Ofsted must do more to acknowledge staff who go the extra mile

18 Dec 2019, 14:09

Schools with more pupils from deprived backgrounds are still less likely to be judged ‘good’. Ofsted must do more to understand the challenges they face, argues Stephen Tierney.

Last night on a dark, wet and windy night in Blackpool, a hardy group of staff from Christ the King, St. Cuthbert’s and Westminster Academies shifted six thousand pounds of food from Aldi.

It’s now on its way to 160 needy families whose children attend the schools.

The hard reality is those schools and staff working in the most disadvantaged areas are graded more harshly by Ofsted

It was all voluntary, all in their own time. These people require our thanks even though they don’t ask for it nor expect it.

However, the simple reality is Ofsted are far more likely to tell them they require improvement.

Despite all the promises and PR announcements when the latest inspection framework was being consulted on, the hard reality is those schools and staff working in the most disadvantaged areas are graded more harshly by Ofsted.

People can sit in their ivory towers explaining why this is wholly appropriate, but for me it fails the twin tests of common sense and natural justice. It cannot be right or just that this continues.

The fundamental problem is an assessment one. The inspection process suffers from significant construct under-representation.

Construct under-representation means the assessment is too small – there are elements missing from the assessment. This is a threat to the validity of any conclusions drawn. Think grading and comments.

In this case, the construct we are talking about is the quality of education for children in some of the most economically and socially deprived areas of the country.

Eight of the top ten most deprived areas in England are actually in Blackpool. I’ve worked here for nearly twenty years and I still wonder whether I really, deeply understand the level of deprivation our children and young people experience and have to overcome.

The idea that, in a two day visit, a couple of over-worked inspectors can contextualise in any way the work being done by the school and the staff is not tenable.

This isn’t about whether individual inspectors are honest, earnest and fundamentally good people trying to do a reasonable job. They are. This is about ignorance at an institutional level that needs to be acknowledged and remedied.

My concern now is that Ofsted has told itself so often that “we contextualise”, it isn’t able to accept that it just doesn’t know what it doesn’t know. You can’t provide a contextual perspective that you don’t have. It’s unreasonable to expect that someone can. It is the system that is a mess.

Children need to be fed, kept warm and kept safe. Working in the most disadvantaged communities this isn’t a given nor an assumption that can be made.

It’s hard enough to rationalise this. You need to experience it on a daily basis to understand the impact of deep long term poverty on a child’s physical, emotional, mental and intellectual development.

An inspection framework full of rich curriculum and the cure-all tonic of cultural capital – both sensible and worthy elements of a child’s education and a school’s approach –makes a massive erroneous set of assumptions.

Children, and as a consequence the schools they attend, have very, very different starting points. It is unreasonable and unhelpful to condemn and shame schools for issues that society is unable to address or resolve.

Moving forward, there simply has to be a greater acknowledgement of those schools and staff who have to go the extra mile and then go another mile and another for the young people in their care and the communities they serve.

This starts with understanding the role of schools who are at the heart of their community including the most disadvantaged communities and the work they are actually called to do.

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  1. Frank Norris

    Good article Stephen. Ofsted will only achieve greater understanding of the pressures if it significantly increases the number of practising senior leaders from the most challenging schools. In addition, the idea that 16 days or so of inspection activity a year is sufficient to ensure rounded and well evidenced judgements is now doubtful, in my view. Having enjoyed and gained much from a year long Additional Inspector secondment with Ofsted earlier in my career I now feel we have to consider the suitability of some senior leaders doing Ofsted on a very part time basis.