Shooting the messenger

My sympathies are more with Ofsted than the PAC after the publication today of their Report by the Public Accounts Committee. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/1029/102902.htm

It is disappointing that so few PAC members were able to attend for both the two witness sessions and the subsequent approval of the draft report. How can anyone that didn’t attend the witness session really be expected to vote on the report, especially one so critical?

What really matters, and both the National Audit Office that reports to the Public Accounts Committee and the Committee itself should now focus upon, is how are critical reports from Ofsted are acted upon. There are widely different outcomes, even across the government controlled academy and free school sector, with Regional School Commissioners acting promptly on Ofsted reports in some cases and doing nothing in public in other cases. Even the Secretary of State’s speech in May, promising prompt action, doesn’t seem to have changed the landscape very much, if at all.

Ofsted surely isn’t perfect, but it has had budget cuts far greater than most schools have suffered and seen the local inspection and advisory services that used to provide important intelligence almost completely wiped out across large swathes of the country.

Layla Moran MP, the Lib Dem on the PAC and an opponent of Ofsted since her election to parliament in 2017 has said today that:

… the problems with Ofsted are not just operational. Ofsted’s judgements lack reliability and validity. Their inspections heap pressure on to teachers that far outweighs any benefits they provide.

“Rather than focusing narrowly on results, our education system should value long-term success and the wellbeing of our children and teachers.

“That’s why the Liberal Democrats would abolish Ofsted and replace it with a new system for school inspections which would take into account pupil and parent feedback and teacher workload. We must work with struggling schools to help them improve, rather than simply writing them off.”

Writing schools off after an inspection isn’t the fault of Ofsted, although they could be more forceful in some follow up monitoring visits, by laying the blame on other agencies for not intervening appropriately. The system needs to help schools improve, not just the inspection service. That is why a continued monitoring of schools and action, where necessary at a local level, is important. Since that isn’t possible under the present funding regime, this looks a bit like the PAC trying to shoot the messenger.

Are parents and students not listened to in the course of Ofsted inspections? I frequently read comments inspectors have included from parents and indeed pupils about issue such as bullying and behaviour. No doubt more could be done to increase feedback from just a minority, but as evidence it also needs evaluating against other data and observations.

The issue of teacher workload and an objective measure of whether or not a school is using its staffing resources wisely should be part of the on-going monitoring of schools at a system level. Here Ofsted is still hampered in respect of academy trusts and the oversight of other groups of schools.

We do need a system that is more quality assurance than quality control, but above all we need to ensure enough properly trained and qualified teachers for each and every school, otherwise any inspection regime will always continue to uncover under-performing schools.

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Good news for Didcot

Well done to the Oxfordshire UTC. The 14-19 school received a ‘Good’ rating from Ofsted this week, after its first ever inspection. In the same week the UTC in Derby was placed in special measures.

You can read the Ofsted report on the Oxfordshire UTC at  https://reports.ofsted.gov.uk/inspection-reports/find-inspection-report/provider/ELS/141111 Schools week had some interesting statistics on UTCs recently. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/derby-manufacturing-utc-placed-in-special-measures/ Apparently, according to the report by Schools Week

almost a quarter of the 33 UTCs inspected so far have received Ofsted’s bottom grade.

Sixty-one per cent of all UTCs inspected have been rated less than ‘good’.  Six, all grade three or four, have since closed.

 Of the remaining 27 that are still open, 14 are rated either ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’.

Most UTCs have struggled since they were established in 2010, mainly because of problems attracting enough pupils to stay financially viable. Eight have so far closed.

 In January, Schools Week revealed that almost every UTC missed its recruitment targets last year, leaving them with combined debts of over £11 million.”

The UTC in Didcot is clearly bucking the trend for UTCs as a whole and I am grateful to the person that emailed me last night after the Ofsted Report had appeared to draw it to my attention. However, I still have anxieties over its long-term future if it cannot fill all the places it has on offer.

What Ofsted have revealed is that although the Oxfordshire UTC is still a work in progress it has strong leadership and a clear vision of what it is seeking to achieve.  The school and its staff are also aware that a proportion of their pupils come to them at fourteen with a less than successful record of achievement in the school system. Unlike some 14-18 schools they are not only aware of this but also set out to change the relationship with these pupils and the education system. That’s a tough job, but like Meadowbrook, the alternative provision in Oxfordshire, where Ofsted also commented on the work with teenagers that have reacted against schooling, the Oxfordshire UTC is also winning the hearts and minds of these young people. As Ofsted commented in their summary:

Pupils, including some who had previously struggled to engage with education, are inspired by the UTC’s ethos.

