Quality of Education in England – a Curate’s Egg: Good in Parts

4 Jan

Chief Inspector’s Annual Report 2017-18

On 4 December 2018, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) of Schools, Amanda Spielman, issued her second annual report to Parliament, in accord with section 121 of the Education and Inspection Act 2006.  You may have missed it because of the Brexit kerfuffle.

As always, there was good news and bad news for the nation’s schools, academies, Further Education (FE) Colleges and local authorities (LAs).

I         Strengths

There was much to celebrate.  Inspectors met people working well to deliver for young people.  Providers were getting more of the basic right.

  • The early years sector remained strong, with 95% of providers judged good or outstanding compared with 74% six years ago.
  • Eighty-six per cent of schools and academies were judged good or outstanding at their most recent inspections.
  • Sixty-nine per cent of all non-association independent schools were currently judged good or outstanding. Although broadly the same as the previous year, this was a decline from August 2015.
  • Seventy-six per cent of all general further education (FE) colleges were currently judged good or outstanding – a big improvement on 2016/17.
  • The number of local authorities (LAs) judged good or outstanding for their social care continued to rise. Two-thirds of LAs that were once judged inadequate had improved at re-inspection.

II        Areas for Development

As always, everything was not good in the education garden and Mrs Spielman did not shy away from spelling this out.  Mrs Spielman described nine areas of concern.

  • Coordinated strategies to promote good education and care for those with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) from the ages of 0 to 25 were wanting and there was poor provision for pupils with special needs post-19. There were increasing numbers of pupils with special needs who were being excluded from schools and academies.  This was replicated with pupils who had mental health needs, who were not being sufficiently supported. The quality of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) was variable. Overall, the gap in performance and outcomes between those with SEND and the rest was widening.
  • For the second year in succession, Mrs Spielman expressed concern about the 490 (a small albeit persistent number) ‘stuck’ schools and academies that require improvement or are inadequate. This had been the case since 2005. Mrs Spielman wants outstanding school and academy leaders to help these institutions which are “holed” up.
  • In Further Education, there was a dilution in the quality of apprenticeships. Inspectors were worried about the access of apprenticeships for a third of students who left school/academy without a full level 2 qualification.
  • Mrs Spielman wrote that the reduction in LA funding had had a negative impact on the ability of LAs to intervene early enough when young people need the help of Social Services.
  • Ofsted continued to have serious concerns for the pupils who were being educated in unregulated settings “which circumnavigate legal loopholes to operate”. Children in these settings were being denied the education and opportunities they were entitled to. Some were at risk of radicalisation. The first successful prosecution of an unregistered school led to convictions in October 2018. However, Ofsted wanted legislation strengthened so that these settings could be closed down.
  • Too many non-association independent schools – i.e. those that were not affiliated to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference(HMC) – had been inadequate for too long and did not have the capacity to improve.  Because of timescales for the enforcement of the law on action which could be taken by Ofsted, many pupils were spending significant parts of their education in these independent schools where there was little, or no, learning and they were unsafe, she wrote.
  • Mrs Spielman is uneasy about outstanding schools and academies being exempt from inspection (unless someone or a body raised a concern about any of them). However, problems may lie either buried deeply or lurking below the surface. Consequently, the watchdog has gaps in its knowledge about the quality of education and the safeguarding in these institutions.

We also know that while it takes considerable effort and much time to help a school/academy come out of trouble and to rise to and above the standards expected, matters can spiral downwards in a short time when a school/academy is badly led and managed.

Mrs Spielman would dearly love her troops to inspect these schools and academies but wrote that Ofsted would need extra resources for this purpose.

Accordingly, Mrs Spielman is now testing the system and piloting visits to outstanding schools/academies to satisfy herself and Ofsted that these institutions continue to be outstanding.

Acknowledging this concern, Nick Gibb, the schools minister, asked the watchdog on 3 December 2018 to review its risk assessment arrangements and ensure it inspects 10% of ‘outstanding’ schools and colleges over the coming year.  That was the good news.   The bad news for Ofsted was that there was going to be no more money and the exemption for the vast majority was to remain in place, according to Schools Week.

  • There was a shortage of specialist mental health provision, wrote Mrs Spielman. The provision that existed was not distributed evenly around the country.  This put pressure on LAs to find the right places for the most vulnerable youngsters.  Ofsted was also worried that – as the regulator – it was not possible for it to check that LAs were giving children homes in safe settings because these settings were unregulated.  Vulnerable children could, therefore, be endangered further.
  • Ofsted identified 300 (circa) schools and academies where exceptional numbers of pupils were off-rolled in years 10 and 11 for a host of reasons. The most vulnerable children were more likely to be excluded and off-rolled.   The new education inspection framework (EIF) would now allow Ofsted to identify and report on those schools and academies and sanction them.

