It is important for headteachers to challenge what they feel is an unfair representation of their school, says Anne Clarke

Listening to the radio in early May, I heard that the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) had published research suggesting that Ofsted inspections deter deputies from becoming heads and drive out existing heads. Later that month, a draft of a major international report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) cited Ofsted as a problem and not a solution to improving school leadership. The report said that preparing for regular inspections means a lot of additional work and creates considerable strain for heads and staff. A greater emphasis on systematic self-evaluation was recommended (TES 23/5/08).

Ofsted is proposing changes to the system for September 2009, but not because it recognises the stresses and strains of the current system. I am not at all cheered by the suggested proposals. Christine Gilbert, the chief inspector, seems very negative about standards in schools, saying that they have ‘stalled’. Her tone is neither encouraging nor supportive. Christine Blower, acting secretary of the National Union of Teachers (NUT), describes the proposed system as ‘punitive’ (TES 23/5/08). There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

A negative approach
Having been through a recent Section 5 two-day Ofsted inspection, I can understand why the NAHT is saying that Ofsted is turning potential school leaders off headship. Normally I am a very positive person but I feel totally negative about the Ofsted inspection we underwent in February of this year. I believe the school gained nothing positive from the whole experience and that I had to work very hard afterwards to ensure that it did not have a detrimental effect on the immediate future of the school.

I spoke to other headteacher colleagues and found I was not alone in feeling so deflated and demoralised by the whole process. Some told me that – according to Ofsed – their school had gone from ‘outstanding’

to ‘satisfactory’ in three years, even though their examinations results had improved. They also found it hard to accept that they should be judged on CVA alone – when this is a flawed system – or on one single aspect of a school’s academic performance. With CVA it is possible to put pupils through courses that are not GCSEs, but which give the pupils the points that will inflate the CVA score. Should we all hand our pupils this set of cards in order to win the Ofsted game?

At this point I must add that I am happy for heads who have had an uplifting Ofsted experience, congratulate them, and I have no desire to take away any plaudits from them. However, I want to voice the other side of the story, in the hope that someone might listen and amend a system that may be preventing good deputies from becoming heads, and leaving current heads feeling let down, especially at a time when we have a recruitment crisis in headship.

At this stage it makes sense to explain why the whole process felt so negative. These points do not relate solely to my own school, Benton Park, but have been echoed by other heads to whom I have spoken. Similar alarming school experiences have been voiced in the TES (30/5/08). We were disappointed because:

  • The leadership team felt that the report could have been written without the inspectors ever coming into the school. Minds appeared to be made up, based on information gleaned from RAISEonline.
  • Everything was rushed. The emphasis seemed to be on getting a report written in two days, so no time was given to getting to know the school.
  • We were being judged by a team in which no member had headship experience.
  • The judgement for the whole school seemed to be based upon the school’s weakest point. In our case it was KS3 science. For other heads I have spoken to, it has been KS3 maths, CVA or suchlike.

I would like to dwell on this final point a little longer. I find it hard to accept that you can attempt to write a report, which is supposed to reflect a whole school, based upon one stage of one subject – even if it is a core subject. And it seems particularly strange, as KS4 science was not highlighted as a weakness and KS5 science is a strength of the school. If a teacher gave a pupil a poor report overall because he/she had under-performed in one aspect of one subject, the parents would, quite rightly, be up in arms. So why should headteachers not feel the same?

School background
As far as the school was concerned, we felt beforehand that we had nothing to fear from an Ofsted inspection. All the indicators are that it is a good school. We are not complacent, we really have raised standards. We did not think we were outstanding: we recognise that we can improve and we had already cited KS3 science as a weakness in the SEF, also pointing out measures we were taking to address this issue.

Why are we so convinced that ours is a good school? The box (opposite page) highlights some of the reasons. Ironically enough, it was on the day after the inspection that we received the letter from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) congratulating us on our outstanding GCSE results.

On the first day of the inspection, alone in my office, late in the day, I was told that the KS3 weakness was going to provide the basis for the final judgement. How can it be right that schools with excellent academic records are judged on one aspect of the school’s performance alone?

