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Wednesday 14 June 2023

British devaluation

I have always tended to agree with Samuel Johnson that, "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel" and I get itchy when we rush for our banners and flags. But I was depressed yesterday when in a conversation with one of my colleagues about Ofsted and British Values I recalled a short satirical email I wrote almost 10 years ago,

"We are committed to promoting the core values of Britishness which are clearly demonstrated by our current government

  • Arrogance - everything good has happened because we made it happen and everything bad was someone else's fault (either foreigners or Marxists who are everywhere)
  • Narcissism - we are brilliant and the best and if only everyone else was more like us the world would be a better place
  • Xenophobia - there is no problem big or small that cannot be blamed upon bloody foreigners (see above arrogance)
  • Self interest - we will pontificate about others not following our example whilst shamelessly filling our pockets when we think no one is looking
  • Laziness - never do anything positive or productive when you could spend the time moaning and blaming someone else for the problem"

I wrote that before Brexit before Boris Johnson and Liz Truss...

It now looks prophetic. How sad that satire plus time becomes tragedy.

Friday 9 June 2023

Keyboard warriors

Last week I was invited to comment on the rise of parental complaints by SchoolsWeek in an article published under the title “Trust hopes code of conduct will end abuse”

This is the entirety of my response which bears release given the limited quote included in the article.

“Dear xxx

Further to your text, I can confirm that we have seen a significant rise in parental complaints since the pandemic.  My Legal Director feels that we are running at about two to three times the 2019 volumes of complaints made direct to the Trust. 

In light of this, the first two hypotheses should be (1) that our schools are somehow worse than they were before the pandemic and/or (2) that parents are less happy with them. But neither stack up. Ofsted judgements maintain their upward trajectory with 86% good or better and SATs scores show a good recovery of the learning lost to Covid. Likewise, I have been running stakeholder satisfaction surveys since early 2021 and parental positivity has not declined significantly over the whole period (average of 81% positive or strongly positive)

So what is behind it?

I postulate three things. 

First, disadvantaged communities feel very disenfranchised. There is a lingering resentment towards the state about lockdown, about Brexit, about inflation and the cost of living crisis. They don't feel listened to or represented. This anger needs to come out somewhere and schools are the closest lightening conductor.

Second, as a society we have become more used to doing things online than we were before. Previously where a parent had a concern or was upset, they would have had a conversation with their child's teacher or headteacher. Now, because they are angry, they skip this step and send a strongly worded email to the Trust, to Ofsted, to their MP often all three at the same time. 

Third, we have become professional complainers. Where previously a parent might have been upset about another child's behaviour towards their child, now they have 'safeguarding concerns' or allege 'racist' or 'sexual abuse' in the deliberate knowledge that these are words which trigger processes (as they should). Often this verbal escalation comes from social media groups that share short-cuts on how to complain effectively.

Put all of this together and you have a pressure cooker that needs a serious release of steam. Because behind all this heat and noise will be genuine safeguarding issues that risk being missed. The only solution I see is for schools to do even more, to lean into their communities and make them feel more valued and heard. But this is exceptionally difficult when the school leaders we are asking more of are the ones who feel the most under direct attack from this army of keyboard warriors.

Ofsted and the ESFA must also get much better at redirecting parents back to the first step of the school's complaints policy when they have skipped to Level 3 ALL-CAPS OUTRAGE!”

Friday 31 March 2023

Ofsted is not the bogeyman... we are

Social media continues to debate Ofsted’s role in the recent death of a headteacher with much sound and fury. It is not for me to intrude upon the grief of her family, friends and school community, nor to speculate on the reasons. But after almost 60 inspections over the last 11 years, I think I am entitled to comment about Ofsted.

I did not want to write this piece. I had hoped that sense and compassion would prevail in the wake of a private tragedy. As ever with social media, the argument polarised almost instantly as people made this about themselves and projected their own sense of injustice into the space. But this has very little to do with Ofsted.

Ofsted is not a regulator. Ofsted is not the employer. Ofsted does not end people’s careers. Ofsted is merely the inspector, no more no less. The trouble with Ofsted is the rest of us and what we do with its inspection ‘judgements’ and how our often gross overreactions and over-simplifications affect school leaders’ lives.

Let me state this simply. The responsibility for the broken and dysfunctional psychological contract between school leaders and society lies with us, the employers. 

