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Ofstedhascreatederroneouspublic perceptionofschoolwithseriousproblems

Date: Tuesday 14th March 2017

Sir, The recent inspection of Kirkby Stephen Grammar School, resulting in an excellent school being put into special measures (Herald, 4th March), has heaped yet more pressure on staff and created once again an erroneous public perception of a school with serious problems.

Since the inception of the present Ofsted inspection system and particularly since the vastly increased emphasis on safeguarding, the net effect on schools has been strongly negative, rather than positive.

While the hundreds of detailed criteria for inspection success, many of them involving non-educational issues, may be met by most schools through constant management pressure, this adversarial approach by Ofsted, rather than support and encouragement for staff, has, over time, resulted in the loss of many, many excellent teachers from the profession.

These staff would have made a bigger difference to the education of our children over time than the slavish adherence to inspection criteria driven by fear of public humiliation, as in Kirkby Stephen’s case.

It is no wonder that there is also a crisis in teacher recruitment. For years our best graduates have simply disregarded teaching as a career, the sheer hard work of preparation of lessons and marking, keeping order and reporting to parents on progress being a hard option in the first place.

Add to this a suffocating and very stressful inspection regime occupying and worrying every teacher and manager, and other career options are a no-brainer. In many cases it means that academically weak graduates for whom teaching is the last resort for employment are recruited to inspire the next generation of bright youngsters.

Nobody could argue that each and every criterion by which schools are measured by Ofsted, both educationally, organisationally and in terms of child protection, are not worthy and important. The problem is that when you add them all together and demand adherence to each and every detailed line, especially in early years, the impact on each school and the country’s education in general is disastrous, an unintended consequence. It will take a brave Education Secretary to change the present system, and appear to soften on inspection requirements, but vision is needed to step back and look at the whole picture. The understandable requirement of public accountability has now gone so far that the entire educational system is under threat and a radical rethink of education inspection is needed.

For the moment I am delighted to wish good luck to any child fortunate enough to attend Kirkby Stephen Grammar School, despite its current apparently poor rating from Ofsted. Understanding the system from the inside helps me to have a sense of proportion, which many at Ofsted and the Department for Education and the general public will not or cannot share.

Defects in external fencing, some small issues with recording attendance of post-16 students and access to the site do not justify the public perception of a school with serious problems, and the Ofsted judgement, rigid as it must be in the present system, is clearly disproportionate.

I was always amused by the constraints put on us as inspectors in using words such as “satisfactory”, “good”, “excellent” and “outstanding”. The close definition of these in inspector-speak may well differ from public perception and I would encourage any parent looking at a new school for their child to go and visit it and make up their own mind. Are the staff enthusiastic, is the head welcoming and confident, discipline firm and the results good? Do the current pupils say that they enjoy going to school and do they go on to successful careers commensurate with their talents?

If the answers are all yes, then it is probably what most people would regard as a “good school” and has become so despite the inspection system, coping with its disproportionate demands and looking beyond them.

It is time we reduced the burden of inspection and allowed our schools to breathe and rediscover their creativity and the excitement involved in inspiring the next generation of youngsters, instead of dreading the next visit of Ofsted. Yours etc,

PAUL DIXON

(Retired headteacher

and school inspector)

Keld.


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