Speech

Speech to Association of School and College Leaders Conference 2015

Transcript of Sean Harford's speech reflecting on Ofsted's work and the future of education inspection.

Primary school pupil

Thank you for that introduction.

As Joan has already mentioned, Michael can’t be here today. He would dearly have loved to be able to speak to you from this platform but, unfortunately, he is preparing to go into hospital tomorrow for a planned operation. He has asked me to pass on his best wishes for a successful conference and looks forward to meeting many of you in the summer term at our series of launch events for the future of education inspection.

In the meantime, with your permission, he has asked me, as Ofsted’s National Director for Schools, to deliver this speech on his behalf.

Michael has often spoken about the qualities common to the best school and college leaders. Perhaps chief among these qualities is optimism.

Optimism here is not that which is borne of wishful, woolly thinking but rather the optimism that is rooted in a hard-headed reality about what can be done to bring about improvement. An optimism that, above all, is underpinned by something fundamental: a belief in young people and in the power of education to improve their own life chances and the wider well-being of society.

Optimistic leaders are rarely satisfied with the status quo. They are always challenging their students, their staff and indeed themselves to strive harder and to do better. Many of these optimistic leaders are of course in this room today. And despite the difficulties our education system in England still faces, you have much to be optimistic about.

More children are getting a better education, with 8 in 10 schools now judged to be good or outstanding.

Schools previously less than good are improving at a faster rate than ever before, partly as a result of strong collaboration between heads and HMI.

More young people are going to university – although we need to get more state-educated youngsters into the most prestigious universities.

The calibre – if not the numbers – of graduates entering the teaching profession is better now than it has been for many years. That is why there has never been a better time for the best school and college leaders to take control of improving the state education system in this country. I will say more about this shortly.

Of course, even the most resilient headteacher will inevitably find their optimism put under strain when they have to take difficult decisions, challenge complacency, confront vested interests and tackle under-performance on a daily basis.

It can also be difficult to sustain a positive outlook when there is always the nagging worry about how you’re going to fill that maths vacancy or when your head of English has just handed in her notice.

The declining number of new trainees joining the profession is, indeed, a pressing concern, which I know is exercising many of you. As our last annual report highlighted, problems in teacher supply, coupled with a rising school population, are providing a real challenge to our school system, especially in those areas that are finding it most difficult to recruit. The Chief Inspector has commissioned an investigation into this whole issue which we will report on next term.

And I appreciate these difficulties are sometimes compounded by the seemingly constant state of change and upheaval in our education system. Continual policy shifts around the curriculum and assessment, and examination arrangements can be destabilising. You need to be able to plan for the medium and long-term with a degree of certainty. That’s why both Michael and I would endorse the idea of a fully independent body to advise the Secretary of State on the impact of any future reforms.

We also acknowledge that Ofsted has been partly responsible for this sense of permanent flux – although we can only offer a partial apology for that. Michael’s decision to remove the satisfactory grade and replace it with ‘requires improvement’ was, for example, a difficult one to make. But it was unquestionably the right one because it has galvanised the system to do significantly better.

So headship is great but it is also tough, sometimes grindingly hard and often very lonely, especially when you are dealing with personnel issues.

In many respects, it bears some strong parallels to the job of an Ofsted inspector. They also have to make unpopular decisions, challenge the status quo and tackle vested interests in the relentless pursuit of higher standards for children and learners. This can often be daunting and difficult. Occasionally, it can be deeply unpleasant and intimidating. We have seen in recent weeks how some of Her Majesty’s Inspectors in the north east have been at the receiving end of some particularly lurid smears and accusations about their professional conduct – some of it emblazoned across the pages of the national press and even repeated on the floor of the House of Commons.

It’s of little consolation to these HMI – obliged to stay silent when their professional integrity is being called into question – that many of these claims fail to stand up to even the most superficial scrutiny.

