Times clarifies headline about ‘worst school in England’

Janet Downs's picture
 17
‘Young head is charged with turning round the worst school in England’

Times headline, 5 July 2014

The ‘worst school’ was Oasis Isle of Sheppey, an academy taken over completely by Oasis in September 2013. A new head, David Millar, the academy’s fourth, was appointed to lead the school.

Isle of Sheppey academy had had a troubled history. It was opened in September 2009 as part of Labour’s academies programme and sponsored by Dulwich College, an independent school with support from Kent County Council and Canterbury Diocese. But the injection of private school’s ‘DNA’, so highly rated by Labour peer Lord Adonis, didn’t work: Ofsted judged Isle of Sheppey to be inadequate in 2011. Dulwich recognised it didn’t have the ‘capacity to drive improvements at the rate required’ and withdrew its lead sponsorship in late 2013.

However, under the leadership of the previous head, David Day, Isle of Sheppey had been upgraded from Inadequate to Requires Improvement in March 2013. A monitoring visit in July 2013 recognised the academy still had ‘a considerable distance to travel before it will provide a good education’ but noted there was ‘considerable enthusiasm for the business of teaching in the academy.’

Isle of Sheppey was not Inadequate and was showing ‘considerable enthusiasm’ for teaching in summer 2013. Why, then, did The Times claim it was ‘the worst school in England’?

The description was prompted by a revelation from the new head that Department for Education ‘officials’ had described a visit in November 2013 as their ‘worst ever’. But we don’t know the qualifications or remit of these officials. Neither do we know what this subjective assessment was based on. If the officials had only ever visited schools judged good or better then any visit to a school judged to require improvement would be the ‘worst’.

A freedom of information response revealed that one DfE official visited Oasis Isle of Sheppey in November but the DfE will not make notes public. It claims dialogue with schools must be confidential so there can be a frank exchange of views. I have asked for an internal review on the grounds that David Millar made the comments public at a Future Leaders conference and these were subsequently published in a national newspaper.

The Times, meanwhile, has printed a clarification which says its claim that Oasis Isle of Sheppey was the ‘worst’ in England was based on the observation of DfE officials and not on its official Ofsted ranking.

It appears, then, Oasis Isle of Sheppey wasn’t ‘the worst school in England’. That’s not to say the academy isn’t improving. A monitoring visit in July published after The Times’ article praised Millar’s ‘clarity of vision and purpose’. Eddie Playfair, principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) says it should be possible to praise success without rewriting history. It should also be possible to praise success without downplaying the work done by predecessor heads.

NOTES Ofsted reports for Oasis Isle of Sheppey can be downloaded here.

UPDATE 26 March 2015. I complained to the Information Commissioner's Office about the refusal by the DfE to release notes of the visit to Oasis Isle of Sheppey in which DfE officials allegedly said it was their 'worst-ever visit'. The DfE has told the ICO this comment is not in the visit notes so there is no point in pursuing the matter further. David Millar, head of Oasis Isle of Sheppey, also complained about the article in the Times claiming it was full of 'inaccuracies'.

In the meantime, Ofsted inspected Oasis Isle of Sheppey in early March 2015. The academy was still judged to Require Improvement but Leadership and Management were judged Good. Inspectors praised the 'newly appointed head'.
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Comments

Phil Taylor's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 10:42

This is possibly the tip of a large iceberg. So many attempts to establish an improvement involve the denigration of the former leadership. The attacks come thick and fast from very early on and it's ironic that any substantive improvements will often be the result of hard work by the former leadership. Eddie Playfair is absolutely spot-on. We need more fair play! I only wish more heads would take this approach.


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 10:51

Phil - and Gove was complicit in this. For example, he said Patricia Sowter, head of Cuckoo Hall, had turned around the school from Special Measures. But the school had come out of Special Measures in 1999 before Sowter arrived. An Ofsted inspection done before her arrival said it was a good school. He also said the head of Nunthorpe Academy had brought it from special measures but Nunthorpe had never been in this category.


And, of course, any improvement in a school forced to become an academy is laid at the feet of the sponsor. This is often despite the school showing signs of recovery before the sponsor arrived (eg Downhills). A cynic might say sponsors were actively seeking schools which have begun to improve so they can boast any further improvements are down to them.


Brian's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 17:23

' ....says it should be possible to praise success without rewriting history.'

Like this maybe, if I've read it correctly. I sent a FoI asking for the data supporting the DfE claim that behaviour is 'significantly better in academies and free schools than council-run' schools'.

The response I've received today states that the release was based on ' the most recent inspection outcomes for state-funded schools as at 31 March 2014, covering inspection outcomes between September 2006 - March 2014. Please note that the status of the schools is of 31 March 2014, which means that schools may have received their rating under a different status.'

Am I correct in reading this as saying that many of the 'academies and free schools' in which behaviour was outstanding ... 36% against 31% in council-run schools ... were actually not academies at all when that judgement was made?

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 19:20

Yes.
Seems so.
Mind you, I can't see it would be a prudent use of public money to go back and assess it all again just to get the school categories neatly squared away. Actually, I'm cheered they didn't answer it solely on the basis of exclusions data.

Andy V's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 20:11

Brian, There appears to be a glaring contradiction in the DfE response in that data (including RoL) prior to academisation cannot be taken into account for a S5 inspection and it follows therefore that none of that data is valid for comparison in the prevailing schools scenario.

