Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI), launches her first Annual Report on state of education and children’s care in England

31 Dec

Amanda Spielman, HMCI, who took up her post on 1 January 2017, issued her first annual report on 13 December 2017.  As always, it was a bitter-sweet experience, where some of the findings were uplifting and some depressing.

I        The Positives

On the positive side, Spielman remarked that the life chances of the vast majority of young people in 2017 were the best they had ever been.

(i)         94% of early years providers were now rated good or outstanding.

(ii)        90% of primary schools and 79% of secondary ones were good or outstanding.

(iii)       80% of further education and skills providers were good or outstanding.

(iv)       83% of children’s homes were now good and outstanding.

(v)        More local authorities’ children’s services were on a path to improvement. Ofsted had inspected 146 out of 152 local authorities nationally and judged that 34% were good or outstanding, compared with 26% at the time of its previous social care annual report.   Even within those authorities that require improvement to be consistently good, there were many areas of good practice.

(vi)       There had been an overall trend of improvement across social care providers.  The proportion of good and outstanding children’s homes had increased from 79% to 83% since Ofsted last reported on them in 2016.   Across all the many types of providers inspected, only secure training centres had declined in the quality of their provision.

II       The Negatives

However, everything in the education garden is not rosy.  Over 500 primary and about 200 secondary schools/academies are currently judged as requiring improvement or in special measures over their last two inspections.   Of those inspected in 2017, 130 schools/academies had been underperforming for up to ten years.

The schools/academies shared similar features.

(i)         Unstable leadership, high staff turnover and difficulty in recruiting good staff members were blighting the educational provision for the children.

(ii)        During past inspections and monitoring exercises, inspectors had frequently reported seeing positive signs of renewal, especially after new leaders had been appointed.   This improvement, however, had not been sustained.

(iii)       Tragically, many had high numbers of pupils from deprived areas, above average proportions of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and White British pupils from low-income backgrounds.  These vulnerable children deserved the best and were been served the worst that education could offer in the country.  She exhorted policy-makers, professional and Ofsted (the Office for Standards in Education) of which she is the chief to direct their support to improve the outcomes for all pupils, but especially the most vulnerable who were getting a raw deal.

(iv)       Where schools/academies were failing their pupils, weak governance was a common feature.   The elements of weak governance included the following.

Governors

  • were not challenging effectively or holding leaders to account, for instance, by being too accepting of what they were told;
  • did not understand school performance or quality sufficiently well;
  • were not holding leaders to account for the use of additional funding such as the Pupil Premium Grant (PPG);
  • were failing to act swiftly enough to challenge or support;
  • were not checking the quality and impact of external support; and
  • lacked skills and understanding to carry out their role effectively.

In the weaker MATs, she identified the following trustee/governance failings.

  • Trustees and governors were unclear and/or had not published schemes of delegation which outlined the roles and accountabilities of each level of governance – e.g. what precisely were the functions of the trustees, and what were those of the governing board and those of the committees;
  • Trust boards did not have an accurate picture of pupils’ progress in their academies.
  • Trustees and governors were overly dependent on academy leaders and a minority of members to interpret data.
  • They did not have clear strategies for the spending of additional funding such as the PPG and evaluating the impact of additional funding

III     Mrs Spielman’s take on her report

Speaking to an audience of education and social care professionals, local authority representatives and experts in Westminster, Mrs Spielman said: “Our collective mission – and by that everyone involved in education and care – should be to create a society where every young person, regardless of birth or background, can achieve their full potential. Everything I see in my job, looking at the work of thousands of children’s homes, colleges, schools and nurseries shows me that isn’t an idle pipe dream.

“In fact, the areas of concern identified in today’s report are some of the last remaining barriers that stand in our way. Tackling them will not be easy. But the prize of doing so could be great – a country that is both caring and bold, innovative but unified, aspirational and at the same time fair.

These schools have all received considerable attention and investment from external agencies, but none of these interventions has worked. Yet schools in similar circumstances are achieving well, showing that improvement is possible.”