I am not saying that many school leaders do not live in semi-permanent fear of an unfair or unreasonable Ofsted judgement. I am not saying that headteachers do not fear for their livelihoods and even their sanity. They clearly do. But the reason that they fear a rigged accountability system is because we have not done our job. We have not told them regularly that Ofsted is merely an audit, an input amongst many others about the effectiveness of the education system. We have not reassured them through our actions that an unfavourable judgement leads to support and reinforcement not exile and shame. 

Unfortunately, because we have fragmented our education system so completely over the last 13 years, all that is left is accountability. If I were to be cynical, I might observe that it is much simpler and cheaper for the government to blame someone else for failure than to engage in the complex, messy and expensive process of improving public services.

This sword of Damocles looms so menacingly above headteachers because the idea of accountability is so reductive and so pervasive. Having found the person to blame for a school not being good enough, why would we look any further or deeper into the root causes? A school has been found to be underperforming its children and its leader has been held to account. All is well in the world…

But if we want a fairer society, we must accept cost and nuance. If we are to stand shoulder to shoulder with school leaders whose schools could do better, then we need to genuinely know our schools. To be able to look the world in the eye and say, yes this Ofsted report highlights some areas of concern that must be addressed but this school is getting better as quickly as it can and it would be ill served by a change of leadership. This headteacher needs our trust and support not our judgement.

This is the problem of leading system change. If you want to improve a system (as opposed to merely giving the appearance of caring) you only have two inputs. You pick the team and you set the direction. And one of the core elements of setting the direction is making a judgement call about how much change the people in your team can cope with. An organisation cannot get better faster than its people can cope with change. Poor leaders either underestimate tolerance for change and accept underperformance or they overestimate it and break the whole organisation. Keeping the organisation in the sweet spot between complacency and recklessness can only be done with detailed knowledge of the components of the system. If you only know how well a school is performing through an Ofsted report every five years, then you do not know the system you are running.

Ofsted is not perfect, far from it. However, unlike most instruments of government, it knows this and does not pretend to be. It is probably the least broken bit of our education system and is respected internationally. In the main, Ofsted is staffed by people who are both knowledgeable and passionate about education and who want to improve our education system as a whole. 

Of the 59 school inspections and one Ofsted MAT review, in which I have been on the receiving end, only one was genuinely inaccurate and even then we didn’t dispute the grade, just the tone of the report. We made it clear to the senior leadership concerned that we saw the judgement in the broader context of all the progress that was being made and that they should not worry. That probably equates to an error rate of 1.5% or less.

The rest of us need to step up. It is a failure of governance in both maintained schools and academies if we continue knee jerk responses to single inspections. We need to place ourselves between headteachers and an unthinking bureaucracy. We need to create the psychological security for school leaders and teachers to be able to take the risks necessary to improve education.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves”- Julius Caesar

Wednesday 15 March 2023

Should we be worried about a national scheme of work?

A journalist asked me yesterday about the Ofsted involvement with Oak National Academy. Before I returned her call, I tried to order my thoughts a little. This is a complex space and the following thoughts occured to me...

Le Courbusier said that a house was a, "Thing for living in". It is defined by its function not its attributes or contents. A school is a thing for learning in. A good school is one in which we all learn well. This depends on lots of things. But on nothing more than on good teaching.

Oak National Academy is a collection of schemes of work. Schools often use schemes to scaffold, when teacher quality or subject knowledge is less than desired. But, like any scheme of work, it is no substitute for or guarantee of good quality teaching.

Governments are often frustrated by the cost and time required to improve the quality of teaching. But a grail quest for the perfect text book helps no-one, because the perfect text book doesn't exist. There are no shortcuts to deep subject knowledge and acquired classroom craft. Neither of which is improved by a scheme of work, however good or well intentioned.

Oak National Academy is concerning only if it is the thin end of a wedge. It could be seen as the beginning of a national scheme of work. This might herald a new era of performative compliance. Whether you see it as such or not, probably depends on your existing political and professional bias.

Does Oak National Academy in and of itself improve the quality of teaching? I don't know. There is sometimes a danger that overly scaffolded schemes of work impair rather than improve teacher development. Becuase they do not, in and of themselves, enforce the reflection necessary to deepen teacher subject knowledge and craft. But I suppose we'll have to wait and see.

It is a tool and its success depends entirely on those who wield it, and the intent with which it is used.

Wednesday 9 November 2022

Governance revisited...

