books telling them that space will ruin their hair (arguably a silly-season story); pupils aged five sent to a Pupil Referral Unit where a boy was stabbed; and, on the same page, repulsively, “one child in every classroom has received a naked image online”.

I know. Many other professions would similarly complain that only bad news makes headlines about them. But when the DfE and the Inspectorate fall out about the very nature of accountability through inspection; when even the education secretary fears Ofsted’s proposals for more qualitative judgement of schools risks increasing workload (which it does, on past form); when that same minister glibly claims that technology will reduce workload (we’ve heard it so many times…); and when his department’s two-page priorities document fails to mention producing altruistic, generous, creative adults prepared to play their part in society…

Add all these things up, and it’s small wonder that working in education appears, in the end, a less-than-attractive career choice for many.

Fortunately, many people of all ages still feel that vocation and, notwithstanding government pressure, insensitivity, interference and parsimony, they view teaching as a job they must do.

But there aren’t enough of them: and no quick fix, not even a backhander for mathematicians, will put that right.

Great teachers, like great schools, need vision, strategic planning and generous resources from government, not utilitarianism, micromanagement, tinkering and headline-grabbing.

To misquote a Trumpian mantra: “Let’s make teaching great again.” Trouble is, I can’t see anyone in Westminster about to do it.