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Head resigns after damning Ofsted

John Bald writes

Newport Free Grammar School (so called since its foundation in 1588) had the second-best exam results among Essex comprehensive schools in 2011, with stacks of A* and A grades in maths and the sciences. And yet, the school has just been rated satisfactory rather than good by Ofsted for the second time in three years and with the term satisfactory expressed in such qualified,  grudging terms that it doesn't sound satisfactory at all.

The report  rates teaching, learning and behaviour as satisfactory, but inconsistent, with too little account taken of pupils' above-average abilities. It describes management as not sufficiently incisive, and says that it suffers from over-generous self-evaluation and weaknesses in communication. As a result, management, and particularly that of the headteacher, does not command the "unanimous" support of the school community; capacity for improvement is satisfactory.

The head and chairman of governors have said they are "very disappointed", and that the observation was "harsh", but the local press described the report as "damning", and the head has resigned.  The Chairman's comment on the report is here.

It is hard to imagine greater impact from an inspection report, and in particular from one showing a positive overall balance between strengths and weaknesses - it does not, for example, appear that one single lesson was judged unsatisfactory.  For a long time, comprehensive parents have been expected to take the rough with the smooth, to make allowances for issues such as staffing difficulties (which caused problems with ICT at Newport) and to understand that schools can't please everybody. Those who express dissatisfaction are easily labelled as pushy or elitist, or, as a former chief inspector put it to a contractor I worked for, "having bees in their bonnets".

The issue was complicated in this inspection by the absence of the whole GCSE year and the whole sixth form on "study leave", which limited the evidence available to inspectors. One of the weaknesses, over-rigid planning, was also arguably caused by using the previous government's guidance to address planning that was not detailed and systematic enough - this time, planning was judged to be too rigid. Ofsted would do well to acknowledge its own error in putting too much emphasis on paperwork in the years following Labour's changes in 2005.

Here are some thoughts on immediate action schools can take to tackle the problems indentified in the report.

1. Expect inspectors to look through pupils' books as they observe lessons. Do not allow pupils to leave work incomplete or poorly presented, and do not leave work unmarked.  Make sure marking gives pupils guidance on how to improve their work, and allocate time in lessons for them to discuss it and take note of it.

2. Do not waste time copying out New Labour style "Lesson Objectives". Ofsted do not want overly detailed planning, but planning that ensures that work is matched to what children need to learn (paragraph 18 of Moving English Forward). Good lessons happen in classrooms, not on planning sheets, and the national strategies no longer represent any form of official guidance.

3. Do not tolerate minor misbehaviour. The 2009 report on Newport noted that pupils were talking while teachers were talking, and inspectors downgraded the school's rating on behaviour from "good" to "satisfactory". Is your school using its new power to impose same-day detentions, or are teachers expected to put up with minor misbehaviour such as talking, texting, using phones or just not paying attention?

4. Do not allow more able pupils to suffer from lack of challenge, ever. Of 160 A* GCSE passes at Newport in 2011, 101 were in maths and sciences, with a further 22 in art.  The foundation of these very high grades lies in getting the teaching right from Year 7. Mixed ability is often the cause of the problem, but not always -  children need to be fully challenged, whatever setting system is used.

5. Delegate management responsibility effectively to departments, so that school policies, for example on planning, are interepreted in ways that contribute to high standards in subjects.

6. Take parents' concerns seriously, and be seen to be acting on them rather than fobbing them off. This applies at both ends of the spectrum - special needs issues and bullying are as important as top grade passes.

These are just a starting point.  The handbook needs to be studied carefully, and inspectors need to be held to what it says, so that they do not base their judgements on personal opinions. Some of the complaints made about individual inspectors making judgements beyond their competence have a strong ring of truth about them and Ofsted needs to improve training to tackle this. Labour's notion that any inspector can inspect anything is ignorant nonsense, and needs to be reversed.

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