I have complained before about the guff written about governance despite also being guitly of contributing to it [1]. But the debate is so clouded by the conflation of arguments that I feel compelled to revisit. Emma Knight's recent blog from the NGA is a prime example of an argument that purports to be about governance but is essentially an attack on academy trusts and ignores the only element of governance that matters. 

The function of governance is to ask one question, "Is it working?" This can be qualified by supplementary questions such as, "Is it getting better quickly enough?". But ultimately the first question is the one that matters. 

The trouble with the arguments presented in the NGA blog is one of framing. The blog seeks to question the effectiveness of academy governance by contrasting it with the governance of maintained schools and asserting that 'localness' is the thing that is missing.

First and foremost, the governance of local authority maintained schools is not the yardstick. Local does not equate to good and central does not automatically equate to bad. Whether you support or oppose academies [2], maintained school governance is average at best and in the main absent. Its weakness was why academy reforms were implemented in the first place. 

When a school is good, or even better, the source of its success is more often the school leader than the governing body. The DfE has known this for years but doesn't say it publicly. Because it doesn't want to piss off all the good people who volunteer to be school governors and because the DfE knows that it lacks the capacity to actually govern the schools itself. Indeed many schools are good despite their governing bodies; whilst most schools that are weak are so because of their governing bodies. 

For clarity I am not claiming that Academy Governance is any better, only that it tends to be more centralised. 

When a school is not working and is not getting better quickly enough it is often the governing body that is resisting the need to improve either by rejecting the need or by excusing the progress. Whilst academy 'freedoms' were largely bullshit peddled to get new and vigorous 'business people' involved in bringing efficient 'corporate governance' to schools, the one freedom that academy trusts do have is the freedom to dismiss ineffective local governors.

Emma's assertion that, "The evidence tells us local governance is here to stay" is perhaps the most dangerous in her blog. First she cites no evidence. She alludes only to opinion and preference. But the question to be asked by and of governance is, "Is it working?" not, "Is it local?". The things we should be examining are which models of governance work, not which ones we like or affiliate with politically.

Now before you think I am lobbying for centralised control, I should point out that I am a card carrying fan of subsidiarity. I firmly believe that decisions should be made as close to the people that they impact as the capacity of the people making the decision allows. But that does not mean that local is automatically best. I would not expect a Teaching Assistant to set the budget for a school any more than I should be allowed to design the curriculum for a school which I might visit no more than once as year. The decisions should be made where the knowledge of the people impacted is balanced by the professional expertise required to make the decision. 

And doing that does not automatically require local governing bodies. What it does require is better stakeholder engagement in all schools.

There are two practical things we could do to encourage this change. 

First government could require that MATs consult children, parents and stakeholders regularly for their views and publish their responses in their annual reports.We poll our staff and parents every half term and publish their opinions twice a year.

Second, and I have been suggesting this for years, Ofsted could decouple its leadership judgement from its governance judgement. It would very quickly become apparent which schools have governing bodies and SLTs woking together in alignment and which have school leaders furiously coaching their governors the night before inspection.

[1] Here is one of my previous attempts to simplify the subject

[2] I am on the record as stating that the manner in which this government and its predecessors have implemented academy reforms is nothing short of cultural vandalism

Tuesday 20 September 2022

Bloody grammar schools again

I have written before about the trouble with grammar schools. This post from six years ago still stands up. It is depressing that despite all the evidence, it is such a persistent idea in this country's politics. 

I was on a zoom call today where colleagues mused that given the recent ministerial appointments made to the DfE, which are as much a metaphorical middle finger to the profession as the actual middle finger given by Andrea Jenkyns to protestors outside Downing Street earlier this year, a policy adjustment to expand selection at age 11 is almost inevitable.

There were some rational people on the call, who reasoned that rather than ignore this policy as a distraction from our core purpose, we should at least engage with it to attempt to mitigate it with a least worst option.

But something inside me snapped.

This is as far as I can go...

You can have your expansion of grammar schools but only if you:

  • Publicly drop the "levelling up" policy and admit that it was a lie
  • Explain that the reason for expanding selection is that you want to spend less on state education whilst pretending to support a meritocracy and also state that it is your policy ambition for many schools in the areas affected to be worse than they are today
  • Require all new grammar schools to accept only 50% by academic selection with the balance being allocated by lottery regardless of ability
  • Force all MPs that support the policy to send their children to secondary modern schools regardless of ability

    People who win rigged lotteries tend to support lotteries. They are also disinclined to examine the extent to which they were rigged.

