The current drain on the system at the moment is the notion of the “coasting school”, which, in political terms means any school currently with Requires Improvement (RI) as inspection judgements.
Now, I am not, thankfully, an Ofsted inspector, but, for the past nine years since I stopped being a head, following a 32 year school career, I have undertaken a large number of school audits for a number of national quality assurance schemes, notably Inclusion Quality Mark (IQM) and Leading Parent Partnership Award (LPPA). These visits are based on school self-assessments against a range of criteria, with the assessment visit being a point where the visual has to match the school written submission. It should “do what it says on the tin” and if not, there is a discussion to clarify. Because the visits are not Ofsted, I have been able to deepen the discussion to a point where the staff with whom I have been working have a sound grasp of issues that remain to be demonstrated clearly. In other words, audit leads to an aspect of school improvement.
In a recent post, I wrote about schools being organic and changing over time. This can be for a variety of reasons, some of them due to sickness (another post on “In sickness and in health”); because the school is in an area of high housing cost, so cannot attract staff; the school is already deemed to be “RI” or has a long-standing local reputation that deters parents (often not the case, but rumour wins).
There are many factors that determine whether a school rises or falls or stays static. The latter case can be sometimes be a “holding operation”, with the staff working their socks off to make sure that any shortfalls, as a result of other background issues, do not affect the children, so that they get a good deal, but the outcomes can be often less secure. A single form entry school, in a challenging area, perhaps with 30%+ of SEN, EAL and high deprivation factors, might struggle to get to the point where even 70% of their children can securely get to the required standard at national tests. This puts them in a vulnerable position.
There are no quick fixes.
Schools need some level of stability, if they are to overcome localised issues, through well focused and dedicated team work. It took me nearly three years to establish the staffing stability that enabled significant long term improvements that then became the “tribal memory”, which, in turn, became the longer term story of the school. Periods of staff turnover did occasionally mean a restart or reframing of the practice, but the essence remained.
There is an articulated need to “do something” about schools that, somehow, the Ofsted inspection finds to be wanting. While the judgements are the same, the reasons for the judgement will be unique to the school, so that each will need a unique solution to the problem. The Ofsted “audit” should have the potential to go beyond making a judgement, when a school is either RI or Special Measures. Either has the potential to further destabilise the professionals and the parent body. A nominated member should stay with the school in some advisory capacity, to ensure that changes are appropriate. They should also be an advocate, should the school require capacity building.
Changing the management will not necessarily address the issue, as A.N. Other, parachuted into the school, will not have the local background, so might seek to impose systems that seemingly have a short term impact, but which fail after they have left to be parachuted into another school. A.N Other has to stay for at least four years, to see a cohort of children through to success. (S)he might need the support of a mentor (HMI?) to oversee the change and to maintain vigilance over that time.
Staffing issues are significant. As an ITE tutor, I’d advocate RI schools being linked to University ITE departments, with the potential for student teachers to undertake “study practices” within the schools, learning to cut their teeth in difficult situations, as well as in good and outstanding schools. (Actually, I think that one line in an Ofsted inspection should be that the school supports ITE in some form) Additional staffing, reflective practice, as teachers unpick their practice to share, ITE lecturers available to support all staff, as well as their students, would all increase the learning dynamic. Teachers keeping personal development blogs, to add to the school development narrative, would provide evidence of professional development.
Equally, pairing with another school to embed (supported) moderation activities would increase the expectations of the teaching staff, including the TAs.
Keeping an eye on the big picture is essential, as it is easy to get distracted into small scale change, perhaps with a single focus, which then distorts the whole. Provision of a rich curriculum (to me) is the key, with experiences that broaden outlooks, providing the vehicles for discussion, deepening vocabulary and interest. Personalising the approach enables each individual to participate as fully as possible, rather than seeing classes as homogenous with a one size fits all approach. As I have been party to this happening in a number of inner city schools, I am happy to assert this. It is not the easiest route, but the needs of all learners need to be addressed.
One size does not fit all, either in a classroom or across a range of schools. We should, with all the available expertise in this country, be capable of tailoring solutions to the unique needs of each school.
The Government, as I understand it, is responsible for the overall quality of all schools. Some solutions will need extra money, some may need less, but a refocusing of professional effort may need to be engineered, as might a lifting of spirits and empowering staff to make decisions.
Teaching is, and always has been, a profession for thinkers. Over the past ten/fifteen years or so, the top down prescription and proscription of approaches has, in some situations, diminished the professionals to mechanics.
Trust teachers to do the job, they each want to do the best possible job. There is a need to invest in professional capital, which can be done relatively easily today with the ubiquitous internet. Online courses could be developed and added to, by successful practitioners. Online portfolios of outcomes could be made available to support discussion and decision making. Schools should be empowered to share internal expertise and to join together to share visiting expertise. Staffrooms should be "Colleges of Teachers", discussing current thinking.
There needs to be a rapid sense of uplift in the profession. If not, those in current employment will look to leave, while others will not wish to join. What is at stake is the education of children, in schools today, who will, with good health, see in the next century.