A Downward Spiral – Day -2

Yesterday, I discovered that the local school in my area (St. Gregory the Great Catholic school) has been designated by the school inspections agency (Ofsted) as “needs improvement”. As it turns out, I live on the working class side of Oxford, a now very multicultural area, which used to house the workers at the Morris car factory. Today’s mini is made by BMW in a plant just on the other side of the ring road from us.

I did a little digging about “my” school, which is literally about 3 blocks away. Leaving aside the religious aspect, which I have many reservations about, I discovered that St.Gregory the Great was transformed into an academy around 2012 and taken over by the Domenic Barberi Multi-Academy Trust which is, I think, a charitable trust run under the auspices of the Birmingham Catholic Diocese (note: many of these trusts are for profit). It is fairly unique in that it is a primary/secondary school combined. Last May, it was put under “special measures” after a “section 5 inspection”. It had received a rating of 4 or “inadequate”.


I looked up the school’s latest Ofsted report, which happened on January 17/18 of this year. The report consisted of a one page letter from Her Majesty’s Inspector to the acting Head, a two page summary of the 5 points of difficulty from the last inspection 9 months previously, and a 5 page report of recommendations. You can find it here:  http://stgregory.oxon.sch.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Ofsted-monitoring-inspection-Jan-2018.pdf

I’m going to summarize, but I encourage you to read the original report, if only to experience some of the punitive tone and corporate language used.

Basically in the very brief letter, there were 3 recommendations, 2 of which are: “The school’s improvement plan is not fit for purpose.”  And, “I strongly recommend that the school does not seek to appoint newly qualified teachers.”

In the second section, there are 5 directives listed from the last inspection, 2 of which are vague exhortations to “do better”: “Improve the effectiveness of leadership and management” and “Raise pupils’ achievement through key stages 1 to 4, by: 
– accelerating pupils’ progress so they make good progress over time”

The final section, the Report, gets to the nitty gritty. In it we learn that since the last inspection ( only 9 months before) no less than 35 staff have left the school, and there have been 22 new appointments made, 16 of them teachers. Staff who have left include the Principal and the vice Principal – was that what the inspector meant by “improve effectiveness of leadership” or had they just had enough?

Now what pops into my head? First, that’s a huge staff turnover in 9 months. Second, there has been a crisis in leadership, and third, there are 13 fewer staff than there were 9 months ago!

And what is the recommendation of the school inspector? That they NOT hire newly qualified teachers. It is well known that there is a huge teacher shortage here, – the Education Secretary has a whole department addressing it. And what is one of their solutions? To allow unqualified university graduates to train while teaching (rather like the Teach for America program which puts unqualified university graduates in schools). So, it sounds like if St. Gregory the Great is not going to hire newly qualified teachers, perhaps unqualified teachers would be a better bet.

The report is not all negative. The inspector itemizes some improvements, and commends the staff that are left for the “resilience, commitment and sheer hard work of all staff who work directly with pupils.” There were many other issues that bear more investigation, such as the suggestion that there has been improper handling of the special funds for poor pupils, problems in the governance of the trust, mention of an “isolation” room, attendance issues and more. But what is absolutely stark is that here is a struggling school in a working class area, understaffed and overworked, with a school improvement plan that is not “fit for purpose” and an unrealistic plan for hiring to fill the gaps. Reading between the lines, I sense a demoralized, exhausted staff, and with their hiring difficulties, I doubt the situation will change any time soon.

When we went past the school this afternoon, we saw that the inspection report is posted on the school gate, so that all the parents and all the students can see that their school has been deemed “inadequate”.

What is that supposed to do to the self-confidence and aspirations of students?

Which bright young new teachers will be attracted to work there?

What middle class families will want their children to go there?

The labelling and shaming of Ofsted is so often here the first instalment on a downward spiral. Middle class parents and the teachers who have other options leave for greener pastures. The best young new teachers go elsewhere. Remaining teachers are demoralized and over-worked, partly because they have to deal with students who cannot see the point of schooling that has been officially labelled “inadequate”.  I wonder how many Nova Scotian teachers would last a year in such a place.

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Molly Hurd’s perspectives on education have been developed out of her wide variety of teaching experiences in northern Quebec, rural Nova Scotia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Britain. She was also a teacher and head teacher at Halifax Independent School for twenty years. She believes passionately that keeping children’s natural love of learning alive throughout their school years is one of the very best things a school can do for its students. She is the author of “Best School in the World: How students, teachers and parents have created a model that can transform Canada’s public schools” published by Formac Publishing in 2017.

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