    Thursday 10 March 2022

    Power is nothing without control

    I first met Sam Freedman in the winter of 2011/12 at the DfE when Caroline Whalley and I and a small bunch of volunteers were setting up the Elliot Foundation. Over the years since I have sat opposite him at multiple think tanks and education events and occasionally exchanged tweets. But Twitter is not really my thing in the way that it is his. I have found him to be an interesting and deep thinker about education. I have been surprised by how often I have agreed with him and even when I don’t, how much I respect his approach. 

    Last month he published a paper through the Institute for Government entitled, "Gove reforms a decade on: what worked. what didn't, what next?". I know there are much more important things going on but if we want to make the world a less stupid, selfish and dangerous place, then education policy is important. It is particularly important now as there is a government white paper about to be published and almost all eyes are looking elsewhere.

    General background points

    The founding idea of school trusts was to create organisations (charities), liberated from stifling bureaucracy and ineffective local government, with the single purpose of improving education for all. My concern about Sam's recommendations in their entirety is that they appear to recommend the reattachment of multiple levels of bureaucracy and the reconnection to local government, which is more ineffective now than when academies were originally conceived. 

    If you want to improve the education system you have to rebuild capacity, coherence and clarity. Organisational groupings of schools (LAs and MATs) have to become legally equivalent and operationally compatible. To be more explicit 250-500 school operating organisations regulated by a single entity split into 10-15 regions would make the role of each regional regulator possible. I have long argued that LAs should be allowed to run MATs before they lose any more of their system knowledge and capacity.

    But the difficulty of this proposed end state is that it would cost a significant amount to achieve. And we have spent most of our school improvement budget on the transaction costs of transferring 50% of schools to academy status. This is the equivalent of spending your entire system improvement budget on a new name for the project.

    Premises on which we agree

    The education sector is not in an ideal state. The impact of fragmentation was entirely predicted. I have written elsewhere on the challenges of incoherent, overlapping and occasionally contradictory regulation (Education System Design: Foundations, Policy Options and Consequences, Nov 2020). There has been marginal improvement in both the academy and LA maintained sector but nothing significant. There are good MATs and good LAs but equally there are poor MATs and poor LAs. However, the overall incidence of schools requiring improvement or worse has not moved outside the 13-15% bracket for the last decade.

    Premises on which we disagree

    Sam seems to feel that there is insufficient clarity around educational expectations, a lack of authority holding trusts to account and powers missing to intervene where necessary. On this we disagree. There is no shortage of authority. School Trusts are amongst the most regulated parts of the public sector. The problem is not the absence of power it is the absence of coherence and intelligence in the system to use its abundant powers with discretion.

    The ESFA and RSCs between them have the power to take schools away from trusts and close trusts entirely in the event of contractual breach. If a school trust fails to improve outcomes across its schools as a whole, then it is failing to meet its core purpose. By definition this is a failure of governance. The statutory powers to intervene already exist they are just not being used very well. The reason for this is the gearing ratio between RSCs and the level below them. There are simply too many organisations, all of whom will plead special circumstances when challenged, for the RSCs or the ESFA to act confidently. RSCs have less than ½ a day per year for each organisation over which they have oversight.

    In the 1990's Pirelli ran a print ad of American Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis in red high heels with the strap line, "Power is nothing without control". Legislators legislate and this is our danger. Adding more powers into a fragmented system will only cause more damage as they will be used without insight. You don't put a jet engine on a wonky bicycle and then act surprised when you're picking up teeth from the road.

    Central recommendations from,"Gove reforms a decade on" with annotations

    I have taken the 15 recommendations from the IFG paper and sorted them into three categories with rationales for each.


    Discuss further 


    2. "Establish a single arm’s length regulator for academy trusts, merging the academies  responsibilities of regional schools commissioners and the Education and Skills  Funding Agency

    Completely agree! Create clarity and consistency. But separate out the Funding Agency from the Regulator to avoid perverse incentives and conflicts of interest. And most importantly ensure the regulator has the capacity to to perform its functions with discretion.

    1. "Create a proper statutory basis for academies, MATs and academy regulation."  

    We don't need more statutory powers. We just need the clarity of structure and purpose for the powers that already exist to become useful. 

    4. "Publish a high-level framework setting expectations for MATs against which they  can be assessed by the regulator. All assessments should be transparent. "

    You don't need a new framework to exercise power with discretion. The success or failure of a school operating organisation is directly inferred from the performance of its schools in their contexts. An ‘angels on a pinhead’ league table would be a waste of time and money on which no one would agree. Why create independent organisations whose sole reason for existence is to improve outcomes for children and then tell them how to do it?

