For the last twenty years or so, the means by which a school’s capabilities are judged has been on a perpetual pendulum of change. In 1992, under a government which (largely speaking) had been privately educated and had no real trust or respect for the state school system, OfSTED was given the task of externally assessing a school and so the pendulum made a great stride to the right. Then the more liberal Labour government came about, a government that initially did place a great deal of trust in schools. They placed more emphasis on Local Authorities and school’s being responsible for their own judgements and development (although OfSTED was always used parallel to this) and so the pendulum swung back to the left. These Local Authorities had teams who would observe practice, develop staff and lead school improvement. Such teams are rarer than the ill-fated Dodo these days. Eventually Gove came along and pushed the pendulum so far right that it entered space that had previously been unknown to exist. A distrust of teachers and a climate of fear has hung over the education system in this country like a sullen mist ever since. And so, a year before the next general election, the only proverbial clogs of the pendulum that have remained unchanged since it first began swinging continue to churn out students and strive to provide the best learning opportunities for their pupils.
This is all well and good, but what has it got to do with middle leadership I hear you ask? Although OfSTED have the right to inspect schools under Section 5 of the Education Act of 2005, they very rarely do. They claim to carry out an ‘idependant external evaluation’ of a school’s effectiveness and state that their judgements are based upon a national framework. Such a framework might ensure that the information provided to parents and the Secretary of State for Education was consistent and reliable, and based on this OfSTED have a reputable place amongst the mindset of parents the width and breadth of the country. However, those who work in the education system know that this is a facade. Beyond the smoke screen, OfSTED are a much more haphazard, ill-informed and inconsistent group of self-employed ‘experts’ than is generally stated. OfSTED has carved up the country into six large zones, each sub-let to an independent and privately run company which carries out inspections on behalf of OfSTED. These companies work independently of each other, but are nonetheless expected to follow the guidance on how to inspect schools. The problem is that most of the inspectors are retired or have left the profession and have, at best, failed to read the guidance and subsequent updates and, at worst, simply ignore it. Whatever their reasons, OfSted are anything but reliable, consistent or reputable. More often any Tom, Dick or Harry subcontracted to a shady contractor shows up to inspect your school whatever way they see fit. If you’re lucky, you will have a well-informed, professional team who are understanding and know what to consider when making judgements that will impact upon every person in the school. If you aren’t, it’s time for your leadership team to earn their pay… and that is when it pays to have a strong middle leadership team.
In order to see off any OfSTED team, but more importantly to improve the opportunities of the children in the school, the self evaluation process cannot be overemphasised. A strong leadership team will ensure that the school has a strong vision and that staff are united in their determination to reach the aims which are set out in order to achieve this. The school will then need to gather evidence to support any judgements it makes, identifying areas of strengths and areas to be developed. This will then be fed forward to the Senior Leadership Team which shall decide upon the school action plan to move the school forwards. Middle Leaders are pivotal the to self-evaluation and evidence gathering elements of this process. Through strong management and gaining an accurate picture of where they are up to with their area of the school or curriculum, middle leaders can gather the evidence needed to ensure the school continues to improve. The best schools in the country develop their middle leaders and afford them time to get to grips with their responsibilities. They also utilise them effectively and develop them professionally so that the school ultimately isn’t being led from the headteachers office only. A strong headteacher, although responsible overall for the running of the school, will have the ability to delegate responsibilities and develop staff whose judgements are dependable and constructive.
The pendulum is ever-changing and out of the mess of the Birmingham ‘Trojan Horse’ affair, things looks to be getting worse for teachers in this country. Despite most of the schools involved being part of Gove’s pet project of Free Schools/Academies and therefore out of Local Authority control, Gove has seen fit to say that there is an epidemic problem in schools. Although the minutes of their governors meetings should have been forwarded to Michael Gove himself, and although Gove was in a position to send two advisors to the academies to prevent this mess (perhaps even resulting in Gove being guilty of dereliction of duty, you might conclude), he has managed to spin the situation so that we are ever closer to no notice inspections; a concept that drives fear into the hearts of teachers everywhere. Whether or not they ever arrive, the pendulum has a chance of swinging back over the next year as Gove seeks pastures new and we seek any other government on offer to us. Regardless, we will still have an OfSTED force who are very inconsistent. To give yourself the best chance of fighting your corner, and indeed to truly improve your school, the development of middle leaders is pivotal.
Besides all of this, we are in the midst of a headteacher crisis. You may just find that by the time you next reach work, your head will have jumped ship! Middle leaders are going to be headteachers very soon. Within years we are going to have the youngest set of headteachers this country has ever known, many of whom are middle leaders now. If we want the education system to continue to flourish, we have to prepare them adequately now.