We must think beyond reform and prioritise belonging

Ofsted reform is sorely needed but our staff, pupils and families can’t wait for the profession to heal itself before it heals them

Ofsted reform is sorely needed but our staff, pupils and families can’t wait for the profession to heal itself before it heals them

10 Dec 2023, 5:00

Ofsted’s annual report has been met with mixed reviews across the sector. School leaders cannot deny that recruitment and retention challenges, pupil absenteeism, poor behaviour, low attainment and fractured school-parent relations are troubling schools across the country. Likewise, it seems unavoidable that Ofsted should accept reasonable adjustments to its framework are necessary to account for this.

It is clear that the current system is not fit for purpose as the existing benchmarks are not realistic in this post-pandemic world of education. Without enough teachers to fill our classrooms, leaders cannot ensure the high-quality level of education that we would all expect. In reality, schools are lucky to have a full team of permanent teachers, let alone outstanding ones, with many having to plug the gaps with temporary measures. We must have a framework that accounts for the systemic issues schools face beyond their control, while empowering schools to improve areas that are at their disposal.

The reshaping of these structures remains up for debate, not least between Ofsted, unions, campaign groups and the department for education. However, as this fractious discussion continues it is clear that it will take time to agree on and implement a suitable framework. In the meantime, there is an opportunity for schools to focus on tangible and sustainable solutions which address the issues raised by Ofsted.

For me, there is a golden thread that, if executed successfully, will address many of the challenges within education. We must go back to the beginning and ensure our pupils, staff and families feel a sense of belonging to their school community. In this modern age of technology and after a long period of isolation during the pandemic, this has been lost. Recreating a feeling of belonging, being valued and being seen is the foundation on which everything else is built.

Bringing pupils together

By making our pupils feel they belong, there are clear signs that their attendance will increase. With this comes the opportunity to improve behaviour. Over time, this will lead to stronger outcomes.

At Mowbray, we are creating that sense of belonging by ensuring we are living by our values, giving staff time to connect with pupils and providing opportunities for pupils to explore their passions beyond the curriculum. We are looking for active ways for schools to participate in meaningful and emotive events of local and national significance – ones where we all do the same acts, at the same time, creating a powerful sense of togetherness. Although it is early days, this approach appears to be resonating. Already, attendance is improving.

Supporting staff to thrive

The concept of belonging is also essential to address the recruitment and retention crisis which affects many schools, including those in our trust. While pay is an issue across the sector, we are focusing on the elements that are more greatly within our control.

We provide clear pathways for progression, offering subscriptions to the national college, access to our aspiring leaders programme and our innovative immersion project to support headteachers moving into the trust. We also support staff wellbeing and provide trust networks to bring like-minded staff together to share best practice, helping to boost their self-fulfilment and satisfaction in working for us.

Raising expectations for families

For our families, belonging is equally important, especially in today’s polarised world. The fractured relationship between parents and schools referenced in Ofsted’s annual report is something we have witnessed over the past few years.

That is why, in July, I wrote to parents about the hostility our staff were receiving and the respect we would expect moving forward. This was received positively, and we have seen a marked improvement in our family relations. In such a polarised world, it is easy to pull back and feel we have to always say ‘yes’ to parents but we must not forget that we are the education experts and have a responsibility to protect our staff and a duty to our students as learners.

By appealing to families on a human level, we laid the groundwork for a transparent and trusted relationship, helping to create a greater sense of belonging. Of course, school events and good communication help with that too.

Ofsted or no Ofsted, sector unity and a sense of belonging in our communities are the first steps to bring schools back from the brink and ensure we thrive once again.

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