It is right that we have a robust complaints process, but the type of mud-slinging and public bad-mouthing of inspectors we have seen recently seems to reflect a tendency on the part of a minority of institutions to deflect attention from their own palpable failure to tackle serious issues – whether that’s bullying, poor behaviour, safeguarding or inadequate teaching.

Those who accuse Ofsted of being too heavy-handed in getting to the root of these matters would no doubt be the first to criticise us if we had failed to uncover these problems when we had the chance.

Inspecting British values has also made life difficult for Ofsted. Nevertheless, we are not shirking this responsibility. It is one of the most important things we are doing. I say this because schools, particularly those in mono-cultural areas, are on the frontline of ensuring that our society doesn’t become fragmented and divided. We have all seen in recent months what can happen when this frontline is breached.

All our schools, whether secular or of faith, have a huge responsibility for teaching children and young people about the society in which they live and for promoting understanding, tolerance and respect for others. As all of you know, tolerance is predicated on knowledge and understanding, so this is where we are focusing our inspectors’ efforts, to ensure that schools promote these important values.

Our inspectors have had to go into schools serving predominantly Muslim communities in Birmingham and Tower Hamlets, Jewish schools in Hackney, and Christian schools in the north east and say some uncomfortable things about how these institutions were failing to prepare their pupils for life in modern Britain. This has been a tough call. But it is absolutely essential, for the reasons I have already mentioned, that we apply the same principles and inspect by the same standards in every school in every part of the country.

Challenging intolerance – in all its forms – is the right thing for all schools to be doing.

And of course the great majority of schools are getting this right already through strong PSHE, citizenship and RE programmes. They don’t grab the headlines but are far more typical than the minority of schools that Ofsted has found to be failing in this increasingly important aspect of the curriculum.

I believe we were right to go into the schools in Birmingham last year and to report our findings and judgements as we did. These schools deserved their previous good or outstanding ratings because the headteachers who were in control at the time had worked incredibly hard to raise standards. It was only when these same heads were pushed out or marginalised by governors that things started to go wrong. The episode highlighted how rapidly schools – especially those in challenging areas – can decline and deteriorate in the absence of careful monitoring between inspections.

Of course, inspection is never going to be an exact science – nor should it be.

However, I do recognise that the inspection stakes are higher than they’ve ever been before. That is why the pressure on Ofsted to get it right is so intense.

I genuinely believe we do get it right most of the time and providers continue to report high levels of satisfaction with their inspections. Indeed, a new report we’ve published today shows more than 8 out of 10 leaders, surveyed a few months after their Ofsted inspection, said it had helped them to improve by providing an accurate analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.

But we know we need to continue driving up the quality and the consistency of inspection. Two things will help.

The first of these is ensuring that we involve an ever greater number of serving leaders in inspection. In the last 3 years there has been a significant increase in the number of both HMI and additional inspectors recruited straight from good or outstanding institutions.

We have gone from recruiting only 11 serving heads to school HMI posts in the 3 years before Michael became Chief Inspector to making 49 such appointments in the last 12 months alone.

Sixty per cent of all inspections now have a serving leader on the team. And by the start of the next academic year, well over 70 per cent of our Ofsted school inspectors will be drawn from the ranks of current practitioners.

The second thing I believe will help to drive up quality further is our decision to bring the contracting of additional school and FE inspectors in-house from this September.

I very much share Michael’s view that ending Ofsted’s outsourcing arrangements and the use of commercial third party providers for inspection is long overdue. I have absolutely no doubt that it will help improve the quality of inspection and, just as importantly, instil greater confidence and credibility in the process.

As you know, we have also recently consulted on a far-reaching set of reforms to our inspection of early years settings, schools and colleges. From September, we will introduce a new ‘common inspection framework’, with a single set of overarching areas for judgement that will apply to each education remit.

There will be radical change to the way we inspect most good schools and colleges – frequent but shorter inspections, with a strong emphasis on professional dialogue to establish whether the institution remains good or is starting to slide. It’s worth remembering that currently around 800 schools a year decline from good. We hope this new approach will reduce that number considerably.