The Inspector went on to add that:

Since the UTC opened, some pupils have arrived in Year 10 having had negative experiences of schooling. Staff quickly get to know the pupils well, and support and reassure any experiencing stress or anxiety. Pupils gain a sense of community, security and pride during their time at UTC Oxfordshire. This equips them with great confidence and maturity.

Inspection report: UTC Oxfordshire, 22–23 May 2018

Schools cannot succeed without strong and purposeful leadership and the Oxfordshire UTC certainly has a leader creating a successful school backed by a strong team and supportive sponsors.

My more general anxiety is how the next generation of leaders for the school system will be developed? Some MATs will ensure that they create leadership pathways, but how will the stand alone academies and the remaining maintained schools ensure a leadership pipeline that is sufficient to meet the needs of all schools. This question is especially pertinent at a time when the need for career pathways for teachers that doesn’t involve whole school leadership is once again being discussed.

There are other reasons why I have concerns about 14-18 schools, but in this case I am delighted to offer my congratulations to the Oxfordshire UTC.

‘intervene fast… take the serious action necessary’. Promises

Why has the Regional School Commissioner for North West London and the South Central Region not issued any warning notices to any school about poor performance since the end of 2016? The updated DfE list of such notice published earlier this week  https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/list-of-letters-to-academy-trusts-about-poor-performance reveals that the last notice issued was in December 2016 and that was to a school issued a pre-warning notice at the start of that year. Indeed, all the schools issued with notices in 2016/17 had previously received an earlier letter, meaning no new school in the region has been added to the list since early 2016.

Is the Office of the RSC not communicating to the DfE or has the RSC decided that the Secretary of State’s words in his speech to the NGA that ‘on those rare occasions when a school is failing – be in no doubt – we will intervene fast and we will take the serious action necessary’ doesn’t apply in the North West London and the South Central Region?

It cannot be that there are no Inadequate schools within the region, although there may not be many. The RSC appears also never to have issued any sort of notice to a school run by any of the faith groups in his region. This may explain why the school I highlighted in my previous blog post hasn’t received any overt indication of concern about performance, except from Ofsted when it declared it Inadequate in the spring of 2017 and received expressions of further concerns in the two follow-up s8 monitoring reports.

Is the RSC for the North West London and the South Central Region trying a new policy, at variance with the words of the Secretary of State, by seeking to improve schools beyond the glare of publicity? Interestingly, the figures for number of notices issued by the North West London and the South Central Region are also matched by some other regions that have also not published any notices in 2017/18, whereas the RSC for the South West has issued five of the 12 notices in 2017/18.

There are clearly Inadequate academies, as rated by Ofsted, in the regions where no notices have been published in 2017/18  as well as previously rated Inadequate schools where progress to return to an effective standard of education has been unsatisfactory. How are RSCs handling these schools now the notices seem to have fallen out of fashion? How will the Secretary of State’s promise to intervene fast be acted upon if the general public do not know what action is being taken by an RSC?

The Secretary of State has also promised more openness from Headteacher Boards and their minutes, so that is one possible way forward. Local politicians might also like to call RSCs before their Education Scrutiny Committee to given an account of how the RSC’s Office is raising standards in their local area among the academies and their Trusts. Oxfordshire’s Education Scrutiny Committee has been holding such meetings for the past three years with the RSC or their Office. Sadly, the ESFC have yet to agree to such a meeting despite two academies being in financial special measures for more than two years.

 

Tackling Academies and Trusts

Dear Secretary of State,

When addressing the NGA recently, you said;

On those rare occasions when a school is failing – be in no doubt – we will intervene fast and we will take the serious action necessary.

In relation to maintained schools you also said that ‘an Ofsted Inadequate judgement alone would lead to hard action to convert a Local Authority maintained school to an academy.’ However, you didn’t say what intervention would mean for an existing academy declared Inadequate by Ofsted?

Can you explain what action will be taken where the school declared Inadequate is already part of a multi-academy trust?

Where the school is also under financial special measures, one might expect some form of obvious action, such as a published notice of intent to close by the Regional School Commissioner. Where the school has well above average absence rates one might expect action to intervene fast, if you mean what you said.

Now, either your words were empty rhetoric in relation to academies or you really do want all schools to be good schools and will take steps to improve inadequate schools. Can you please reassure me that no school in Oxfordshire would be allowed to drift for more than a year after being declared an Inadequate Academy by Ofsted and with a recent monitoring inspection that concluded that ‘Leaders and managers are not taking effective action towards the removal of special measures.’

