Joe Baron: The case of Starbank School teaches us one thing: Ofsted can’t be trusted
The author is a teacher. Joe Baron is a pseudonym.
Yesterday, beleaguered teachers at Starbank School in South Yardley, Birmingham, will go on strike for the second time in six days in response to the school’s abject failure to protect their health and safety at work.
They are working in truly appalling, inhumane conditions. Indeed, according to Paul Nesbitt, the NASUWT national executive member involved in the dispute, the teaching staff are being subjected to feral pupils carrying weapons, daily threats of violence, verbal abuse, and regular brawling in the classrooms.
In one incident, some kids were caught in possession of three knives, one of which had a 12 inch blade; another saw a teacher punched in the face by a Year 7 boy and, as if these examples aren’t shocking enough, every Thursday is now referred to as Thursday Fight Day.
Needless to say, teachers are scared to leave their classrooms. They’ve even been issued with panic buttons. That’s right, the headteacher refuses to ensure the safety of his staff by permanently excluding violent children, but he has given them panic buttons, presumably to press after they’ve been stabbed. I’m sure they will be eternally grateful.
The school contends that only 16 out of 122 teachers have taken action, meaning that, according to them, the rest of the staff must be happy.
But this fails to take into account the courage it takes to go on strike. These individuals know what’s at stake. They are now targets. Their careers at the school are, at the very least, in jeopardy. They may even be over. Senior leaders and school governors will do everything in their power to force them out – an objective that, in the present climate of unmanageable workload, won’t be difficult to realise.
Every single teacher in every single school in the country could be the target of a disgruntled senior leader at any time, desperate to place them on capability in a sinister bid to force them out. There’s simply so much work to do, nobody’s able to keep on top of it. We’re all vulnerable.
So these teachers, the ones with the audacity to strike, will now be the targets of the leadership’s wrath, have no doubt. In light of this depressing reality, most of their colleagues will – understandably – be unwilling to make the same sacrifices, especially if they have families to support. So yes, there may be only 16 members on strike, but you can bet your life on it, many of the remaining teachers will be with them in spirit. I mean, there’s even video footage of ‘Fight Thursday’ for anyone who doubts the veracity of the strikers’ claims.
The most interesting and revealing aspect of this particular case, though, is Ofsted’s sparkling, yes sparkling, review of what is, in reality, a violent dystopian snake pit. Starbank school has been rated ‘outstanding’ since 2012. Last year, moreover, it was described as having an ‘exceptional ethos, care and quality of education’. For whatever reason, the inspectorate failed to spot the school’s myriad shortcomings. And it wouldn’t be the first time.
Ofsted’s judgments, in my experience, aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. I recently taught in a school with appalling levels of what is euphemistically described in the teaching profession as ‘low-level’ disruption. In layman’s terms, that means that, although the kids don’t throw chairs at you, they talk incessantly. In fact, it’s impossible to complete a sentence without being interrupted. This was so bad that the other, more senior teaching staff at the school advised me not to initiate whole-class discussions. It’s pointless, they said. Just do as we do, give them the work and get used to the relentless chatting.
When Ofsted came in, however, just after Christmas, they judged the school and the behaviour to be ‘good’. How is that possible? I thought.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had similar experiences in lots of different schools, some, unfortunately, very much like Starbank. Actually, I don’t think I’ve ever concurred with an Ofsted judgment. They’ve always been, in my view, far too generous, demonstrating low expectations of pupils and teachers, especially when it comes to behaviour for learning.
The former advisor to Michael Gove, Tom Richmond, contends that Ofsted’s grades are wrong in up to half of cases. He recently cited two international studies that concluded that different inspectors reached different judgments about the same schools in up to 50 percent of instances.
This surely brings into question the Government’s oft-repeated claim that, due to its education reforms introduced in 2010, nearly two million more children now attend ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools. In short, the claim is bunkum. As demonstrated in the case of Starbank School, Ofsted’s judgments can’t be trusted.