The report highlighted problems of capacity.  The best school leaders and strongest academy trusts were spread too thinly.   Accordingly, they could not provide all the support needed to help the failing ones to improve.  She remarked that the challenge was for policy-makers and the education system to break down ivory towers and ensure that the best schools/academies and leaders were supporting those in need.  However, if these outstanding professionals were already spreading themselves too thinly, there is always the danger that in supporting the most vulnerable, they could be taking their eyes off their school/academy balls and neglect them at their peril.

Mrs Spielman observed that the leadership challenge facing some schools/academies was great, but progress was possible. Professionals should not be using “the makeup of the school/academy community as an excuse for underperformance”.

“I do find myself frustrated with the culture of ‘disadvantage one-upmanship’ that has emerged in some places,” she remarked.  “Fixating on all the things holding schools back can distract us all from working on the things that take them forward. Schools with all ranges of children can and do succeed. Where this is difficult, what is needed is greater support and leadership from within the system. That means making sure the system has the capacity to provide this support.

“And this isn’t about just about incremental ‘interventions’ or ‘challenge’. Good schools teach a strong curriculum effectively, and they do it in an orderly and supportive environment: getting this right is the core job of any school. That is what we need to help these problematic schools to deliver.

Ofsted’s commitment to being a force for improvement means focusing attention on those areas that are not yet good enough. Evidence shows that this helps drive up standards of practice in these areas.

There were other areas of concern in her report, the chief of which were as follows.

(a)        An increasing number of conservative religious schools deliberately flouted British values and equalities law. Illegal ‘schools’ were also being created in order to avoid teaching fundamental values of democracy, mutual tolerance and respect.

(b)        There were weaknesses in the statutory framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) as a guide for children’s learning in Reception Year. Schools/academies that were best at preparing children for Year 1 were going beyond the framework and setting more challenging expectations, with an emphasis on reading and maths.

(c)        The apprenticeship levy was raising a substantial amount of money to fund training. However, without adequate scrutiny those responsible for securing value for money risked repeating the mistakes of the past – attracting cowboy operators that were not committed to high quality learning.

(d)       Domestic abuse was the most common factor in the lives of children who needed social care services. But more emphasis had to be placed on tackling perpetrators and understanding what worked to stop abusive behaviour.

(e)        Secure children’s homes were doing well for children and young people. But young offender institutions and secure training centres were sometimes extremely poor, closing down opportunities for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.

(f)        Some children and young people needing SEND support were having a very poor experience of the education system. Some parents had been pressured to keep their children at home because leaders said that they could not meet their children’s needs, which was unacceptable.

IV     Looking Ahead

Mrs Spielman mentioned that during 2018, the regulatory body she leads would continue to act as a force for improvement.   “New inspections of local authority children’s services will begin in January, with a greater focus on catching areas before they fall. Work will also get underway to develop a new education inspection framework for 2019, building on recent findings and with a particular focus on the curriculum. And in FE and skills, Ofsted will closely monitor the quality of training to make sure learners get the entitlement they deserve.”

Mrs Spielman mentioned a dozen developments she proposed to put into place in the years ahead.

(1)        In 2019, Ofsted would develop a new education inspection framework, building on the best evidence from research and inspection.

(2)        The regulatory body would reflect on its practice and further develop its understanding about what made inspections as valid and reliable as they could be.

(3)        The Inspection of Local Authority Children’s Service (ILACS) would be a “more proportionate system of inspection” focusing on the quality and impact of social care practice.

(4)        Ofsted would undertake research into why some schools/academies were trapped in cycles of underperformance. The aim was to understand why interventions to date had not worked and what Ofsted and educational providers might do differently to make positive changes.

(5)        She and her troops were to discuss with the Department for Education (DfE) what measures to take to have better oversight of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs).

(6)        Ofsted was to support the prosecution of unregistered schools and continue its discussions with the government about how to remove the legislative barriers to do this effectively.

(7)        Ofsted would highlight how some of the best faith-based institutions met their obligations under the equalities law in a way that was in line with their religious beliefs.

(8)        Inspectors would undertake research into the needs and context of children whose behaviour was very challenging for those around them.

(9)        Mrs Spielman would aim to minimise the burdens of inspection across the system.  She was of the view that inspections should not create a compliance culture or put barriers to achieving excellence.

