Ticking every box


Sir Michael Wilshaw has opened his mouth again and there is a wide range of responses to it. His latest targets include grammar schools, underperforming schools, schools in the east, rural schools and behaviour in the classroom.

I have to be honest in admitting from the start of this blog post that I support much of what SMW is driving for but I do have a great issue with the rhetoric visible during many of his speeches. He has a difficult job as Chief Inspector in balancing the role of inspecting the work, giving his annual report and regular speeches. I just wish that he would consider the impact of his words on the workforce as well as the his target audience in Westminster and around the country. It is impossible to argue with his desire for raising standards for our pupils and the changing of the classification of grade 3 schools to requiring improvement has to be seen as something which has further concentrated the minds of satisfactory schools.

As the Head of a 380 pupil school which has been satisfactory for many years and which has largely had satisfactory progress we find ourselves ticking many of the boxes set out by Sir Michael. Our school is in rural South Lincolnshire in a town with a population of 6,000 very close to the Wash and the Norfolk and Cambridgeshire borders. We are in an area with Grammar schools and so our Year 6 children sit the 11+ every September. For so many of our parents, this test has significantly more currency than the end of year SAT tests.
In terms of behaviour, we do not have the issue which Wilshaw describes as ‘low level disruption’ which leads to lessons being undermined by “background chatter, inattention and horseplay’. Our main concern as a staff is not about low level disruption but more about ensuring that we creating a generation of children who are fired up as engaged and independent learners.

The final context needed is the fact that, whilst progress during last academic year was largely good or outstanding, our nationally published data is enough to cause great concern to external viewers. We are confident that this year will give a much more realistic view of where the school is and will produce a very green and favourable Raise Online. We were inspected by an OFSTED team in February which refused to take any developments since I had joined as it was too early to judge the impact of the work. The whole process was largely unsatisfactory and undermined my faith in the process.  They had come to fail us  even though everything was satisfactory through and through with a clear shift in practice in the preceding 5 months.

So after the lengthy introduction, where do Sir Michael’s speeches fit in to this?
There is a real danger of appearing like someone who is saying that Wilshaw is right but that it is different for us. However, I do think that, with a weather eye to ensuring that he gains lots of headlines, the Chief Inspector has lost sight of the importance of context in his comments.
There has been a climate of too low expectations in the east and it is accepted that white, working class boys are one of the lowest achieving, vulnerable groups. There is a perception amongst many parents in our district that the arbiter of the success of the primary years is whether their children go to the grammar. But, there are reasons beyond the accusations for some of the position we are in.

OFSTED – in previous years there have been too many inspections in the eastern, coastal areas which have given satisfactory judgements to schools which have raised their game for one year in four. The inspection regime has simply acted as a rubber stamp to these low expectations. Sir Michael’s shift towards using a much higher proportion of serving school leaders is a welcome step towards creating an inspection system which accurately identifies schools such as those highlighted by him.
I would also suggest that the experience of local schools, which require improvement, working alongside their HMI has been largely incredibly positive. For us, it has been a supportive process and one which has restored staff faith in the OFSTED process. It is also important to note the significant role played by the Senior HMI in leading CPD for school staff and governors which has been a positive shift.

My recommendation would be that, prior to receiving our Section 8 inspection, we should have a visit from an HMI whose job was to decide whether the school was taking its position seriously. If it was not felt that the school , with a new Head, was making significant steps towards good then a Section 8 would be called within one week. This is a more intelligence driven approach to inspection and would lead to more trustable decisions being reached.

Recruitment – I find it frustrating each time we hear discussion of most improved schools, hero Head Teachers and even SMW’s successes at the Mossbourne Academy. If you look at the geographical location of many is the fact that they are placed in or close to places where graduates are prepared to move. London Challenge was a practice changing project which required significant funding and also time for implementation. There have been some headline grabbing results from the programme but, most significantly, it has emerged that schools in London which traditionally had struggled to recruit are finding it easier. To put it bluntly, NQTs coming out of ITT want to live in London. Now, look at the converse of that – many don’t want to live in areas which are a long way from major cities or large towns.
I was the only applicant for my job, and since appointed I have struggled to get people to apply for teaching jobs at our school. Last academic year, one of our NQTs was recruited after I had been in touch with all of the lecturers in Teacher Training that I knew. In this case, I contacted him through twitter. This year, we found our NQT through a contact in school improvement who had seen him teaching in a school she was supporting.  We were lucky in attracting very strong NQTs and people we love having in school. The issue is that we cannot rely on being lucky each time. We were in contact with universities in Ireland and ITTs across the country who had students without positions. I also know that local secondaries struggle in a similar way.
I have tried so much and the same things come through each time when I speak to prospective candidates – people want to start in good or outstanding schools, they don’t want to move from Norwich or Lincoln (our nearest ITT locations), they don’t want to drive on the A17 (the only way to get to our school for most people) or they don’t want to move to our area. I am perpetually grateful and blessed with the staff I work with but I do know that I have several staff who are driving more than 40 minutes on the A17 to work and who are ready for promotion. I do fear what would happen in two or three middle leaders left in one year.