III       Concerns

(1)       Exploitation

It is common knowledge that children are abused most often within the home.  However, Ofsted, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation discovered in a joint inspection exercise many cases of children being abused outside the family home, with many of them being exploited.    They are victims of abuse at home because of neglect and then exploited outside the home in other ways.

The good news is that the neglect of younger children is diminishing; the bad news is a rising number of older children being victimised and in need of support. Worse still, they are harming others.  Mrs Spielman exhorts us to engage in a cultural shift to “understand and respond to the needs of older children”.

This is challenging because it is much more difficult to identify neglect- which is unseen –  when compared to physical, sexual and emotional abuse.   As the children are older, the basic needs “of parental care and support are not addressed”, she wrote. Agencies become aware of this neglect when these children are exploited or engage in offending behaviour (outside the home).  Older children, who put on macho fronts (they are mainly boys) are neglected with poor parenting.  Schools and academies are expected to find the silver bullet, to solve the increasing incidence of knife crime in the London and Birmingham.

Mike Sheridan, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMI) reported on knife crime in London in November 2018.  His findings were unsurprising.  Schools and academies have a pivotal role to safeguard youngsters.  However, they cannot be expected to extend their arrangements beyond the institutions’ gates 24/7.

Local authorities, the police, the health service and youth offending services and other agencies need to step up and work together “to disrupt and tackle criminal activity perpetrated by adults who exploit and cause harm to children”.  Schools’ and academies’ prime function is to promote and provide excellent education.

Headteachers and the heads of pupil referral units (PRUs) informed Ofsted that they had observed an increasing number of pupils with SEND who were being groomed by gangs.  They become perpetrators and victims of knife crime.  These children must be safeguarded.

Also, children who have been turfed out and permanently excluded from schools and academies for being perpetrators of violence become victims of gang leaders, as they have time on their hands.  The devil always finds mischief for such young people.   Parents told inspectors “that gangs are sending children into schools and academies with knives in their bags with the aim of getting them excluded to make them more vulnerable to more persistent grooming”.  Mrs Spielman opined that schools, academies, the police, LAs and community partnerships “need to get better at sharing information about gang networks to safeguard these children and other pupils”.

(2)       Special Needs and Disabilities (SEND)

Mrs Spielman reported that the support schools/academies are providing pupils with SEND, including autistic children, deaf children and those with Down’s syndrome, is a “national scandal”.  She added that these pupils were five times more likely to be excluded from a school/academy than those with no additional needs. Further, 5,800 SEND pupils could well have been “off-rolled” in 2018 just before sitting the GCSEs.   It has now become fashionable to encourage if not compel parents/carers to remove children from schools/academies without its being made official – so that they will not have the stigma of formal exclusion, which would also be a mark of failure on the part of the institutions.

Councils spent £100 million battling parents seeking support for their disabled children at tribunals over the last four financial years.  The Special Needs Jungle[1] website calculated the £100 million by using data from the Department for Education and Ministry of Justice for 2014 to 2018. There were 4,725 appeals in 2016-17 alone.

What added to the grief of parents was the financial outlay.  Many families had to re-mortgage their homes and/or run up huge debts to secure educational support for their children.  The only winners were the solicitors and barristers.   Councils lost 90% of the appeals.

(3)       Obesity

HMCI was alarmed at the rise of childhood obesity.  By the start of the primary phase, 25% of children were overweight or obese.  The figure rises to 33.3% by the time children leave primary education.   Society has called on schools and academies to be given more responsibility for dealing with the problem.  However, Ofsted found that interventions made  little or no difference.   Mrs Spielman argued that obesity is for society to resolve not that of schools and academies.

However, schools and academies can do something through the curriculum. For instance, many primary schools and academies are educating children about healthy eating and living.   It was heartening to note that half the parents surveyed by Ofsted said that their children had been taught (in schools and academies) to engage in healthier diets and pupils surveyed said that they were engaging in more sport and exercise because of what they had learnt in their schools and academies.   But this was not having the required impact.  Many children continue to be overweight or obese.  “The answer to the obesity crisis,” wrote Mrs Spielman, “lies in homes, community, health services and schools acting in concert.”

(4)       Going “Potty”

Schools and academies are expected to assume a parental duty – training children to use the toilet.  The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) informed Ofsted in 2016 that 70% of the teachers they surveyed reported more children arriving in the Reception unable to use the toilet, compared to 2011.

This is alarming, given that a teacher could be responsible for 30 children.  It is disruptive to both teacher and the other pupils.  Mrs Spielman suggests that “Nurseries and childminders” should identify children who cannot use the toilet at the earliest possible opportunity and work with parents to help them learn”.   Nurseries and childminders cannot become permanent surrogate parents.