(10)      Ofsted inspectors were to review the inspection of apprenticeships in the context of the new apprenticeship levy, including how the body inspects sub-contractors.

(11)      Ofsted would work with the DfE to assess the impact of the introduction of 30 hours’ free childcare.

(12)      Finally, Ofsted would continue its programme of curricular research.

V       Commentary

When Mrs Spielman was appointed by the then Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, there was a bruhaha about whether she was fit for the job because of her lack of teaching experience.  However, her first year in office, culminating in the publication of her first annual report, has answered her critics in no uncertain terms that she is more than up to her job.

It would be fatuous to compare her to her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw.  Apart from being of different sexes, their styles are completely different, which is not to say that one is better than the other – just different.   Sir Michael came across as a stern headteacher who was ready to administer a “caning” to anyone or any institution that did not toe the line.   He was mainly successful in what he achieved and lived up to his appointer’s (Michael Gove’s) sobriquet, “My hero”.

Mrs Spielman is a different kettle of fish.   She brings softer but as steely elements to the way she has gone about discharging her functions.  In a number of respects, she has been fearless, a quality that is rare but in huge demand.   Let me cite two examples.

First, the government has been resolute about the fact that if you move the deck chairs on the Titanic, all will be well on the education ship.   So, if you convert a failing school into an academy and link it with a MAT, abracadabra, everything will be transformed.   Mrs Spielman, though the former chair of the ARK multi-academy chain, has stated unequivocally, that many failing academies – several of which are in MATS – had been failing schools.  Changing their designation had not made an iota of difference.  What transforms institution is what happens in them – i.e. how well they are led and how excellently are children taught.

Secondly, she has expressed grave concern about the quality of faith schools, especially the independent ones.  In her report, she mentions that Ofsted has found “an increasing number of conservative religious schools where the legal requirements that set the expectations for shared values and tolerance clash with community expectations.  The schools are, therefore, deliberately choosing not to meet these standards.  The tension is also leading to the creation of illegal ‘schools’ that avoid teaching the unifying messages taught in the vast majority of schools in England.  Both of these situations are of great concern.”

She observed that many parents felt it was important for their children to be educated according to their own cultural belief and community norms.  With an increasingly diverse population, these norms could differ considerably.  “Yet the effective functioning of British society depends on some fundamental shared values as well as a culture of mutual tolerance and respect.”

In this respect, Mrs, Spielman has begun to feel the heat.   Speaking to Alice Thompson of The Times (16 December 2017), she expressed serious concerns about the “blatant” flouting of equalities law in some faith schools.   Ofsted inspectors found books in Islamic school libraries that endorsed domestic violence.  Pupils were leaving these schools with no qualifications and unable to speak or write English.  “Before I started the job various people said to me, ‘I’m sure that social care is going to be the tough bit’, and it became clear to me very quickly that this is in many ways the hardest thing we deal with,” she says. “It’s so extremely sensitive that it’s very difficult to make it discussable without people in certain quarters just wanting to shout you down and shut down discussion.”

Mrs Spielman admitted that she had been surprised by the viciousness of the abuse directed at her since she started to raise concerns about the values promoted in some Islamic schools.  “I’m not easily bruised. I don’t fall over when I see a load of nasty tweets pointed at me but there has been some pretty venomous stuff. I had an email, which was the most threatening one, which was along the lines of ‘We know where you live and we can get you any time we want to’.”

The threats appear to be driven by a toxic cocktail of politics and religion. “It’s a mixture of Islamic extremists and the hard left but if we let ourselves be intimidated out of discussing these issues it’s children who will suffer.”

In mid-December 2017, Ofsted had to hire security for one of its regional offices that had been heavily involved in work addressing radicalisation. On another occasion, it had to call in the police because staff at one unregistered school were so threatening — including calling inspectors “Britain First paedophiles”.

Mrs Spielman remarked that some people were willing to turn a blind eye to what was going on because they feared being targeted themselves. “You really notice that people who say to you privately that you’re doing absolutely the right thing very rarely want to stick their heads above the parapet on the sensitive stuff,” Ms Spielman said.