If this is not a case for the use of your policy of fast intervention, perhaps you can explain why it doesn’t meet your criteria.

You are also going to take action about the transparency of multi academy trusts and the pay of those that work in central offices administering the Trust. This can only be a good thing. In Oxfordshire several of the Trusts with headquarters outside the County pay their CEOs more than the £150,000 level you recently wrote to Trusts about, whereas according to their published accounts, none of the Trusts with its headquarters in Oxfordshire has come close to this limit.

Many primary schools are not now willing to join a Trust or even become an academy because once the decision has been made it is irrevocable. However, a Trust may either broker a school to another trust or in extreme circumstances give up the school altogether, but a school may not leave a Trust, even if the terms on which it agreed to join change dramatically. Such a risk doesn’t seem worth leaving the certainty of their present governance arrangements in the eyes of many governors, especially where the central charge may be little different to that offered for the purchase of traded services by their local authority.

Your speech did little to dispel the fog of uncertainty about how the system of schooling across England works for the benefit of all pupils. Please consider how all schools can work together and where there are many MATs in an area who has the ability to coordinate both their actions, those of academies not in Trusts and the remaining maintained schools whether they are voluntary or community in nature.

Reviewing Ofsted

The National Audit Office Report issued today about the work of Ofsted seems to have received coverage that is slightly unfair to Ofsted. But, as an inspection body, it is an organisation it is easy to regard with distaste or even hate. https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Ofsteds-inspection-of-schools.pdf

Interestingly, in January this year I asked a question at Oxfordshire Cabinet about schools not inspected since 2010.

Could the Cabinet Member please identify those primary schools that have not had an Ofsted inspection since 2010 with the year they were last inspected and whether they are maintained schools or academies – if an academy, which MAT they currently are associated with of if they are a standalone academy.”

Most not inspected were outstanding schools, but two schools had only been rated ‘good’ in their last inspection report. There was confusion among officers when complying the reply to my question, because Ofsted lists on their web site the letter that goes to schools on conversion to an academy and, in some circumstances, this might look as if Ofsted had inspected the school when in practice it hadn’t.

I think the NAO’s overall judgement of Ofsted is fair.

24 Ofsted provides valuable independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness and as such is a vital part of the school system. It has faced significant challenges in recent years, as its budget has reduced and it has struggled to retain staff and deploy enough contracted inspectors…..

25 The Department plays an important part in whether the inspection of schools is value for money. The Department affects Ofsted’s funding, how it uses its resources and what it can inspect. The current inspection model, with some schools exempt from re-inspection, others subject to light-touch inspection and the average time between inspections rising, raises questions about whether there is enough independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness to meet the needs of parents, taxpayers and the Department itself. Although government has protected the overall schools budget, it has reduced Ofsted’s budget every year for over a decade while asking it to do more.

NAO Report, May 2018 page 11

As the DfE now realises, and the NAO acknowledges, the complex governance nature of the education system in England does not effectively work in favour of helping school improvement. The removal of funding for local authority inspection and advisory services across much of the country, in the lemming like desire to push all funds to schools, didn’t help with intelligence gathering and the lack of action at regional school commissioner level also hasn’t helped.

How do you improve an academy declared inadequate by Ofsted and with the worst attendance record of all secondary schools in the county for the autumn term after it declared inadequate if the regional school commissioner won’t take action and the diocese responsible for the MAT of which the school is part has failed to improve the school? Would a former municipal Education Committee have allowed this state of affairs to linger on without resolution?

What can Ofsted do, other than continue to report while children’s education suffers? This is surely a much more important question than why 0.2% of the target for inspections was missed over a five year period.

The most important conclusion of the NAO Report is ‘that Ofsted does not know whether its school inspections are having the intended impact: to raise the standards of education and improve the quality of children’s and young people’s lives.’ (Paragraph 20 of the summary). The government must make clear how that gap can be closed, and provide the funds to ensure that improvement is supported effectively progress monitored and any failure to improve has consequences. Such a system should include a key role for democratically elected local authorities.

 

Top slice maintained schools?

There are growing reasons to be concerned about how the two systems of school governance; maintained and academy are working. A brief look at the accounts of any multi-academy trust with more than a couple of schools will show a figure for central costs. Assuming that the MAT has no other income, the funding for these costs will normally have had to come from the schools within the MAT. Should the remaining maintained schools, not yet academies, be top-sliced in a similar manner by local authorities rather than just offered the chance to buy back services on a traded basis?

