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Part 1. DfE: Trust School Leaders

The DfE's policies in England show how its officers don't trust teachers. They neeed a re-think.

  • tackling an overcrowded curriculum,

  • removing the publication of test scores and league tables,

  • re-thinking Ofsted inspections and removing grading of schools and colleges.

Over many years I have become gradually convinced that trust should be at the heart of any campaign to raise achievement in schools and colleges. This was confirmed when I came across a marvellous book from the U.S. where the author, Dr Toby Travis, concluded after a review of research over 20 years that:

“…the number one indicator of successful schools is tied to trusted school leadership.” Dr Toby Travis, The TrustED School Leader: The Bridge to School Improvement, 2019.

Toby uses the analogy of the suspension bridge to outline his philosophy. He identifies six features of the bridge to capture the essence of successful leadership: e.g. the foundations (beliefs and values), bearings (flexibility), girders (adapting to context). Toby makes the important point that all six of these features must be present for success – that all contribute equally. Toby can be seen explaining all six features of the ‘bridge’ here.

Toby is writing as a Superintendent in a U.S school - a similar role to a Chief Executive of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT) in England. In the U.S., states, and more often districts, dictate school policies, so his call is primarily for district administrators to place more trust in leadership. Trust is equally as important for success in the UK, and I shall contend that a lack of trust is the main reason why retention and recruitment of teachers are major issues both here, and in U.S. Trust, however, needs to be examined at every level of the education system, so the blog will be in four parts:

Part 1 Government trust in schools and colleges

Part 2 School and college leaders' trust in teachers and support staff

Part 3 Developing a teaching, learning and assessment (TLA) policy that places trust in teachers and teams.

Part 4 A set of principles for developing a rigorous TLA policy placing trust on teachers.

Part 1 Government trust in schools and colleges

(Please note. The blog is targeted at teachers in both the U.K. and the U.S., so on occasions I will clarify terms for non-UK colleagues.)

In England, the Department for Education (DfE) sets overall policy for state-funded schools and colleges, but delegates some power to academies, and this might be perceived as placing trust in such institutions, particularly in terms of financial decisions on staffing and premises. This trust, however, is limited. In theory, academies also have control over the curriculum, but with the introduction in England of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) which encourages academic curriculum choices in schools at age 14, DfE policy limits real choice. Furthermore, accountability in England uses a system called Progress 8 which assesses the progress of all students between the ages of 11 and 16. The DfE, keen to incentivise schools to adopt their EBacc system, decided to give greater weighting’ in Progress 8 to EBacc subjects than to practical or creative ones. The results are then published in the form of league tables, and many schools that compete to recruit students are keen to maximise their scores and do well in league tables. So, they promote EBacc denying students the option of studying a largely creative or practical set of subjects between the ages of 14 and 16. The result of this policy has been devastating for arts and practical subjects in England’s high schools. Between 2011 and 2017, the number of students taking examinations in the non-EBacc subjects fell: design and technology by 32%; performing and expressive arts by 26%; media, film, and TV entries by 14%; and music by 8%. Some schools, however, ignore the DfE’s ‘incentives’, and allow totally free choice in subject selection. The DfE has set a target by 2025 for 95% of students to be studying Ebacc subjects. The figure for 2020 was 40%.

The DfE, has another way of controlling what happens in schools and colleges - its inspection system, Ofsted. All state schools and colleges are inspected, and it is generally accepted that such inspections are ‘high stakes’ and more often than not stressful for leaders and teachers alike, contributing to the well-publicised issues with teacher well-being.

