Climbing The Hill
An Open Letter to OFSTED
3rd July 2014
Dear Mr Wilshaw
Re: Foxfield Primary School SE18
Foxfield Primary School, in Greenwich, was inspected just seventeen days after I arrived as the new Executive Headteacher and was found inadequate in all areas. The school was subsequently placed in special measures.
Amongst a variety of key issues identified, the report comments that:
- Leaders, managers and governors have not taken the action needed to stem the decline in achievement, behaviour and the quality of teaching since the previous inspection. Their view of the school’s effectiveness is too optimistic
- Leaders do not use data robustly to check that all groups achieve equally well.
Whilst I welcome a robust inspection framework and believe passionately in a national framework for accountability, my questions are: what value can an inspection framework add in the unique situation where an experienced leader with a track record for success takes on a failing school? And secondly, what is the incentive for someone like myself in working with our most vulnerable schools when our current inspection framework places no trust (and gives no time) for high quality school leadership to make the difference?
During my first seventeen days at Foxfield we managed to undertake the following leadership tasks:
- A whole school audit of teaching and learning identifying key issues and areas for development
- Production of a short term ‘Transformation Plan’ identifying key actions to rapidly improve all aspects of teaching and learning identified as inadequate from the audit
- Analysis of all pupil data, both historically and most recent with the production of a summary report / plan containing key recommendations and actions
- Recruitment and retention of several key staff including a new Head of School
- Meeting with parents and established a weekly newsletter to improve communication
- Established a robust and focused monitoring programme which includes middle and senior leaders
- Reviewed job descriptions and roles and responsibilities for senior leaders
- Fresh started all pupil books and published revised guidelines relating to expectations and non-negotiables for teaching and learning.
Even in those first seventeen days before the inspection took place, there was not one single key issue subsequently identified in the inspection report that we had not already planned to address or were making progress with in just a few weeks.
For example, the inspection team identified pupil presentation and pride in books as a serious weakness. Similarly, feedback marking was singled out as a serious weakness. In just 5 weeks, we have turned expectations around so that response marking and pupil feedback looks like this:
Prior to joining Foxfield, I had worked at Bannockburn Primary School for ten years as the Headteacher and then Executive Headteacher. Our attainment and progress regularly placed us in the top percentage of schools nationally. Our most disadvantaged pupils achieved as well as any in the country and our achievements were celebrated on a national scale. I became a Local Leader and then a National Leader of Education, supporting many schools since that time, having proven impact in every single case.
In 2010, I worked with a school in special measures and was successful in helping the school move from a category 4 to a category 2 with leadership being judged as good. As an NLE, I helped a special measures school in Brighton achieve standards above floor for the first time in its history. I worked with London Challenge and then the London Leadership Strategy to plan school improvement, develop innovative programmes and continue to share best practice in primary education.
In September 2013, I took on the challenge of Woodhill Primary School, a (then) failing school. In in less than one term of being in post, OFSTED inspected, reporting that:
The new headteacher has firmly set the school on an improving course. He has inspired and raised the expectations, skills and accountability of senior leaders, staff and governors. Rapid and successful action is well underway to improve significant aspects of the school’s work.
The headteacher provides highly effective, experienced and inspirational leadership. His ambition and vision, which are shared by all leaders and the governing body, are firmly anchored in the relentless and determined drive to improve pupils’ achievements.
How different in both tone and style can the judgments be between the two reports that were written less than two terms apart?
Since the inspection took place at Foxfield Primary School, the impact of leadership has been demonstrable.
- Learning environments across the school are now transformed
- The quality of teaching has moved from 17% judged to be good or better to over 50% in a matter of weeks
- The parent perception of our school is significantly more positive. Over 150 parents came to our open afternoon to see for themselves the difference in pupil books and shared expectations for learning
- Pupil behaviour and attitudes to learning have improved greatly
In addition to this, we have recruited outstanding teachers and continue to attract the very best staff who now want to be part of our amazing journey. Our plans are ambitious, transformational and create a legacy.
My plea is to review, as a matter of urgency, our current OFSTED framework to ensure other leaders are not placed in the same position as we now are at Foxfield.
An OFSTED inspection has the potential to damage lives and wreck careers as much as it has the potential to galvanize and transform. Surely, if we believe in a system led school improvement process, we have to give our best school leaders the chance and opportunity to make that difference and be accountable for that difference over time.
The resources we place in the inspection process, when a new leader with a track record for rapid school improvement, would be better spent on enabling school based leaders like myself, who choose to work in our most challenged schools, to make the necessary changes for the good of children and the communities we serve. As Steve Mumby said at the recent Inspiring Leadership conference, (and I paraphrase), we wouldn’t expect OFCOM to direct an inspirational film – that’s the job of Danny Boyle. In tandem with that view, we need to give our best and most experienced leaders the time and tools to make life changing improvements in our most challenged schools.
It has now been over 60 days since I began working with Foxfield Primary School. The following comments are testimony to the work of staff and the school as we embark on the most exciting adventure in the school’s journey to outstanding:
· “when I think back to 5 weeks ago, the progress we have made seems huge”
· “children are smiling more. There is now a sense of pride in our school”
· “there is now so much positivity around the school. Staff morale is higher, our learning environments are consistent and children are responding to feedback about learning”
I do not believe the inspection which took place at Foxfield Primary School in May has made any positive difference to either the community at Foxfield or educational standards. We will do the work anyway and are well on the way to success. It is us, as school based leaders in education, who will make the difference and build a legacy of success across the community.
Lets build an inspection framework which acknowledges the incredible work we are doing and gives our best leaders the time to make the difference.