(5)       Physical Development for Pupils in the Early Years

Many educational professionals have become obsessed with health and safety regulations.   Statutory regulations are a principal cause.  However, as children grow up, they need, according to Mrs Spielman, to develop “muscular strength and dexterity”.  Good nurseries realise the importance of this and “encourage children to be busy and active”.   In many early years settings, notwithstanding, excessive concerns about risk is putting the kibosh by stifling physical activities.

Getting the balance between securing children’s safety and encouraging them to take risks is daunting. But taking risks is a part of a child’s growth and development.  “Without it,” wrote Mrs Spielman, “we stifle children’s natural inquisitiveness and their opportunities to learn and develop and deny them opportunities to build that muscular strength and dexterity.”  She urged professionals in nurseries and childcare settings to adopt “a common-sense approach to managing risks”.

(6)       Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs)

MATs have been exponentially replacing local authorities. They take responsibility not only for financial management but also what and how is taught and assessed in the academies. Ofsted in unable to inspect MATs directly, which Mrs Spielman regrets.  Notwithstanding, within Ofsted’s limited powers, it will be reviewing MATs by introducing summary evaluations of them through inspecting groups of academies within them.  Mrs Spielman feels hamstrung that she and her troops are unable to dig deeper into the efficiency and effectiveness of MATs.

IV        The Road Ahead

Autonomy for schools and academies (one side of a coin) must go together with accountability (the other side).  Autonomy without accountability results in dictatorships.   Accountability without autonomy ends up with schools and academies losing sight of the real purpose of education – i.e. “helping young people learn and grow”.  It also drives teachers out of the profession or out of the country.  Ms Spielman recognises this.  When both are operating optimally, we secure “high quality and sustained improvement”.

Mrs Spielman will be working to establish a new model of inspections from September 2019, when schools and academies will not receive a separate grade for the outcomes of pupils – i.e. their achievements. “The focus will be on the substance of education and a broad curriculum,” she said in a speech she made on 11 October 2018.

“In fact, at the top level, there are three main proposed changes.

  1. The first change is losing outcomes as a standalone judgement.
  2. The second change is broadening the existing quality of teaching, learning and assessment judgement into a quality of education judgement. This one should include curriculum alongside teaching, learning and assessment, and will also reflect outcomes.
  3. Then third, we propose splitting the current judgement of personal development, behaviour and welfare into two separate judgements: one for behaviour and attitudes and the other for personal development.”

In addition, Mrs Spielman signalled that Ofsted would, in the year ahead, promote a research programme which will look at

(1)        practices that reduce workload and improve teachers’ wellbeing;

(2)        practices that are being used in education to manage the most challenging pupil behaviour and their consequences;

(3)        the strategies successful faith schools use to square the implementation of equality legislation with their beliefs, ethos and religious practices – doing this, of course, in partnership with the faith inspectorates of religious education;

(4)        children’s physical development in the early years curriculum;

(5)        the 16-to-19 curriculum;

(6)        curriculum knowledge and pedagogy in initial teacher education;

(7)        pinpointing factors which lead to good decisions for children in care or where care is a prospect;

(8)        how environments are created for great social work practices to thrive;

(9)        familial sexual abuse (through joint area inspections with health, the police and other agencies); and

(10)      the provision for special educational needs and disabilities in mainstream schools and academies.

V         Closing Thought

Many had serious reservations about Mr Amanda Spielman when she was selected in June 2016 by the then Secretary of State Nicky Morgan to succeed Sir Michael Wilshaw as Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools from 1 January 2017.  She had never been a teacher, so, the argument went, “What does she know about teaching”. She graduated from Clare College, Cambridge. Her work experience was at

  • KMG Thomson McLintock from 1982 to 1986;
  • Klein Benson from 1986 to 1992;
  • Newstead Capital as Director from 1992 to 1994;
  • Bridgewater Business Analysis as Director from 1994 to 1995;
  • Mercer Management Consulting, Boston, as Principal from 1995 to 1997.
  • Nomura Principal Finance as Principal from 1997 to 2004.

All the above outfits were business organisations.  On the way, she secured a master’s degree in comparative education from the Institute of Education, University of London (now part of University College, London).   From 2005, Mrs Spielman became a part of the founding management team at the Ark Schools, and from 2011 to 2016 she was chair of Ofqual, the examinations regulator.

Mrs Spielman is confounding the jeremiad naysayers.  Many applauded her for turning her guns on schools and academies which game the system, albeit their defenders argue that they have been forced into engaging in such dubious practices by the government focusing on outcomes and neglecting processes.    She is bringing fresh perspectives to those who have – forever and a day – been in education and helped lift their sights onto newer and, I hope for her sake, more luscious pastures.

[1] For support from the Special Needs Jungle, click on specialneedsjungle.co.uk


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