Inspection reports in England grade schools, awarding one of four labels: inadequate, requires improvement, good or outstanding. These reports are published, and it is common for leaders to lose their jobs if an institution is labelled ‘inadequate.’ Furthermore, most school or college leaders reading this will hopefully agree with me that their most important resource is the workforce - great teachers and support staff. A school publicly labelled as ‘failing’ finds it harder both to retain teachers and to recruit new ones. When you also consider that schools and colleges deemed to be ‘inadequate’ are often found in disadvantaged communities this makes recruitment and retention even more difficult. In England, a school is five times as likely to be deemed failing in a disadvantaged community as it is in an affluent one. So keeping and attracting staff to a school in a challenging area is often a problem, particularly in shortage subjects, so, far from helping schools, Ofsted often exacerbates the problem with many classes being taught by temporary teachers or non-specialists, and the rules also forbid a school or college labelled ‘inadequate’ from employing newly qualified teachers. Judgement without support seems to be about naming and shaming more than helping schools to improve. The conduct of some inspectors (not all) is also questioned by leaders.

On occasions, Ofsted appears to lack the humanity needed in what for most leaders and teachers is a challenging and stressful time caused by the pandemic and the fast-changing environment. Trust in the system is damaged by reports that Ofsted refused to defer an inspection of a primary school whose head was at the funeral of a close relative and where 15 members of staff were off ill with Covid. Such instances reinforce the view that either its criteria for deferment are too rigid or that those making decisions lack empathy with the on-the-ground situation that schools face. Frequent reports in the media tell of suicide attempts, resignations and mental health breakdowns following visits from Ofsted. Michael Rosen, writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper remarks.

‘The fact is this high-handed approach is bred by the structure and terms of reference of Ofsted. The idea that a judge, prosecution and jury arrive one day at a school, at short notice, conduct a trial and then leave is a poor way to run education.
‘The one theme I hear over and over again is that they feel the inspectors were not sympathetic to the specific conditions of the school. It’s as if inspectors come briefed with a notion that teachers are bad people making excuses for their own incompetence. So the report that some inspectors don’t want to hear about the experience of Covid came as no surprise to me.
‘Here we are, in the midst of two crises threatening humanity: disease and climate change, and the best we can come up with for schools is the authoritarian triumvirate. Does it ever give you pause for thought that a coercive system might not be the best way to foster creative and questioning minds, the kind of minds we desperately need to solve humanity’s problems?’

The DfE also effectively controls the curriculum in schools and colleges, particularly in primary schools. The Sunday Times newspaper (5 December 2021) reported on an initiative in England called ‘maths circles’ where students spend Saturday mornings or evenings in maths’ clubs with the aim of creating a maths’ elite rather like the conservatoires set up for gifted students in music and the arts. The article cites the UK’s ranking of 18th in the OECD PISA international rankings for maths as one of the reasons why such maths’ circles are needed. While this initiative is to be applauded, there may be alternative solutions.

The low ranking of the UK in such surveys is partly due to the DfE’s preoccupation with a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is quite clear about the features of high-performing education systems. The U.K. Independent newspaper quotes him as saying:

‘They have three things in common. These are rigour, focus and coherence. He observes that rigour is lacking in the UK curriculum; it has relatively low level of cognitive demand. Learning in mathematics can be somewhat superficial, due to a curriculum that is ‘a mile wide and an inch deep’’.

With regard to the PISA international rankings, Estonia is the highest-ranked European country, alongside countries like China, Poland, Finland, Germany, Singapore, Japan, and Taiwan. Although such rankings have much to do with culture, a simple analysis of the maths’ curriculum in England tells its own story. A primary teacher in Birmingham who blogs under the pseudonym of Solomon Kingsnorth, revealed the differences in challenges faced by teachers in England and those in Estonia. He quotes David Didau on the issue of memory:

‘Due to their greater working memory capacity, someone with higher fluid intelligence will process more information in a given time and is more likely to retain more of it than someone with lower fluid intelligence.’

