Is Ofsted driving teachers out of the profession?

Kate Gilliford
Kate Gilliford

Kate Gilliford, Senior researcher

Teachers are leaving the profession in droves: reportedly 40% of new entrants leave within five years, a statistic that Sir Michael Wilshaw has described as a ‘scandal’.

Several reasons are offered in explanation: lack of respect for the profession, poor pupil behaviour and constant changes in the sector (to name a few).

From what I’ve seen in schools and learnt from our members, teachers stop teaching for one main reason – workload.

But what creates large workloads for teachers? Teachers themselves are unlikely to choose to complete additional paperwork on top of planning, marking, extra-curricular activities and (let’s not forget) actually delivering lessons. If teachers are being asked to, for example, write extra reports, produce lesson plans for every lesson or organise another formative assessment, that’s coming from somewhere else.

Are teachers’ workloads Ofsted’s fault, then? My colleague recently attended a debate hosted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), in which one of the panellists laid the blame for teachers’ workloads squarely at Ofsted’s door. I’m not sure this is the whole answer.

As explained in a briefing for teachers about lesson observations during inspection, Ofsted does not specify an approach to teaching. The framework for school inspection and accompanying handbook are also clear that Ofsted inspects whether the teaching at a school leads to positive outcomes for pupils, not the teaching style.

There may be a disconnect between what Ofsted expects in theory and the reality of an inspection (my colleague explores this ‘credibility gap’ in his report from the ATL debate, linked to above). However, the important point is that an Ofsted grade can make or break a headteacher’s career. Therefore, it’s not surprising that, in advance of an inspection, some headteachers try to polish their schools so they shine. This can mean that in pursuit of an ‘outstanding’ grade, teachers may be asked to produce extra material (adding to their workload) that inspectors have not said they will ask for. The result is that everyone is unhappy.

At The Key’s recent inspection conference, I learnt one particularly valuable lesson. A message repeated by current inspectors and school leaders in ‘outstanding’ settings was that school leaders must lead the inspection: headteachers should direct inspectors to what they think inspectors need to know and see. To me, this means that the very best headteachers have faith in their own leadership abilities and in their teachers. They know they run a good school and don’t need extra paperwork to prove it.

As a senior researcher at The Key, it’s my job to help headteachers trust their own judgements. For example, we’ve written a quick summary of Ofsted changes from September 2015, which is designed to give our members the core information they need so they can focus on developing their practice (log-in required).

I have no doubt that inspections are stressful for all headteachers, even those in ‘outstanding’ schools. The particular challenge comes when that stress is felt right across the school. The most inspiring headteachers I’ve met manage to really protect their teachers, which can sometimes mean absorbing real pressure. As my grandpa would say, it’s tough at the top.

If senior leaders and teachers are to be happy and productive in their work, then work-life balance is important. If school bus drivers worked 14-to-16-hour shifts, I doubt we’d be happy placing children in their care. The same should apply to those who work in schools.

So how can we improve schools without sacrificing staff wellbeing?  Well, first, I urge headteachers to develop confidence in themselves so rumours about how inspections work don’t throw them off the deep end. Second, I suggest that Ofsted inspects outcomes for staff as well as pupils. The inspection framework should consider the wellbeing of teachers and senior leaders alike, and highlight problems where they exist. If we re-orientate our thinking slightly so that the welfare of staff becomes part of inspection, we might be able to reduce teachers’ workloads and stop the exodus.

Further reading to help

If you’re a member of The Key for School Leaders, you might want to take a look at our article on headteachers’ wellbeing. We also have information on improving work-life balance for school staff.

For members of our service for school governors, we have a Need-to-know on the changes to inspection from September 2015 and guidance on who should carry out stress management meetings for a headteacher. You’ll also find the answer to whether headteachers can work at the weekend instead of during school hours, here.

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