These shorter inspections will result in a letter to you, published to governors and to parents explaining why inspectors believe the school is still good, while pointing out particular strengths and areas for attention. Of course, where the inspection team believe the school may have more serious problems, they will convert to a full section 5 inspection and subsequent report.

Let me give you an example of how I envisage the new short inspections working. Let’s say results in a school have suffered a dip because of problems in the maths department while everything else looks stable. After visiting the school, the inspectors assess that the head is clear about why this has happened and has a credible plan for addressing the situation. In that instance, the school’s ‘good’ judgement would be confirmed, and it will have a clear mandate to improve the areas identified over the next couple of years.

The response to our consultation on these important changes has, I’m pleased to say, been overwhelmingly positive. Regulations have now been laid to enable us to carry out the new short inspections. Pilot inspections to test the new arrangements have been going on all term and are currently being evaluated. We will shortly be holding focus groups with school leaders, teachers and parents to seek their views on the format and content of the reports from the new short inspections. And, as I’ve mentioned, we will be holding a series of regional conferences in June and July to launch the new inspection handbooks.

Ultimately, three key factors will determine whether a school remains good – each of them firmly centred on leadership.

First, does the leadership know what is going on in their school or college and have a sound grasp of relative strengths and weaknesses?

Second, is there a credible plan to address any weaknesses and maintain the strengths?

And third, is the culture sufficiently aspirational, creating the conditions for the institution to forge ahead?

Arguably, the last of these is the most important of all because a school or college will only succeed if it has the right culture. As all of you know, if you get a school’s culture right, most other things will fall into place.

You will all, I hope, have had time to read our annual report published in December. Its main headline was that while primary schools continue to improve, there were some worrying signs that secondary schools, overall, are struggling to sustain the progress of recent years.

We reported that there are, of course, many secondaries where leadership is excellent, teaching inspirational and a strong learning culture permeates through the classrooms and corridors. Indeed it was good to report that there are more outstanding secondary schools than primaries. However, there are also too many examples of pupils leaving their primary school only to encounter a secondary school culture that demotivates and discourages them.

In these weaker secondaries, we reported that poor behaviour was too prevalent.

Our inspection findings backed up the conclusions of an Ofsted-commissioned survey of teachers and parents last year which found that pupils in England were potentially losing up to an hour of learning each day because of low-level disruption – that equates to 38 days of teaching lost every year.

We also reported that progress made by children in literacy and numeracy at primary was not being sustained.

We are increasingly concerned that, in too many schools, the early years of secondary school are failing to build on the improvements witnessed in primaries. It’s for this reason that Michael has commissioned a survey into progress at Key Stage 3. This report will also be ready next term.

Additionally, we said that disadvantaged pupils were not closing the gap in attainment with their better-off peers. And finally, more able children were not being stretched, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Earlier this month, we published a follow-up to our 2013 survey examining whether our most able students in the non-selective system were being properly challenged and encouraged to fulfill their potential. The criticisms we made in this new report were a dispiriting echo of the ones we levelled 2 years ago, at those schools which are not supporting their most able schools adequately. So those:

  • not setting high enough expectations of what their brighter students are capable of
  • with weak transition arrangements for pupils at the end of the primary stage
  • not prioritising high quality teaching in the vital early years of secondary school
  • with a reluctance to debunk the all-too-common perception among comprehensive school children that our most prestigious universities are for ‘other people’

We did, however, see other schools which were rising to the challenge by delivering tailored teaching that stretched and enriched the brightest students, insisting on robust tracking processes and refusing to place a false ceiling on ambition.

Ofsted will be sharpening its focus even more in the coming months on the progress and achievement of the most able children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The issues highlighted in the annual report need to be tackled in order to prevent the improvements of recent years going into reverse. However, they shouldn’t eclipse the very real achievements we have witnessed in our state education system over the past decade, which I referred to at the outset.