I consider myself resilient, but had to call on all my inner strength to propel myself into school the next day. School leaders have been directed to the work of Daniel Goleman on ‘emotional intelligence’ and I hope I am considerate when dealing with people. We are proud to have the Investor in People award. The colleagues involved in the inspection felt they were treated in a harsh manner. The Ofsted process offers no support and, in our case, the team walked away leaving us battered and bruised.

Why we are proud of Benton Park
Benton Park School, in Leeds, is a high-performing, inclusive 11 to 18 Technology College. As our mission statement says, it provides a caring learning environment where diverse achievements are valued, and pupils are prepared for lifelong learning in a technological society. We’ve got other reasons to consider it a good school, too, and these include:

  • Over the past three years, the 5A* – C, including English and maths, has increased by 10% (compared with an increase of 4% for the LA and a national increase of only 2%).
  • The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT) congratulated us on our outstanding GCSE results: (61% 5A* – C, including English and maths).
  • The Fischer Family Trust (FFT) placed us in the top 25% of schools in the country in terms of pupil achievement.
  • For A-level results we are an ALPS 2, confirming that we have a very good sixth form.
  • Our Contextual Value Added (CVA) at KS3 is the same as the LA average and improves at KS4 and again at KS5.

Evidence base
It is surely essential that all the judgements made by the Ofsted team are based on evidence, but during this inspection I did not feel this was the case. The school was given ‘satisfactory’ for finance, but no inspector asked for any documentation regarding finance and no one was asked any questions on finance. So where did that judgement come from? The deputy head who does the budget was incandescent, as he has done valiant work in keeping us in the black even when our budget suffered the loss of several income streams all in one academic year. We were about to present a balanced budget to governors, showing a healthy contingency.

The initial letter to the pupils was completely negative. Although the team said that the sixth form was outstanding and that behaviour throughout the school was good, none of this was included in the letter. As one of our assistant heads said, ‘It’s as if everything good about the school has been airbrushed out’. I also found,  when I checked the Ofsted website, that the letter sent to our pupils was almost identical to one for another school. I felt hurt that there had been no attempt to write a letter that had an individual feel about it, written solely for the pupils of Benton Park School. If Ofsted is about ensuring that our young people get the best standard of education, surely they deserve better than letters composed from a series of statement banks.

Why this system?
I cannot understand a system that dotes on the worst aspect of a school and punishes the whole school for its one weakness. Does the DCSF feel that schools are coasting and wants to shake them out of their complacency? Is it because we are so data-rich that we want to use it as our sole gauge for judging schools? Is there a view that if you make schools feel bad about themselves they will try harder?

As someone who has been engaged in education for 31 years, I have always believed that if you make pupils feel good about themselves and boost their self-esteem, then they work harder and perform better. The same applies to schools. All that a negative Ofsted report does is lower staff morale, demotivate staff and adversely affect performance. The HMI who monitored our inspection said, as his parting shot: ‘Don’t forget, your results will go down following an inspection!’ As I understand it, this is what the research shows. I therefore feel vindicated in my views. What is the point? I had assumed that the Office for Standards in Education was about raising standards, not lowering them!

Fortunately, as an experienced head, I had the confidence to challenge the report and, in particular, the letter. I was delighted that the letter was then rewritten to include the positive aspects of the school and that we finished up with a complimentary report showing progress from the last Ofsted. I am delighted with the sentence ‘you make outstanding progress due to the good teaching and excellent care and guidance the school provides’. The standards at the end of KS3 and 4 were deemed good and the sixth form also got its well-deserved ‘outstanding’ with good leadership and management. But I should not have had to fight so hard to get these fair comments.

The future of Ofsted
I know that the Ofsted system is under review and there are to be changes from September 2009. I blanch at the idea that, according to The Guardian (30 April), schools may be judged on teenage pregnancy rates, drug problems, and obesity levels as part of the changes to the Ofsted regime – possibly not a policy that would ease the headship recruitment crisis!

I also know that Ofsted inspectors are now being instructed to look at the wider information on schools – beyond the simple CVA measures and single items of data. That is certainly to be welcomed. However, whatever the changes to the system may be, heads should never be afraid to challenge any verdict which they feel is an unfair representation of their schools.