Recommendation – we are now looking at working with  ITT providers to see if it is feasible to provide accommodation for a group of final year students to come to schools in the South Lincolnshire area and see what the schools are like during a teaching pµractice.

Inequality –  the South Lincolnshire area reportedly has an average annual income of less than £20,000 (indeed in Boston it was measured at less than £17,000). Whilst this rural poverty would suggest that additional funding could be needed, there is the contrasting data which shows that Free School Meal percentages and School Deprivation Indicators largely sit below national average. This points to the fact that those who are in employment work in agriculture and food preparation which are traditionally poorly paid sectors.
This is something about which we are keenly aware and strive to make our pupils of the opportunities available to them but there are elements over which we have no influence and of which SMW should be aware.

  • broadband speeds – there is the danger of a technological apartheid being in place with those in the country who do not live close to a conurbation unable to access the web in speeds faster than 1MB/s. I visited BETT last year and after discussion with our internet provider we had to decide not to buy three products which had strongly appealed to us. I am sure that there are those who will read this and have the response that we can easily sort this but internet provision is one of the most complicated and fraught elements of our IT discussions. We have put in more requests with minimal response for this than other things. The main response is to wait for the Fibre cabinet to be put into the town by BT.
    We have developed our use of blogging, a Youtube channel, film literacy and many other things to engage the kids but there is no frustration greater than that of a pupil watching the buffering symbol during a lesson. This is something I see just too often.
  • rural transport – it is very difficult for those living in rural areas to operate without a car which means that they either have to spend a significant proportion of their income on  car or struggle to be able to get around. This affects staff and parents alike and is a real factor in recruitment for all industries in the area.
  • training – if you want the best for children in rural and coastal areas then you must give them access to the best of training. Nine times out of ten we are now looking at using internal CPD based upon the best research as too often we can only access CPD which is significant distance from school. A recent booklet from the LA CPD providers included the only attendance training as a half day in Lincoln (70 minutes away from school), Safeguarding and SEND training for Governors from 7pm to 9pm in the city and only 15% of training courses available within 30 minutes of our school. Now, we have done our best over years to improve this with training staff on the MaST and ENLiST schemes, pinching a consultant from the LA as an Assistant Head as well providing weekly CPD for all TAs.

Recommendation – although there has been some cynicism about comments from the Chief Inspector about creating a task force; I am not certain that it is  such a silly idea. I do think that it could be difficult to recruit people for the roles but the thought of the chance of external support and training excites me. I cannot see a Rural Challenge Programme ever receiving funding as it is something which would never have sufficient impact to win votes or impact on PISA scores. There are, however, things to recommend it if you look at the impact it had in London on cross school collaboration, results and recruitment. We do work across schools in our area but this is something which could always be improved.


In writing this blog I do hope that this doesn’t come across as someone who is bleating about how hard it is to work in the countryside. I am not naive and I do know how hard it is to lead schools in inner cities. I just hope that it provides some context for those reading Sir Michael’s speeches and makes some difference even in the smallest way for the way in which decisions are made about education out of London.


6 Responses to “Ticking every box”

  1. Kevin McLaughlin
    December 15, 2013 at 9:45 pm #

    There’s no bleating here Bill, you have taken the steps to point out the marked differences between schools in cities and those in rural areas such as your own. I certainly hope your post is picked up by those with their fingers on making decisions.

  2. Neil Adam
    December 15, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

    So Gove is scrapping national pay scales. That won’t help your recruitment and retention issues. Nor will it help the local economy which is already flagging. (Teachers, nurses etc all with less money means even less to go around.) The divide looks to yawn…

  3. Carl F
    December 16, 2013 at 7:08 am #

    It was really interesting to see how you plan to tackle the challenges you face at school in such a positive and proactive manner. The linking to an I T T provider is essential, I hope it pays dividends for you
    Mr F

  4. John Sutton
    December 16, 2013 at 8:24 am #

    Great post Bill, and an argument for two things that I think would make the biggest difference for schools in challenging circumstances: pay great teachers prepared to work in deprived areas a premium and stop applying unrealistic expectations on the pace of change. If Wilshaw is so keen on getting behaviour right (and he should be) then he should recognise that it takes a massive effort by everyone in a school to make the culture shift required to do this, and during this period there will often be less focus on the teaching and learning bit. In other words, get the culture right first and standards will follow – too often unrealistic expectations on the pace of change required place excellent heads under intolerable pressure.


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