    5. "Give local authorities the power to ask the regulator to direct academies to increase or reduce their published admissions number (PAN), if they can make a case that  they will not otherwise be able to meet their sufficiency duty effectively."

    Provided that this power was reciprocated and MATs could ask the regulator to adjust their own PANs up and down in the face of LA intransigence (which is as common as the MAT awkwardness implied by this recommendation)

    3. "Give the new regulator powers to intervene to close or merge MATs for both  financial/compliance failures and failure to provide adequate educational support."

    I would argue this is not needed as it already exists. They already have the power to intervene on educational underperformance through their powers on failure of governance. They also have significant coercive powers. There is danger of creating an accountability revolving door here.

    7. "Give local authorities control over all schools’ admissions policy to ensure fairness."

    I'm beginning to suspect that Sam has been captured by the LGA lobby. LA control does not necessarily equate to fairness. This would also set quite a lot of hares running with faith schools...

    8.  "Give local authorities the right of access to MAT data, including attendance records.

    I see no problem in this. We are public bodies funded by public money. We should be transparent and connected to local government.

    6. "Give MATs a duty to set out their forward plans for expansion and to discuss these  with local authorities.

    MATs already have a duty in company and charity law to set out and publish their plans. Just make us write better annual reports

    9. "Consider if further powers for local authorities are necessary in light of the ongoing  DfE review of SEND provision."

    Absolutely not! They don't need more power. They need more money. Otherwise they will simply transfer the problem to schools and blame them for failure in the same way that central government currently does to them. The challenge here is where in the overall education settlement we find this money for SEND as the treasury will not support otherwise. See earlier blog on SEND funding.

    11.” Set a strong expectation that all schools will join a MAT. Use incentives and clear  messaging to encourage the shift to a single system rather than forcing schools  to comply. “

    Yes absolutely.

    10. "Create an additional package of legal powers for local authorities to be triggered  when all their schools are academies, including the right to hold public hearings  of MATs and a limited right to insist academies co-operate with integration of local  children’s services"

    I think this is dangerous. Yes, we need to incentivise a move towards a coherent system. But I suspect this would incentivise the wrong behaviours. Some LAs would kick all their schools out and then judge them in what looks like a kangaroo court. You would simply have a revolving door of suppliers overcharging and getting fired for not improving anything.

    14. "Create a mechanism whereby an individual school can make a request to the regulator to move to a different MAT, if they can make a strong case that they would  benefit educationally. "

    This is the most dangerous idea of the lot. All you have to do is ask yourself how will people behave if this happens? First it allows schools to opt out of school improvement if they don't like their MAT. Second it requires legal contortions to apportion rights to a body that no longer exists. Third it will incentivise charities to act against their charitable purposes and give oil to squeaky wheels. And most importantly fourth it will create the situation where rather than act to improve outcomes for children, MATs will use public money to promote and market themselves to their school leaders, as it is much cheaper to get people to like you than to improve a system. All to address a problem which doesn't exist, to whit the false notion that regulators lack the power to take schools away from MATs that are failing them.

    12. "Inject significantly more capacity-building funding into high-performing small MATs  and provide funding to new strategic and high-potential MATs. This should include  organisations spun out of local authorities, many of which already exist to provide  support services."

    Maybe talk to some of the larger MATs who have done this already amongst the chaos of the last decade and could help. Giving money to small MATs who don't know about growth risk and organisational design is dangerous. And please don't ask the DfE about this as they do not know.

    15. "This would require legislation to give a group of representatives associated with  each school a legal status independent of the MAT so that a body existed that could  make the request.

    This is just an additional point which tacitly recognised the silliness of point 14 and creates a process so bureaucratic as to negate its own purpose.

    13. "Empower the new regulator to create regional MATs to take on schools that cannot find another MAT to work with. It may be necessary to create several of these with different functions (for example, to cover small rural schools). " This has already been partially done and isn't exactly flying as an idea. It also completely subverts the whole idea of school trusts. If the regulator you propose conceives, commissions, directs, manages and dissolves, then it is not a regulator. You have just subsumed the entire school system back into direct administration by the DfE, which I have already shown lacks the tacit knowledge or capacity to perform this role.


    We should not legislate on the basis that we haven't done so for a while. And before we do, we should ask the question, if we create these new rules, how would different agents in the system behave?