The last two years have perhaps been the most challenging of my teaching career. For most of the pandemic, the goal posts have constantly changed, with frequent and confusing Department for Education updates, often released in the evenings and weekends, giving little consideration for leaders’ wellbeing and workload. We have had to ensure that high quality teaching and learning continued both on site and remotely, support teachers and non-teaching school staff and protect the school community as best as we could from Covid-19.
We have battled high levels of staff absence at key times, due to sickness and self-isolation, and this had a huge impact on our ability to deliver the high-quality education to which we all aspire, especially when year groups have been sent home due to lack of staff. The impact on school budgets has been significant, with huge sums being paid to supply agencies.
During all of this, the lack of support from Ofsted has been stark. Ploughing on with inspections, as if school life were normal, has caused significant stress and concern for many school leaders. Covid has impacted on children’s learning in several ways, such as gaps in knowledge; issues around attendance; anxiety, poor mental health and safeguarding concerns; and some children feel disenfranchised with learning. Yet, Ofsted sees this simply an excuse if children’s progress is not in line with previous years’ data.
School leaders want children to realise their potential and achieve great things, but the inspection regime is not the right way to ensure school leaders feel supported in driving forward change. Mentioning the “O-word” will often trigger panic and stress in many schools, and that is simply unhelpful. As soon as a head takes the phone call from the lead inspector, that stress becomes widespread quite quickly, with many colleagues fearing the worst. Leaders are naturally concerned about the school being downgraded, which can result from flimsy data, due to the pandemic. In turn, this can mean the school is absorbed by a large trust that will remove its autonomy and control over its destiny.
No-one wants to shy away from accountability, but the time has come for us to explore other models: we need an inspection framework that is collaborative, one that works with school leaders. We need a system based on mutual challenge and support, potentially from local schools with a similar context. This would be fairer, more robust, and ensure school leaders felt supported in moving their school forward, which would ultimately improve outcomes for the young people we teach.
Chris Dutton is Deputy Headteacher in the South West. He is also a member of the NEU’s Leadership National Council.