‘Are the inspectors the storm troopers of Mr Gove?’

HEAD Kevin Harcombe
HEAD Kevin Harcombe

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If Ofsted school inspections were tough before, they’ve just got a whole lot tougher.

It’s not the first time the educational bar has been raised, but it comes at a time when the stakes are higher than ever before and schools across the Portsmouth area are feeling the heat.

Attainment, teaching, leadership and behaviour are key. The rules are simpler, but expectations have shot up for all children, regardless of their background or socio-economic ‘context’.

In the evangelical words of the new framework, introduced in January, the best schools should exhibit an uncompromising ‘pursuit of excellence’ and all schools have to aim to be good or outstanding.

Satisfactory – soon to be relabelled ‘requires improvement’ – is no longer acceptable.

Some schools, working in challenging circumstances and considered to be success stories within their local communities, have now been taken down a peg or two.

For example, Ofsted inspectors noted Prospect School in Havant for boys with serious emotional and behavioural problems had improved significantly over the past three years, yet felt compelled to mark it down from good to satisfactory last month.

Crookhorn Technology College suffered the same fate despite ranking in the top five per cent of schools nationally with a similar pupil intake for progress.

A survey by The News reveals seven primary, secondary and special schools in the Portsmouth area have fallen to satisfactory or worse since January, compared with just one school in the same period last year.

Of those seven, four have been placed in category – meaning they’ve either been given a notice to improve or find themselves in special measures.

Kevin Harcombe, head of Redlands Primary in Fareham, rated ‘good’, is expecting a visit any day.

He is an outspoken critic of Ofsted inspectors for lacking consistency and prefers the scrutiny of local authority experts, who visit schools frequently and have a more intimate knowledge of them.

‘I would query some inspectors’ abilities to make satisfactory judgments,’ he says.

‘Unless the headteacher of a school can stand up to them and say “you are talking a lot of rubbish” then some poor judgments will carry on.

‘There needs to be a proper, transparent appeals process. Ofsted makes a judgment which is public. If it’s great the school can be riding on the crest of a wave. If it’s poor, that’s another story.’

Headteachers worry the new framework sits too comfortably with education secretary Michael Gove’s agenda for all schools to become independent academies – out of choice for the top-performing schools and by being placed in the hands of third-party sponsors, including private companies, for the poorly-performing comprehensives.

And his definition of a failing school is what used to be considered average. The expected English and maths combined pass rate for primary school leavers was recently increased to 60 per cent and the five good GCSE floor target is rising to 40 per cent this year. By 2015 it will be 50 per cent.

These floor targets have already claimed their first victim in our area – Oak Meadow CoE Primary in Fareham, forced to convert to academy status.

Ofsted’s new boss, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has also made it clear that so-called ‘coasting’ schools that do not progress from satisfactory to good within three years will be in trouble.

Kevin says: ‘The issue is whether Ofsted has become more politicised. Are the inspectors the storm troopers of Mr Gove?

‘We know the bar has been raised considerably higher, and that’s not a bad thing. But there is a query whether this is part of Mr Gove’s desire to have more academies.’

Niel McLeod, head of Miltoncross, has just qualified as an Ofsted inspector. He suggests this is the end game.

He says: ‘The new framework sets out to provide more challenging and higher expectations and the government believes that academy conversion provides the most effective route for schools falling below standards they would expect to improve and become good or outstanding.’

Few disagree with the tenets of the new framework. Who can argue with higher expectations for teaching and exams, for all groups of children?

But many argue a blanket target for the same rate of progress or all youngsters is unrealistic. A child who has severe learning difficulties or who is several years behind their age in reading and writing cannot be expected to progress at the same rate as another who is at the right level for their age.

Marijke Miles, head of Prospect, says: ‘The new framework is very well intentioned, but I think it’s massively misguided and ill-informed.

‘I can see why they are saying “average isn’t good enough”. We can all sign up to that. But what they are doing is beyond being morally courageous, it’s over-simplified and over-the-top.’

Steve Frampton is the principal of Portsmouth College, which boasted the second highest contextual value added (CVA) score – which measures progress in the context of pupils’ prior attainment and deprivation issues – amongst Hampshire sixth form colleges in 2010.

He says: ‘The new Ofsted lacks context and it will hit Portsmouth and areas like Gosport and Leigh Park hard.

‘These are communities that have got significant socio-economic issues that will fail to be recognised by the new framework.

‘The idea that there should be no hiding places is fine in principle, but if you’re going to judge anything you need to judge it in context.’

A spokesperson for Ofsted says: ‘Given our increased attention on schools that are doing less well and the focus on four key judgments, it is no surprise the initial trend in outcomes for the new arrangements shows an increased proportion from the previous period of schools inspected going into a category.

‘Under the framework, inspectors are spending more time in class observing the quality of teaching and drilling down to evaluate the difference schools are making for pupils. Recent independent studies have confirmed the positive impact inspection can have on school performance.’