I swear that they were due the week everything fell apart. As we were sending children home because we didn’t have the staff to teach them, as we were rapidly formulating contingency plans for the inevitable school closure, even after the atom bomb that was the cancelling of summer exams – even in the middle of all this chaos – you would hear someone say ‘well I still would prefer Ofsted came this week’. Such was the desire to get the bloody thing over with.
But they didn’t. For how long will we be left waiting?
If you want to know what that state of suspense felt like in more normal times, I captured it here. That pressure is released… for now. Who knows when normal service will resume?
What has replaced the tension is a question. It is this: Is it right to leave the label on the tin? By which I mean, is it correct and proper to continue to state that schools are ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ or ‘inadequate’? What does ‘requires improvement’ even mean right now? What doesn’t require improvement in this through-the-looking-glass world?
You see, I’m not sure the contents of the tin bear any resemblance to what was in them before. We’re not doing exactly what it says on the tin, as the slogan states. Two weeks ago we had a thousand kids sat in orderly rows (for the most part), being instructed by teachers who have spent years perfecting their delivery (for the most part), in tightly structured routines, timings and physical spaces. What we have now, and will do for some time, is an echo of schooling; an echo which will fade with every iteration. The centre will not hold. Once you take the ‘school’ out of schooling, things become… well, loose, to say the least.
So is a good school still good? Two truths present themselves here. The first is that the definition of good has changed. Ofsted’s criteria hasn’t, but these criteria are almost entirely irrelevant. Any school with a sense of the role it must now play in society will have rapidly refocused its priorities. If your first thought when children don’t do the work you have set is that they must be held to account, it is a sure sign that you are still operating in ‘business as normal’ mode. If you have uttered the words ‘but we are not a childminding service’, you are wrong. That is exactly what we are for some children right now – and so we should be. You can hold onto your subject expertise, your professional status and your self-identity if you wish, but it will be much more helpful if we all set aside our pride and principles and just ask what is required of us. Learning stuff is simply not anywhere near the top of our priorities right now. It was always below the duty to safeguard children, but this duty has become so much more difficult to fulfill that it pushes other aims further down the priority list. When the work is not submitted, our question is about well-being, not compliance.
The schools that have rapidly adjusted to the new reality are the good schools. Those who achieved their status because of their finely-tuned curriculum, consistency of delivery, meticulous monitoring procedures, tight routines and academic outcomes, are only as good as the extent to which they have abandoned any hope of creating virtual ‘standards’, at least for now. That is not to say that efforts to establish new ways of learning are fruitless. If this shutdown continues for an extended period (and it looks like it will), we will need to invent ways to engage students in some kind of process that leaves a residual of learning, however imperfect that might be. The point I am making is that in this period, when the structures of schooling have been demolished, the game has changed beyond recognition. The reasons we need ‘schools’ are substantially different now to what they were just a few weeks ago, and will be different again at various times before normality returns.
And if our definition of good has changed, so too has our ability to know which schools meet this new definition. Ofsted have no hope of knowing which schools are delivering on what society needs them to do in this period of crisis. I would speculate that there are some ‘failing’ schools out there who have rapidly mobilised around their new role. These are often schools for whom safeguarding and tackling barriers to education already took up most of their time – those serving our most disadvantaged communities. Their moral compass is already set at a point close to the new North. What credit can we give such schools for the vital role they are playing in keeping their communities together? To continue to brand them as inadequate feels repugnant.
You may argue that, even if the labels attached to schools can’t possibly describe how well they are ‘performing’ right now, when normal business resumes, school rankings will become accurate again. ‘Standards’ will re-assert themselves. But will this be so? What we cannot possibly predict is how this existential crisis will change the way we think about schools – what we value and want to promote. We also cannot imagine the benefits or damage that may result at a system level, and at the level of individual schools. Some schools may return with a renewed moral purpose, and with strengthened trust between teachers, students and parents. Others may see benefits from the new skills teachers and students have learnt – an opportunity for greater independence in study. Perhaps we will even see a greater appreciation for the service teachers provide. But schools will also suffer fallout: widening attainment gaps, ongoing mental health problems, teachers questioning their role and willingness to return to high workload and the pressure of scrutiny.
We simply cannot predict what schools will look like when this is over. We also do not know how well schools will manage the transition back to ‘normal’ school life.
What purpose does an Ofsted grade play in this? Can we honestly say that the standard which was achieved before this happened will be the standard which will resume once it is over? As a parent searching for reliable information on which to make a school choice, will they turn to a system which described how things were, or will they look for signs of how schools responded when all bets were off? And if the latter, then how can they possibly differentiate between one school and another? What I see is schools up and down the country making incredible efforts to continue to care for our nations’ youth. We will all be making mistakes, some more monumental than others, but who can find me a school which isn’t straining every sinew to do their best for the children in their care? We are revealed in our blind commitment to the cause: our hopeless determination to achieve an impossible task.
So I challenge you: convince me that the grades attached to our nations’ schools have any meaning. Tell me when they will have meaning again? Argue with confidence that schools will emerge unchanged, with the same ‘standards’ and the same definition of standards.
And if you cannot present a convincing case, then join me in calling for Ofsted grades to be suspended indefinitely. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate must admit that it can’t label a tin when it doesn’t know what’s in it. It is not right, it is not necessary, and it is not helpful.