Given time,’ Solomon points out, is the key phrase in Didau’s statement. In Estonia students in Years 2-6 spend 4 weeks on each maths’ objective while in England the equivalent time allocation is 3 days. In secondary schools, Estonia has 83% fewer objectives than England’s GCSE (14-16) curriculum. In the primary sector in England, the DfE’s accountability system includes testing at the age of 11 through the SATs where the results are published and used to create league tables. This ensures that schools are duty-bound to teach the whole ‘mile-wide’ curriculum as are secondary teachers preparing students for their examinations at age 16. This no doubt explains Schleicher’s use of the word ‘superficial’ when referring to the UK curriculum.

Little trust from the government towards schools and colleges is epitomised by the degree of accountability procedures through Ofsted, testing, Progress 8, and league tables. Kingsnorth, in his detailed blog, found here, claims that the impact of the crowded curriculum and the accountability focus results in low levels of skills’ mastery in England, highlighted by this statistic from the 2019 GCSE maths’ examinations. His suggestions for a reduced curriculum in primary maths is here.

  • After 12 years of school, 75% of pupils got 60–100% of their answers wrong on this year’s GCSE maths exams.

  • 42% of pupils — almost half of all entrants — could not score more than 17% on their maths paper, getting 83–100% of answers wrong (read full blog for more details).

  • Even a score of 56% was a monumental struggle for most pupils, with only 7.4% reaching this level of confidence.

In countries like Germany, Finland and Estonia which all perform well in the OECD PISA international comparisons, inspection is seen differently. States in Germany use an inspection-led system but in different ways to inspections in England. Specifically, they operate low-stakes systems, with inspection results not generally published and the emphasis of the inspection being placed on school quality process criteria rather than outcomes. As a result, more schools in Germany from affluent areas are identified as in need of improvement. Most of these countries use inspections to validate self-evaluation processes conducted internally by the schools themselves and used to identify improvement strategies, often involving peer support from neighbouring schools.

Roy Blatchford, an experienced inspector, argues that when benchmarked against other countries the UK is as far away as ever in combining school accountability with school support. 'The current inspectorate', he says, ‘needs to refresh its practices to work with schools and not at them'. Blatchford's article is here.

Some of these countries also use the inspection to evaluate education performance at a national level and individual schools are not inspected. The pressure that comes from national tests in primary schools (SATs) could be alleviated if the DfE adopted sample testing such as used by the OECD with their PISA tests. The Labour Party in England has suggested such a policy.

Conclusions and wish list

A DfE report (School improvement systems in high performing countries, July 2019 - here) identified the most consistent characteristics of high-performing countries:

‘…high performing education systems are characterised by principals and teachers having considerable degrees of autonomy over teaching and learning.’

Trust, therefore, is important from government if real progress is to be made on school improvement. The DfE in England which regularly claims to develop evidence-informed policies, must consider ways in which trust can be extended by removing or modifying three constraints outlined I believe that the DfE should:

  • Tackle the issue of the crowded curriculum and encourage mastery of fewer objectives. Fluency in a little (key curriculm skills) is preferable to superficial knowledge of a lot. Look at what Estonia achieves by adopting this strategy.

  • Resist the temptation to publish test scores and league tables.

  • Re-think the inspection policy of grading schools, Labels such as 'inadequate' produce unintended and negative consequences. The quest for an 'outstanding' label also encouraging practices such as off-rolling and maladministration while promoting competition rather than collaboration and peer-support.

  • Trust classroom teachers and encourage teacher autonomy in teaching and learning (the focus of Part 2).

I am not naive enough to think that the DfE will even read my wishlist let alone agree with or act upon my suggestions. The new regime at the DfE, headed by the Secretary of State Nadhim Zahawi is likely to continue with the ideologically-driven reforms of its former minister for schools Nick Gibb. No expertise from the state sector has been recruited to the new team - free school experience appears more valued than the wealth of experience that groups like the Headteachers' Roundtable offer; the superb alternative white paper published by this group is a starting point - it can be read here.

Part 3 of this blog on Trust will focus on Ways Forward for school leaders keen to adopt some of the principles in Part 1 and Part 2. It will be published soon but at the latest immediately after schools return from Christmas.

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