This issue has once again surfaced because in a report published this week, Ofsted said of Newham Council in London, following an Ofsted a visit to a primary school that wasn’t a normal inspection visit:

‘The local authority has provided some support to the school in managing the manipulative and sometimes abusive correspondence and comments made by email and across social media. However, considering the position the school found itself in, and the fact that some correspondence appears to have been coordinated, the local authority’s approach has been perfunctory at best, stopping short of supporting the school in its policy position. Instead, the local authority has positioned itself as a moderator to manage relationships between the school, councillors and community groups. The expected level of emotional care and public support for school staff from the local authority has been too limited and, as a result, ineffective.’

Now this school had faced a high pressure campaign around a particular set of issues. Should the local authority have had the funds to offer the school its full support as they would have done in the past? The alternative view presumably, is that schools, whether academies or not are now funded as if they were on their own and if they want that support they can buy it.

This question follows on neatly from the Ofsted monitoring report on St Gregory the Great School in Oxford mentioned here in the post on 19th January https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2018/01/page/2/ in which Ofsted criticised the multi-academy company for the manner they were handling the improvement of the school from its rating as inadequate. Clearly, the MAC can use central costs obtained from its schools to offer support. Indeed, the local Anglican MAT in Oxfordshire has appointed a primary adviser from central funds.

Should we treat the remaining maintained schools as if they were a local authority MAT or not bother with the issues of governance and support for these schools? In passing, there is a third group of converter standalone academies that raise another set of issues over the question of support.

With the common funding formula starting to be implemented from April, some schools may be top-sliced where their neighbour down the road isn’t yet receive the same level of funding. Indeed, why should schools hand over part of their declining income to cover central costs, if maintained schools aren’t required to do so?

How should local authorities react? They are even more strapped for cash than schools, having borne the brunt of government cuts over the past eight years: you only have to look at Northamptonshire’s financial situation to see the depth of the problems councils face.

Ofsted cannot expect more from local authorities without recognising that someone, either the school or the government will have to pay for that support. If MATs can top-slice, should local authorities also be allowed to do so?

 

 

Urgent action needed

The following are extracts from a Section 8 monitoring report issued today by Ofsted. The school, a secondary school, is part of a multi-academy company and was declared inadequate in May last year by Ofsted. Somewhat surprisingly, Ofsted didn’t return until January 2018.  When they did, they found some good things within the school and some improvements, but to quote for the S8 report:

Although there have been undeniable improvements to safeguarding, behaviour and morale of staff, there are considerable weaknesses at the level of governance and the multi-academy company. These weaknesses have the potential to put the good work of school staff and the pace of improvement in jeopardy.

 However, following the review, the XXMAC and governing body have been slow to improve their effectiveness. It is understandable that directors’ decisions about senior leadership are sensitive, but other statutory duties of the governing body and the company have been neglected (my emphasis)

 Directors and governors have not taken enough responsibility for ensuring that leaders strategically map out the key priorities for iimproving the school. Nor have directors and governors demonstrated how they will evaluate improvements by their impact on pupils’ progress, attendance and behaviour. In short, it is not clear that directors and governors know how to judge what is working in the school and what is not. (my emphasis)

 In addition, XXMAC and governors have not done enough to maintain good levels of communication with parents or involve them more closely in the school’s drive for improvement. In this way, leaders at the highest level are not directly helping to restore the school’s reputation in the local community. 

 This haphazard approach is not helping pupils to achieve their full potential. 

 There is no clear strategy in the school improvement plan for reducing casual and persistent absence. Good attendance is not a high enough priority in the school. 

 However, the support commissioned by the XXMAC is not sufficient to build capacity and establish a common sense of purpose for the school. For example, important decisions about leaders’ roles and the priorities for the future are not being made on the basis of a thorough review of the school’s performance. Instead, decisions are being made on an ad hoc basis, relying upon the goodwill and integrity of current school leaders.

 So, where do we go from here? The previous Chief Inspector was right to argue for inspection of MATs and MACs. Who now takes responsibility for acting upon this damming report; The Regional School Commissioner; the Funding and Skills Council; Ofsted or the Secretary of State? The local authority cannot do so, but someone should be take action by Monday, especially as the school is also still in financial special measures and there were issues raised in the 2017 accounts about the management of financial matters.

If ‘it is not clear that directors and governors know how to judge what is working in the school and what is not.’ Then such a situation must not be allowed to continue. Action this day please.