There’s an article in this week’s Education Guardian that isn’t altogether surprising but is alarming nonetheless.
Kent County Council – not exactly viewed as the most forward-thinking, inclusive local authority with its much maligned and contentious grammar school system – has reportedly written a document outlining what will happen to a head teacher if their school is placed in Special Measures.
“This week, headteachers in Kent, one of the biggest local education authorities, are reeling from shock at a new document, seen by Education Guardian, spelling out exactly what a school leader can expect if their school is found to be failing. Those who have been in post for two years or more will be given “gardening leave” and a replacement found. Or, as some heads interpret it, summarily dismissed, or “disappeared”.”
(NB: the article happened to mention Kent County Council but it could have been others….)
This “draft” document was apparently written at the behest of head teachers who wanted clarification of Kent’s policy, presumably because of the number of head teachers that had vanished as an outcome of the inspectors calling. If a head teacher refused to take “gardening leave” then a “formal target-setting” approach would be introduced, with the divisive additional sentence of “As formal targets become a matter of record, most heads do not wish this option.”
In other words, you can disappear quietly; resigning and protecting your career – though bear in mind you’ll probably never get another headship with Ofsted reports so publicly available on the Internet – or you can challenge the judgements of Ofsted and the subsequent actions from the local authority, bearing in mind that this will be recorded on your professional portfolio as competency procedures.
Er – what precisely is the choice being offered here?
One nameless head teacher in Kent was quoted in the report.
“We assumed this practice was going on already as heads in struggling schools have ‘disappeared’ and been replaced, and Kent’s response has always been sanction rather than support . . . I can think of 11 primary and secondary heads in three years who have been removed in this way.”
“We all want our schools to be the best they can be, but you don’t achieve that by intimidating headteachers out of working in challenging schools. Who is going to want to take on a difficult school, knowing that in two years’ time their career might be at an end?”
“Kent’s idea of support is to come in and do mock Ofsted inspections,” says Ms X. “This is not what schools need. They need support on the quality of teaching and learning.”
She adds: “My heart sank when I read this protocol, particularly for colleagues working hard in challenging situations and now with the added pressure that they could lose their jobs. This is like public flogging, when we are already struggling to fill head teacher vacancies.”
This is abhorrent, and we are quoting from this article because we believe a healthy dose of solidarity is needed for these head teachers and others who face similar situations in other local authorities throughout the country.
The other issue that hasn’t been highlighted within this report is the pressure to act that is placed on the diminishing local authorities too. Whilst not in any way excusing or condoning their behaviour, they too are in an untenable situation.
The powers held by the Secretary of State mean that as soon as a school is placed in special measures he can bring in the Academies gurus and brokers to harangue the schools into changing their governance. This is difficult enough for the schools involved, whose “clients” (let alone the staff) don’t want to become an academy or be federated with another so-called successful school. Yet it’s also bad news for the local authorities if another school is taken away from their jurisdiction.
With budgets slashed, large numbers of local authority advisers have been made redundant. Whilst the head teacher above quite rightly criticises the local authority for its lack of support on teaching and learning, where is the money available for this sort of support? The local authorities are desperately trying to retain their schools in order to justify their existence. Losing a school means losing yet more finance for the skeleton staff they’ve managed to retain since the coalition cuts came into force – should the head teachers decide to pool the devolved budget for this sort of advisory support.
Often, the only way for a local authority to keep a school is to play the Gove-r-nor’s game and show the Secretary of State that they are dealing with the issue in hand. Following these unwritten protocols for dealing with “errant/failing” head teachers, some local authorities feel that they have to adopt a similar non-negotiable stance as the hounds from the academy brokers are already on their way to the “failed” school to serve them a menu of options.
The simple point in the sorry situation is this. The system isn’t working – not for children, who are so frequently forgotten when a school is placed in Special Measures, not for the parents and carers, not for staff in schools, not for local authorities, not even for Ofsted – not even for the politicians!
Ofsted was set up to be a “critical friend”. Yes, it has always had the power to make a judgement but head teachers used to be given time, with the guidance from advisers and peers, to make necessary changes. This is no longer the case. For many years now, having a “Special Measures” category is a death knell to your career.
Ofsted was set up as “independent”. Whilst Sir Michael Wilshaw insists that this is still the case, the very nature of political interference in education means that certain political not educational criteria are being used to judge how good a school is – more or less solely on examination results and league tables. Ofsted, by virtue of being the inspectorate, cannot be independent of these political persuasions.
The Local Authority can’t be apolitical either. Time and time again, advisers have carried out the express diktat of central government policy makers that might indeed contradict their own views on pedagogy. Look at what happened with the Literacy Hour. Look what has happened now with synthetic phonics. Did all those advisers who supported us through developing the skills of emergent writing and the use of onset and rime have a trip along the Damascus road that transformed their thinking from child-focused learning to a different form of pedagogy? Or were they just protecting their jobs?
We have got to have a rethink and we have to get politics out of our classrooms, our schools and our local authorities. We have to reflect and think carefully about what is right for our children. This messy system that removes head teachers as soon as an inspector implies they’re not fit for purpose is so abhorrently wrong, it has to be questioned.
The head teachers in Kent should unite, and anyone interested in education should be supporting them. Nobody wants poor managers in schools. Nobody wants poor teaching – but lambasting and threatening people isn’t going to make them better teachers or managers, and neither is working on a political agenda that is so far removed from the mainstream of thinking on education pedagogy.
We have to return to the fundamental questions of “what is education for?” and “what skills, competences, knowledge and understanding do we want for our school leavers?” We also need to ask “why” a little more often. Why do we need league tables? Why do we need an anglo-biased factual curriculum that we are going to be judged on? Why is it okay for Ofsted to come into a school and make a judgement about the place without the true context of the place and its learners being considered? Why are we not encouraging more clustering of schools, where advice and support is preventative and developmental rather than reactive?
Kent County Council can only write this ludicrous, oppressive and intimidating document because as a profession we’ve allowed the power and the decision-making process for education to be held centrally – not just at a government level but at the level of one person – whoever happens to be Secretary of State at the time. The thought that there is any real power locally devolved, either to schools or local authorities, is so far removed from the truth that it’s ridiculous.
An election looms. Tristram Hunt talks of “teacher quality” but isn’t prepared to look at the fundamental underlying conditions that would enable and enhance teacher quality – such as governance, such as accountability, such as the curriculum, such as the divisive not progressive nature of league tables, such as the loss of advisers at local authority level.
If these things were addressed, we wouldn’t have local authorities writing such threatening documents because it is possible for change to happen without the hangman’s noose dangling. It’s possible for support and guidance to take place at a local level to prevent a school from struggling or failing before the inspector gets anywhere near the place.