1: Mean Business
Updated: Jan 22, 2020
Let me tell you what it feels like for a teacher in a turbulent school to be ‘Ofsteded’. Imagine you are having breakfast with your toddler. A stranger with a clipboard enters your kitchen, finds an empty chair and starts taking notes. Excited by the extra attention, your baby starts throwing his drink on the floor and smears porridge in his hair. Knowing that your whole career is on the line, you wince and try to carry on regardless, but your child picks up your anxiety. There is an unmistakable sound of a nappy being filled. Then the inspector leaves the room.
At the District Hospital on Holmesside, there is always a bed reserved by the Psychiatric Consultant for Ofsted casualties. For most teachers, especially those in England’s wealthier areas, a school inspection just means a few sleepless nights, but in rare cases, careers can be ruined, schools closed. On what basis? Even in a turbulent school, evidence gathering can be sketchy. A classroom inspection might only last ten minutes. There is only time for a tiny sample of exercise books to be viewed. But every box in the checklist is completed and scored.
Inspectors are not meant to tell schools how to remedy their faults. But they can never simply observe and report. There is always an uncertainty principle at work. Their observations have unintended consequences, and these can exacerbate an already difficult situation. At Eydon Vale, Hanif Megat, the one inspector whose judgement I trusted, warned us of trouble ahead. To this day, no one had any idea what he meant, his words were so gnomic. Their effects were tragic, sowing discord among the Senior Managers, rippling through staff and pupils, and dashing the hopes of an already precarious community.
Why precarious? The statistics I unearthed that September about child homelessness, crime and deprivation before my interview for the Deputy Headship of Eydon Vale were sobering. Of the 12599 parishes in England, Eydon Vale had one of the 200 highest rates of child poverty. 35% of the local children were entitled to Free School Meals, while slightly less came from dislocated families. Not the worst, admittedly, but its problems were complicated by a history of poor leadership.
Eydon Vale had not just been deemed “inadequate” and given the lowest grade in the notorious 4 point scale. It was in an unofficial sub-category of failing schools. Its Deputy had only been in post a few months before becoming Acting Head and there had been a considerable turnover in staff. However, the term “turbulent school” had a quite specific meaning at that time. One in one thousand such English schools could be closed at a moment’s notice by the Secretary of State because the danger of riot was so great. The only hope for its young people would lie in the transformation of teachers’ disciplinary skills.
Eydon Vale was also one of the 500 “intractable” English schools, generally in our most immiserated areas, that fail their Ofsted Inspections, free themselves from special measures and fail again. They are the unacknowledged victims of the prevailing orthodoxy. That educational marketisation, parental choice and public service accountability can harm some of our most vulnerable children is an issue that few want to discuss. Hopes are raised as such schools pass from Local Authority control to one academy trust, then blighted as they fail again. What is the point of making the extra effort, if the rewards are so scant? In a turbulent school in a post-industrial area like Holmesside, teaching and learning can be a mean business.