In the age of short-termism and the cult of the school improvement ‘lightswitch’ - Who’d be a School Leader?
I am prompted to write this article after giving significant time to digest Amanda Spielman’s comments about the circa. 500 hundred schools who have been classed as ‘intractable’ (https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/752721/HMCI_PAC_letter_311018.pdf). It is pleasing to see that there is going to be a concerted effort to research the reasons why this is the case and to look at “…why interventions designed to secure improvement, including inspection, have not been effective in some schools”.
I’m sure that many school leaders would hold a view on this, I know it has left me feeling deeply unsettled, even a number of weeks after it was published. I think this stems from:
1- The moral scandal as articulated in the letter – it is a moral scandal, but it reads as if it is entirely the fault of the schools
2- The distance between OFTSED and the schools that is presented by the language of the text – again, it reads as if Ofsted is an observer of this situation rather than part of the system that might have some power to effect change
3- A deeply felt empathy for the communities of those schools identified.
Picking up on point 3, what must it be like to be a student, parent or member of staff in one of those schools? Presumably they are able to identify themselves? The text of the letter appears to be another case of institutionalised ‘school shaming’ articulated so well in this blog post by Tom Sherrington https://teacherhead.com/2018/11/17/edu-shaming-starts-with-ofsted-grading/
I am particularly interested in the leadership aspect of these schools. Regardless of whether they are Academy schools under the umbrella of a MAT or if they have somehow managed to hold onto Local Authority control – What must it be like to be the Headteacher of one of these schools?
I know of one such school. I have lost count of the number of headteachers they have had in the past decade. Plural MATs have had a crack at the nut. All of the headteachers were able to demonstrate a track record of success in previous roles. All of them got their fingers burnt and are having to pick up the pieces of their careers.
If the current trend of ‘leader shaming’ is in place in these schools (there is no reason to suspect it wouldn’t be) then I guess that many of the schools will, within the last 2 years, have replaced the Headteacher in a similar cycle as described in the example above. They will probably have new Headteachers, who have not been in position very long. These brave souls have probably stepped into challenging circumstances, following a rigorous recruitment process with the eyes of the whole community on them. One would assume that there has been a hearty celebration that the right person has been selected for the job. I applaud them, but how long will it be before they are considered part of the problem? How long will they be given to find the school improvement ‘light switch’ that so many others before them failed to find? How long before they are the next leader to be shamed and thrown onto the bonfire ready for the whole cycle to be started again? How many times will we repeat the same actions expecting a different outcome? I imagine Einstein looking on in despair.
When will this madness end?
When will we accept that there must be something much more fundamentally wrong with schools that are struggling to reach the expectations that we all have. When will we stop assuming that if schools are unable to reach that expectation then the reason must be down to feckless leadership and a staff body resistant to change and improvement.
I, for one, would like to see the staff in these schools and their leaders celebrated. I would like to see a collective whole sector approach to these schools (and any others that fall foul of the dreaded ‘inadequate’). I would like to see the term ‘Special Measures’ mean something beyond additional scrutiny. I would like to see an approach that accepts that if we are to avoid the perceived failures of the past then perhaps these schools are going to need longer than a 2-3 year turn around time.
Headteachers are not superheroes and neither are they use less but we are rapidly heading towards a world where, when it comes to the schools that are uniquely challenging, you are one or another.
For now, here we are – these schools are now ‘intractable’ and therefore part of a national scandal.
School/leader shaming has just stepped up a notch.