The Sheffield Telegraph’s Secret School: More carrot and less stick required to identify need for improvement

OFSTED inspector at a school
OFSTED inspector at a school

In a Sheffield school this week, a headteacher arrived at their office slightly nervous. It was Monday morning and the school was overdue an Ofsted inspection. They know that the telephone call to announce an inspection is likely to come on either the Monday or Tuesday, with a team of Her Majesty’s Inspectors arriving the following day.

The headteacher involved shouldn’t really be nervous. They are running a successful school, the last inspection went well and things have continued to improve since. They have nothing to hide and the excellent staff certainly shouldn’t be worried because they’re doing a great job. But at this Sheffield school, like many others, the mention of Ofsted can invoke irrational fear and high levels of anxiety. And so, every Monday morning, the headteacher arrives at the office and suffers a sick feeling in their stomach. Just in case the call comes.

This same Sheffield headteacher spends many hours of each weekend preparing for the imminent inspection that may – or may not – come on Monday and worries about it each Sunday because they know a bad report may cost them their job.

All this worry for our Sheffield head. Every weekend. It’s not healthy.

The job of Ofsted and their team of inspectors is to boost standards of education for the nation’s children, and not just in schools. Pre-schools and nurseries are also subjected to the rigorous framework and all of Sheffield’s registered childminders have inspectors visit them at their home to assess the environment and go through mountains of paperwork. The organisation clearly does a lot of good work. It is the mechanism that identifies poor schools needing improvement.

But the way Ofsted goes about this is staggeringly poor. The organisation itself requires massive improvement, with nothing short of a thorough overhaul and a comprehensive rebranding exercise being needed to for it to work alongside unions, win the trust of teachers and employ a more holistic approach to improving schools.

As with most improvement drives, there is a carrot and a stick approach. Over recent years, Ofsted has thrown most of the carrots on the compost and gotten itself bigger and bigger sticks.

The biggest stick of all has been wielded over the last four years by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, who is thankfully stepping down at the end of the year. Wilshaw, a former head teacher, has been the biggest school bully of all during his tenure, eating the last remaining carrots during his first months in the job.

It was he who told teachers there was no stress in their job, despite huge numbers of great teachers seeking help from their GP for stress-related illnesses and turning their back on the profession. It was he who suggested teachers leaving school at 3.30pm should have their pay reduced. And it was he who said that if morale in the staff room was low, then the headteacher must be doing something right.

Imagine what Wilshaw would say if a school were to treat its children with such irreverence. Not everything coming out of Sir Michael’s mouth is deplorable, I have to concede. His comments about schools being important in reversing the destructive north-south divide ring home with all in northern cities such as ours.

His replacement, taking over the reins in the New Year, is Amanda Spielman.

Spielman had her appointment rejected by a group of MPs who judged there to be serious questions about her understanding of early years education, a lack of knowledge about children’s services and less passion for the role than they would have liked. Spielman, a former merchant banker, does not have so much as one hour of teaching experience. And yet Spielman still had her appointment approved by the Privy Council.

We should give her time to see how she approaches inspections and whether she can reverse the flow of demotivated teachers in Sheffield looking for work in more rewarding professions.

Somehow, though, I don’t think the Monday morning stress experienced by our Sheffield headteacher will go away any time soon.

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