The chief inspector signalled to Ms Thompson that she had no intention of being silenced. She pointed to the cover of a book called Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell, filed next to a text on the “rights of beating women”. It was clear to her that misogyny was being drummed into children at an early age in such schools. “It flows very directly from some strands of religion,” she says. “Of course, girls should be treated equally and I’m trying to make sure we surface the stuff we see.”

What horrifies her most was “the extent to which there are places in society that are very determined to have children not even knowing that there is any other way of thinking besides that which prevails in their particular group. There are people growing up in this country who . . . aren’t aware of the reach of equalities law and for whom British values are pretty meaningless. We are seeing separate or divergent societies developing.”

She is alarmed at the number of primary schools that include the hijab as part of their uniforms. “Girls are made to think, ‘Am I immodest if I’m not wearing one?’ at an age when a child shouldn’t have to worry about being modest. We need to make sure that schools don’t sleepwalk into saying we must be accommodating and accidentally bringing problems into school that don’t necessarily need to be there.”

Her greatest concern was the teaching and treatment of children in illegal, unregistered faith schools. While many of the worst cases were in Islamic schools, she insisted: “We see these problems in Muslim, Jewish and the odd Christian school. This is not an attack on Islam.” An estimated 70,000 children had disappeared from the education system and the chief inspector feared that the freedom to home-school was being abused by parents who wanted to segregate their children in a parallel, religiously run system.

Mrs Spielman said: “There is plenty of evidence that trust declines in very diverse societies. We don’t have to go very far across Europe to see countries that have been absolutely torn apart by religious wars that have grown up within populations, owing to divergence of beliefs over time. If you don’t have a set of values that people respect you’ve got a much greater likelihood of a deeply divided society.”

However, she pointed out that immigration helped to raise standards in schools. “The people who emigrate are typically those with the most energy and determination to better themselves and they transmit that to an astonishing extent to their children. There is an extraordinarily powerful sense of responsibility the children feel to justify the sacrifices that their parents have made.” White, working-class children “just haven’t got that same sense of motivation”, she says. Too often disadvantage is used as an excuse for failure. “Instead of the conversation being about what’s the education that’s going to move them on, you can end up with multiple labels about special needs or pupil premium.”

Another area of concern for Mrs Spielman is the manner in which male and female labels, were being torn up, with gender fluidity on the rise among the young. With primary schools being told during the week when her report was published by one teaching union to put books about transgender parents on the curriculum and modify their dress codes, she admitted: “My eyebrows rise slightly when I read some of the stories. Children don’t need to know everything at the age of five.” The case of a teacher who was sacked for calling some pupils “girls” was “a bit staggering”, Ms Spielman says. “The English language isn’t gender-neutral so trying to create an artificial language is extraordinarily difficult.”

Finally, she has concerns for pupils who suffer from mental health problems.  “Understanding what is actual clinically diagnosable mental health and what is teenage angst is very difficult for non-professionals to separate out.” She worries about the pressure created by social media. In France, schools have banned the use of mobile phones.   “I could quite happily be very prescriptive on that but Ofsted won’t be. I was pretty strict on internet access with my children and sustained a regime until they were about 14 of half-an-hour of internet time a day at home.”

With her change of role from being Chair of Ofqual and formerly of ARK to the Inspection supremo, Mrs Spielman is minded to observe the boundaries.

VI     Tailpiece

Meanwhile, Ofsted has reformed the short inspections system following a recent consultation. Since 2015, schools previously judged ‘good’ received short one day inspections that did not result in a full set of judgements but were converted to full inspections if inspectors did not find sufficient evidence that the schools/academies remained ‘good’.

From January 2018 there will be four possible outcomes from a short inspection.

(1)        If inspectors are confident that the school remains ‘good’, the school will receive a letter confirming this. Another short inspection will take place in approximately three years (in line with the existing system).

(2)        If there are “serious concerns about safeguarding, behaviour or the quality of education”, the school will receive a full inspection within 48 hours.

(3)        If inspectors suspect that there has been a decline and the school is no longer ‘good’, the school will receive a letter setting out the findings and a full inspection will take place “typically within one to two years but no later than five years since the previous full section 5 inspection”;

(4)        If inspectors believe that there has been an improvement towards ‘outstanding’, the school will receive a letter setting out the findings and a full inspection within two years.

The full report to the consultation can be found here.

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