While Ofsted and the other levers of accountability have played an important part in raising standards, these achievements are down to the fact we have the best generation of leaders working in our comprehensive schools, leading a very fine cohort of teachers.

Like Michael, I have always subscribed to the principle of schools catering for children of all abilities. It’s the only school model that can realistically educate all our children to a standard they deserve and the country demands. And it’s the model favoured by almost all our major international competitors.

In any case, our all-ability schools are a lot better than many of their critics allow.

This is partly because of raised expectations from Ofsted but it’s mostly because we now have so many headteachers and principals like you committed to running proudly academic schools and refusing to accept mediocrity or poor teaching. It is for this reason, as I have already suggested, that there has never been a better time for the best heads to take ownership of system improvement. I know that this is the main theme of your conference.

As Michael told members of the education select committee earlier this year, we are moving incrementally and inexorably towards clusters of schools supporting and evaluating each other, led by an outstanding headteacher of an outstanding school.

That is all to the good as long as we have the right people leading this process for the right reasons. People who are not motivated by self-aggrandisement or self-enrichment but are doing it because they are passionate about improving the prospects of young people well beyond their own school gates.

As Michael also told the committee, if Ofsted is still around in 10 years’ time, the way we inspect and what we inspect would be very different in the type of school-led improvement system envisioned in the ASCL blueprint.

If that is the case for the future, I would see Ofsted’s role being to moderate judgements and assess the robustness of peer-review arrangements – making sure they weren’t just cosy fireside chats between colleagues.

So long as leaders are well trained and knowledgeable in review techniques, and rigour is maintained, the idea of schools evaluating each other’s performance is something we strongly support as the way forward.

Ofsted is keen to work with the grain in this respect. Indeed, our efforts to bring on board a far higher proportion of current practitioners to carry out inspections could be seen as a key staging post on this journey towards a fully realised self-improving system. I will be saying more about this tomorrow at my break-out session, so I hope some of you will be joining me for that.

But that lies in the future. For the time being, Ofsted will continue to work with ASCL and others to ensure that the changes we’re making achieve our shared goals and ambitions for the nation’s education system.

Ofsted is not an inflexible, immutable organisation. We do listen and take notice of what the profession is telling us. We have acted on your concerns about no-notice inspections, about the drawbacks of outsourcing inspections and the need to avoid making every inspection the same ‘cliff-edge’ experience.

And we will continue – through our ‘mythbusting’ document and other means – to try to curb unnecessary workload pressures on teachers by dispelling some of the common misconceptions about what Ofsted requires when it inspects a school or college. Leadership teams need to justify their practices around marking, pupil feedback and lesson planning, observation and grading on their own merits rather than erroneously citing Ofsted as the reason for doing these things.

In doing all this, it’s important that none of us forgets that Ofsted exists principally for parents and children. Our primary purpose will always be to champion the right of every child to a decent education. When we ask parents what they want from Ofsted, they invariably say they would like us to inspect their child’s school at least once a year and without notice.

So of course, we have to take account of the views of the profession. But we have to balance the wishes of teachers and leaders with those who rely on the services we inspect.

So, in conclusion…

I began this speech by saying that the best heads are optimists and by sharing my belief that there is much to be optimistic about. As we approach the general election, we are at a watershed moment in the history of our education system in this country.

I have very little doubt that during the 5 years of the next parliament, we will continue to see our education sector evolve further down the path towards a fully self-improving system. I am determined to ensure that Ofsted plays its part in that evolution.

We want to give more and more school leaders the opportunity to use the skills, knowledge and insight they gain through their experience of inspection to benefit their own schools and those with whom they partner.

And, in turn, Ofsted will benefit from having so many talented and cutting-edge practitioners helping to shape inspection and to make it the best it possibly can be to deliver higher standards and improved outcomes for pupils.

Thank you very much for listening and, on behalf of Sir Michael, for all the great work you are doing.

Published 20 March 2015