During this year’s general election hustings my Tory opponent on two separate occasions repeated her parties fallacy that funding to schools has increased under the Tory government. This despite the fact head teachers themselves are saying the opposite. Many head teachers have written open letters to parents about the effects that budget cuts are having, urging parents to write to their MPs. I know first hand how they’re struggling to finance themselves effectively and they aren’t all just ‘lefties’ trying to political point score, as many Tories have branded them.
However, she then went on to say something in my opinion even less informed, that all schools in Chelmsford are either good or outstanding therefore there isn’t an education crisis in Chelmsford. Hindsight is a wonderful thing but I am sure if I had got the chance again I would have asked her to give a definition was of a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school and see if she could do so without repeating those very same words.
Now as a disclaimer: I am not suggesting that teachers in Chelmsford, like the rest of the country, aren’t working extremely hard. They certainly are. However, what I would say is that a ‘good’ judgement from Ofsted does not mean a school is not at crisis point. Firstly, as I have hinted in the last paragraph, the definition of ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ is subjective. I remember telling a colleague his lesson was outstanding because I couldn’t find any fault in it, it was an excellent lesson and he is an excellent teacher, but said that he had previously been graded as ‘good’ for a similar lesson. This was despite the observer offering no way that he could improve.
Secondly, having worked in schools for 12 years now, I know the dread that comes from an Ofsted inspection, I’ve seen first hand the collected despair from staff when it is announced in an emergency staff briefing that “we’ve had the call,” and that schools will do anything they can to plaster over the cracks. With good reason, being graded as RI (room for improvement – a ridiculous grade – as a teacher I believe even an outstanding practitioner has room for improvement) means another hellish year of observations, stressed out management and potential restructuring or even eventually staff redundancies.
There is a crisis in education and one of the Tory government’s, and the coalition’s before that, own making. Many schools are struggling to recruit specialist teachers, in my subject of maths they’re just not out there, they’re being forced to narrow the curriculum and implement other cost cutting measures just to keep afloat. On top of this teachers are feeling more and more stressed by an increased workload – caused by changes to the curriculum by the Department for Education.
The Tories claim to understand economics but they have forgotten the first rule: supply and demand. The demand for teachers is high and the supply is low. I’ve heard of some schools where classes have had long term, non-specialist supply teachers for a whole academic year. Incidentally, some Ofsted teams think it is unfair to observe these supply teachers so don’t take them into account when grading, while others condemn schools because they are unable to find staff. Hardly fair when there is a national shortage.
The next Labour government has its work cut out dealing with the mess the Tories and Lib Dems have made to our education system. Amongst other things we need to focus on recruitment and retention of staff, show that teaching is a job for well qualified and aspirational graduates who will be supported, respected and allowed to flourish. Turning a blind eye to these problems, by taking Ofsted grading at face value, will only lead to a generation of young people let down by the system.
I would like to see the next Labour government rethink the future of Ofsted altogether. I am not saying scrap them, although this would in the sort term make a lot of teachers much happier, but I would like to see the pressure put on by impending Ofsted inspections reduced. I have to admit that recent changes to Ofsted are welcome, no more hour long observations, and feedback based on ‘progress over time’, meaning that a good teacher will shine through by the quality of written work seen in the children’s books. Although, a counter argument to this might be that a good lesson doesn’t necessarily mean lots of written work. However, I still think that Ofsted teams come in with preconceived ideas based on data, something that will be impossible to do with recent changes, and this is forcing schools to continually focus on getting results in subjects like Maths and English that are seen as key, rather than developing the overall student.
To have an education system fit for an ever demanding world it needs to be fully funded and have a fully qualified and supported workforce. Only a Labour government has the vision, the determination and recognises the need to provide this.
Chris Vince is a secondary school maths teacher and was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Chelmsford in 2015 and 2017.