An Open Letter To Nicky Morgan

A free school head advises the Education Secretary to abolish Ofsted and cut the burden of red tape if she wants the state system to stop failing pupils

Education Features UK Politics
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.

If you don’t have the stomach to be that radical, then, at the very least, reform Ofsted out of recognition. Because if you abolished it, you would have to replace it with proper competition between schools and actually give families real choice over their children’s education and I can’t imagine any government ever doing that. (You do know that people don’t have real choice? The only families who have choice are the ones who can afford to move house. If you can’t, you have to go to your local school.)

So if you can’t abolish it, rein it in. And I mean properly rein it in. Michael Gove thought he could reduce its power by allowing governors and head teachers to devise their own ways of reviewing school performance, but Ofsted has in effect squashed that. A real reform would be to demote Ofsted to the educational equivalent of the Health and Safety Inspectorate, giving schools a basic check on order and hygiene. No rats? Finances in order? Great. Let’s get on with teaching.

While you may feel schools are being held to account, some 20 per cent of our children leave school innumerate and illiterate. In what way is Ofsted holding our schools to account? Nearly 30 per cent of secondary schools were found to be either in need of improvement or inadequate last year. Has anything happened to them? People often cite “safeguarding” as a reason for Ofsted’s existence. But when does one ever hear of Ofsted exposing a school for not safeguarding pupils? Rarely. Why? Because all inspectors can do is execute the bureaucratic task of ensuring that a school’s Single Central Register has been properly filled in. The SCR lists staff and their DBS checks — which they apply for to prove they have the all-clear to work with children. But what does Ofsted’s visit of once every three or so years mean? It does not mean children are properly safeguarded. It means both the Ofsted inspectors and the school’s senior team are adept at filling out paperwork. Do you remember the Trojan Horse schools? Ofsted had given one of them a glowing report. In fact, we only ever knew that there was a problem in those schools thanks to a whistleblower.

2. No more Performance-Related Pay (PRP). You should want to hire first-class, highly-committed people who regard teaching as a vocation, not people who want to be set a target and rewarded financially for achieving it. PRP undermines everything we believe in by encouraging the wrong motivation in teachers and it creates an extra bureaucratic workload by having to justify achieved targets. PRP disincentivises a head of department from supporting a newly-qualified teacher by taking the more difficult pupils because it might mean her not hitting her target. With PRP, teachers cannot work as a team.

Teachers have limited time. Either they spend their time doing an excellent job, or they spend it writing things down. Those who manage to do both do not survive for long and leave the profession within a few years, burnt out from the crazy workload. At Michaela, teacher well-being is central to what we do. We keep marking to a minimum and feed back from the front of the class. We use IT to ensure that teacher workload is reduced. We do not have PRP so my teachers work like a dream team. As an example, we’ve had trouble finding science teachers who fit with our philosophy. The whole school, including heads of maths and humanities, are helping to find science teachers for the school precisely because we don’t have ludicrous targets and their pay does not depend on them doing other things. The ethos at Michaela is such that we all work together for the betterment of the school.

We don’t expect lesson plans from teachers and we don’t grade their lessons either. We trust our teachers to be professionals. Of course there is a system of accountability if teachers were to disappoint. Just because we trust and respect our teachers does not mean our systems are lacking in rigour. Steve Jobs once said that one should not hire clever people and set them targets. One should hire clever people and get them to tell you what to do. This is exactly what we do at Michaela.

We keep bureaucracy to an absolute minimum. This has a hugely beneficial impact on staff morale and performance. We have 100 per cent of our teachers staying on next year. And 100 per cent of our teachers have 100 per cent attendance at school. This provides the children with continuity and consistency and we exemplify the behaviour we expect from them. I often have conversations with families who are not good at getting their children into school every day. I say, the staff are always here and your children should be too. Our staff are always at school because they love being there, thanks to the ethos and environment we have created. I trust them and they trust me.

We centralise detentions and homework so that teachers don’t have to chase pupils. Our bespoke IT system to record bad behaviour has been created with minimal writing required from teachers. Homework is either self-marked or peer-marked: less paperwork for the teacher.

As headmistress, I am simply unwilling to bury staff in paperwork. But keeping bureaucracy at bay exposes the school to the risk of being slammed by Ofsted for doing just that. The problem with Ofsted inspectors is that they often believe their own rhetoric: boxes are all-important. How do I know this? Because all schools hire inspectors who double up as consultants to advise schools on how to play the game with their colleagues. It really is just a game, Ms Morgan. Many give schools scripts on what to say and how to argue with an inspector to raise the grade given by the inspector. The emperor really isn’t wearing any clothes. Please can we all stop saying that he is?

Although Michael Gove believed he had fixed things by not requiring self-evaluation plans from schools, inspectors are quick to point out that if a school doesn’t have one it immediately sets alarm bells ringing in their heads. But it simply isn’t the case, as one inspector told me, that one cannot evaluate one’s school on one’s own terms. He was absolutely convinced that one must always use the Ofsted handbook and apply it to the school. For him, that is simply what self-evaluation is.

I wonder what handbook Steve Jobs used to evaluate Apple?

After arguing at great length the other day with an Ofsted inspector on the value of written justifications, I asked him for the main thing he would change if he could go back to being a head. He had been head of two different schools before becoming an Ofsted inspector. He smiled and said that he would write a lot less down.

If we want innovation and creativity in our schools, we need to throw away the rulebook, get rid of Ofsted, and get rid of the pernicious, target-driven culture in our education system. Give heads the freedom required to run their schools the way they know works. Give families the freedom to choose the school that they want, meaning you need to abolish catchment areas, and prevent the middle class from rigging the system to work for them.

So much of the system is upside down. Please, Ms Morgan, be part of the struggle to turn it right-side up.