Astute observers will note that I have not written anything here for nearly 3 weeks. The reasons are many – the government has made several questionable decisions, but few in the world of education – for them to go for 3 weeks without contracting what a friend of mine liked to call foot-in-mouth disease is even more notable than my not having written; we have been all fairly exhausted after an intense half term with OFSTED stuck at one end of it; and finally, the outcome of the OFSTED inspection itself, which we have known over that period but we were not allowed to say officially, has meant that I did not want to write for fear of giving anything away. Also, there have been things happening in the wider world, particularly in Ukraine, which I feel close to, somehow, and which I feel strongly about, but have no understanding of the significance of, and thus cannot write about.
But then yesterday the report was published, and told us in official language what we had known in our gut for over 6 months at least: that Christ the Sower is a good school with many aspects that the report described as outstanding or highly effective, or extremely thorough or highly stimulating, or, in less OFSTED-ese language in the oral feedback, exceptional. Governance and leadership were praised, as were the improvements in teaching which we have worked so intensely on over the last 18 months. Above all, the spiritual, moral, social and cultural educational provision, and the behaviour and safety of children that flowed from our work in that, was rated as outstanding. This was perhaps less surprising than it first appeared to us – the clear and open feeling that we all had as a corollary of what felt like a successful inspection while it was on would have imparted this to the inspectors – but we’ll take it all the same.
As I have often commented here, there is little to be gained from giving OFSTED too much due. The reason why I pay a certain amount of respect to them this time round is not because I believe in the process any better or because at last we have done well out of it, but because of the integrity and care taken by three professionals who happened to be using the process to come and give as thorough an evaluation of our school as they could. People who did not know our school at all beforehand, but who worked intensely and hard to find out and observe us at close quarters with respect, no little degree of affection and consistent kindness and thoughtfulness have made an evaluation in terms of a predetermined criterion set and written a report that we are more than pleased with. We struggled during the 2012 inspection when the report (in contrast to the oral feedback) read like a dog’s breakfast, but that was simply because of the language choices that reports have to make when a school is rated satisfactory. But the team then were as careful and thoughtful as those who have recently inspected us. Our new one reads much better simply because of the fact that the judgement was on the other side of a line. One simple judgement being altered – maybe that teaching required improvement – and the entire report would have to be rewritten to make it more negative. Such is the weirdness of OFSTED reports. An example – at one stage on Thursday afternoon the inspectors considered giving the leadership and management of the school a grade 1 – outstanding, but feared that this might jeopardise the whole report because of a (not very well hidden) assumption that our leadership can’t be that great if our achievement grade was only a 2 – good. There has even been some surprise expressed by professional friends of the school that we were given a 1 for behaviour and safety of pupils because that judgement is increasingly linked to achievement as well.
But this is splitting hairs. The report is actually a great read and the team I have led for three years have every reason to take a deep encouragement and every praise from it – they have done a herculean piece of work and have given all that I asked of them, and a lot more, to making our school one that our children and community can rejoice in. I literally had to pinch myself for three days after hearing the outcome. It matters deeply to our parents as well, but mostly I think to our teachers, who now live in another country.
There is something absolutely horrible in English education and the way it is thought about by virtually all practitioners and LAs now, and it is the direct fault of one man, Mike Wilshaw, the chief inspector. It was his insistence that the “satisfactory” grade was removed in 2012 and replaced with “requires improvement”. It divided schools into two – not four – completely different categories. It is an insidious and oppressive line running through the whole inspection service, based on a mechanistic view of learning and a subliminal desire to hurt and humiliate those perceived not to be good enough by a generally inadequate set of criteria. Whilst the difference between good and outstanding grades is one of degree between two positive descriptors, that between good and requires improvement is a gulf between two different countries. The difference between requires improvement and inadequate seems philosophically narrower than the boundaries between any of the other categories, although I am keenly aware that for schools struggling to get out of an OFSTED category, requires improvement is a cachet they might long for (but not for long!).
Back in April 2012, shortly after our previous OFSTED, I used this picture and posted this blog, where I explored some metaphors for the mission that lay ahead of us. At the time, we had hauled ourselves, with the help of God and much prayer, to the edge of a ravine and were safely on a broad plateau heading towards the mountainous country we could see in the distance. This was a work accomplished and whilst it did not stop the 2012 report from reading like a dog’s breakfast, it gave us a strong sense of hope.
We are now in the foothills, having a broad view of the plain we have emerged from (and can see in retrospect that Wilshaw has flooded quite a lot of that plain, parts of which now resemble a treacherous swamp), and in some ways, have reached peaks we did not fully realise we had reached, whilst others may still prove to be false summits and require more walking. There is a lot still to do, but the axe is sharper and the way is still very clear, although no clearer as a result of the report than it was before. I cannot see that I will be any less stringent in my criticisms of OFSTED or the DfE, because we are in a democracy and clear debate in an open media is one way that we can hold our elected and unelected officials to account, but being in the place we are now gives us certain freedoms, and I intend that we should celebrate them.
To all who have contributed to this judgement about a school many of us love to work in – thank you.