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Dear Nicky: Wave goodbye to Ofsted and performance-related pay, while keeping bureaucracy to an absolute minimum (photo: Carl Court/Getty Images)

Dear Nicky Morgan,

Might I offer you some advice? All teachers want to be as good as they can be. But too often that impulse is crushed under the load of bureaucracy that the modern school system has been sprouting over the past 40 years, as the state has become more and more involved in monitoring school performance. 

Yet what I have seen all my career and in particular since becoming the Headmistress of Michaela Community School, a new free school that opened in September 2014, is that it really is possible to flourish without most school bureaucracy. If one gives staff autonomy and responsibility, they’ll fly with it. Bureaucratic control is based on a fear that teachers cannot or will not do a good job. Of course we need oversight of schools and of teachers but in reality our current bureaucracy makes failure all the more likely.

Please set an example by always asking yourself the question: will the decision to require more written accountability make our education system better? Might it even make things worse?

The government requires schools to justify themselves and heads in turn require the same of teachers. The problem is that targets and box-ticking proliferate. And schools get worse. Why? Because everyone concentrates on ticking those boxes instead of actually doing their jobs well. Successive PISA reports, and Sir Michael Barber’s famous McKinsey report, clearly show that the greater the autonomy at school level, the greater the potential for all-round improvement.

All bureaucracy does is make the bureaucrat-administrator feel better. And at the very top it makes Education Secretaries feel as if they are holding schools to account. But just because they feel this doesn’t mean they are actually doing it. It simply isn’t true that if it is written down, it is being done. In fact, the opposite is true, because if staff are writing it down, they are too busy to actually do it. Ms Morgan, you need to make decisions that actually improve the teaching of our children, not just make you, or even the public, simply feel better about our schools.

I want two simple things. Stop the madness of schools trying to justify themselves to Ofsted. And stop the insanity of teachers having to jump through hoops to get their performance-related pay. Both are degrading and make our education system into a joke.

1. Abolish Ofsted. Countless senior teams across the country are locked in their offices right now trying to second-guess inspectors, trying to tick dozens of boxes so that they can achieve a stamp of approval. The reality is that it is impossible to achieve consistency across the Ofsted beast. There are too many inspectors, too many systems, too much personal preference, and it is impossible to make it all cohere. Inspectors are now told not to grade lessons — but they generally do. Desperate to find something to pin their judgment on, they look for any possible box to tick, and write down a justification. So heads of schools and departments spend countless hours writing self-evaluation plans, school development plans and Ofsted strategies, while they should be doing important practical things like supporting teachers on pupil behaviour or raising standards. Similarly, teachers are forced into writing lesson plan after lesson plan instead of simply teaching well.

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August 20th, 2015
8:08 PM
Sensible on OFSTED and PRP, if only you had not pandered to the bleariness brigade 5 years ago with oh so witty quip about being inclined to join the SWP before becoming a teacher. Still it got you your school eventually. Michaela has been running with year 7 only, I can name at least one band new academy that got off to a roaring start and now is in special measures. Do be careful about telling everyone about how great you are, you were at it on Channel 4 news the other night too.

July 28th, 2015
11:07 PM
Factors which are ignored. 1. Some parents are indifferent or even antagonistic to education and this attitude is absorbed by their children. 2. Standards of academic performance are subjective because of the massive variation in the academic ability of teachers are variable , some teachers struggle to obtain 2 A levels in order to obtain a B.Ed from an ex-poly while others may obtain a starred first from Oxbridge or Imperial and represent their country at sports while at university. 3. The range of academic ability of children is vast. The problem is that most state schools do not appreciate how bright some pupils actually are. How many pupils at comprehensives could win an Election to Winchester, a King's Scholarship to Eton or a Queen's Scholarship to Westminster? A friend at a prep school by the age of 11 was studying French, Latin, Greek and Sanskrit.If most pupils in the scholarship stream of prep schools are studying French, Latin and Greek by the age of 10, why cannot pupils in primary schools be offered the same high level of scholarship? In manufacturing in order to achieve the best, one has to bench mark against the best not against the average. In order to reduce social inequality,state primary schools must equal the best prep schools such as Pilgrim's 4. The massive decline in academic standards which occurred in some primary and comprehensives schools and teacher training establishments in the 1960s-1980s is still being ignored; read article in Standpoint on Islington Schools 5. Until state schools bench mark themselves against prep schools such as Pilgrims and public schools such as Winchester,Eton or Westminster , inequality will exist.As A Sampson stated in his Anatomy Books ( especially 1965and 1982), the Direct Grant Grammar Schools in the late 50s and early 60s outperformed most public schools and Manchester GS competed with Winchester for entries to Oxbridge.

David Palmer
July 17th, 2015
1:07 PM
Dear Katherine, I have taught for over 20 years and long ago reached the same conclusions. I agree with everything in the education model you have developed but the key problem to solve accountability (as you allude to) and replacing centralised 'coordinating mechanisms' with decentralised mechanisms. For what it is worth here are my thoughts... There are strong analogies between reform of the centralised OFSTED-regulated and target-driven bureaucratic system of UK state education and reform of the Soviet central planning system. Reforming it faces similar problems to Soviet perestroika. Partially reformingstate education (academies) and giving enterprise managers (heads) autonomy leaves these heads greater freedom to pursue self-interest without necessarily improving enterprise outcomes - similar to early 'perestroika'. It is likely to result in limited gains (if any, and more gaming the system by bureaucratic insiders. However trying radical reform from above - as in late perestroika - which removes the power of the central coordinating mechanism (OFSTED) in a non-transparent bureaucratic system is likely to lead collapse and chaos. Probably only a parallel system allowing 'reform from below' with new free school models like yours can work. However replacing bureaucracy with market competition as the main regulator is rife with dangers - as you intimate. More competition is likely to lead to greater divergence, not convergence in school performance and an increase in social inequality (due to property values). This is the key problem to solve. Keep up the excellent work.

John Wootton
July 11th, 2015
8:07 AM
Hello ... There is an inspector who writes a lot on Twitter ... I said to him that Ofsted should be abolished and it would be better if he and his team went into schools and supported teachers in the classrooms by working alongside them ... Sharing their expertise for a couple of days ... His response was merely to say that schools needed accountability ... I really liked your article due to the fact that your actions seem to reflect your philosophy. I'm not sure the recipient will take much notice of your letter though... Thanks, John.

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