Just a thought :-)

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/08/2014 - 07:28

Brian - I, too, sent a FoI request to give the evidence underpinning the claim that behaviour in academies was more likely to be 'outstanding' than in LA schools. I received the same answer as you.

As some academies haven't yet been inspected as academies, the judgements would, as you say, refer to a time when they were LA schools. And as Andy says, judgements for predecessor schools aren't supposed to be taken as applying to the present schools.

It appears, then, the Government ignores this when it suits. Again, this is for propaganda purposes.

Despite all this spinning of inspection results, the difference between academies/free schools and 'council-run' (you can almost hear the sniff of disdain) school was just 5%.

As a retired teacher, I'm a bit dubious about claims that behaviour in any school is 'outstanding'. Children are children, teenagers are teenagers, and they misbehave. It's how the misbehaviour is dealt with that's important not a superficial impression that behaviour is 'outstanding'. If any group I taught exhibited 'outstanding' behaviour I would think they were actually up to something.

Brian's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 19:25

It might not be a prudent use of public money 'just to get the school categories neatly squared away' but as the whole DfE press release is based on categories of schools it might just add a bit of honesty to their headline. As I see it it is a deliberate attempt to mislead.


Brian's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 20:52

Andy. Agreed. You'll notice that in my first post I'm being a bit tentative, thinking I've misunderstood something obvious in the DfE reply. However it seems that what they are saying is that pre-academy success will now be attributed to academy status in order to prove the superiority of academies.

I'd be perfectly happy to be told I've got that wrong!

Andy V's picture
Wed, 20/08/2014 - 07:46

Janet, I share your feelings of doubt regarding "outstanding" behaviour. The S5 Handbook descriptor is explicit in this regard:

"Pupils consistently display a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning, including in independent, group and whole class work, which have a very strong impact on their progress in lessons
Pupils’ attitudes to learning are of an equally high standard across subjects, years, classes and with different staff.
Parents, staff and pupils are unreservedly positive about both behaviour and safety. Pupils are keenly aware how good attitudes and behaviour contribute to school life, adult life and work.
Pupils’ behaviour outside lessons is almost always impeccable. Pupils’ pride in the school is shown by their excellent conduct, manners and punctuality.
Pupils are fully aware of different forms of bullying, including cyber-bullying and prejudice-based bullying, and actively try to prevent it from occurring. Bullying and derogatory or aggressive language in all their forms are rare and dealt with highly effectively.
Skilled and highly consistent behaviour management by all staff makes a strong contribution to an exceptionally positive climate for learning. There are excellent improvements in behaviour over time for individuals or groups with particular behaviour needs.
All groups of pupils are safe and feel safe at school and at alternative provision placements at all times. They understand very clearly what constitutes unsafe situations and are highly aware of how to keep themselves and others safe in different situations, including in relation to e-safety."

(April 2014)

and is even more tightly prescribed from Sept '14 onward:

"Pupils consistently display a thirst for knowledge and understanding and a love of learning, including when being taught as a whole class or working on their own or in small groups. This has a very strong impact on their progress in lessons.
Pupils’ attitudes to learning are of an equally high standard across subjects, years and classes and with different staff. Incidences of low-level disruption in lessons are extremely rare.
Parents, staff and pupils are unreservedly positive about both behaviour and safety. Pupils are keenly aware how good attitudes and behaviour contribute to school life, adult life and work.
Pupils’ behaviour outside lessons is impeccable. Pupils’ pride in the school is shown by their excellent conduct, manners and punctuality.
Pupils are fully aware of different forms of bullying, including cyber-bullying and prejudice-based bullying, and actively try to prevent it from occurring. Bullying and derogatory or aggressive language in all their forms are very rare and dealt with highly effectively.
Pupils’ excellent conduct and behaviour reflects the school’s effective strategies to promote high standards; this makes a strong contribution to an exceptionally positive climate for learning. There are excellent improvements in behaviour over time for individuals or groups with particular behaviour needs.
All groups of pupils are safe and feel safe in school and at alternative provision placements at all times. They understand very clearly what constitutes unsafe situations and are highly aware of how to keep themselves and others safe in different situations, including in relation to e-safety."

E.g.: Incidences of low level disruption extremely rare and dropping the "almost always" caveat from the reference to impeccable behaviour outside lessons.

I recognise that the descriptors are not to be used as straight checklist but the overall tenor is such that exceedingly few schools could ever attain to outstanding status for behaviour.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/08/2014 - 08:59

Andy - thanks for confirming my suspicions re 'outstanding' behaviour. I can honestly say that few of my pupils displayed a 'thirst for knowledge'. That's not to say they weren't (occasionally) inspired but it wasn't cool to show it.

And what about high-spirits? Or the lovable rogues (I taught a lot of those)? For example, what would an inspector make of my pupil who wrote, "Mrs Downs is cool" on the blackboard (we're talking BWB - before white boards)? Be impressed? Note that at least he had spelled it correctly (that surprised me - it would more likely have been "mrs down's is cool")? Or what about the boys who gave me a static electric shock? (I'm still not sure how they did it but it caused great hilarity. Perhaps Roger could explain the science - something to do with a TV on a metal trolley and the boys holding hands). What about the gum chewers, the paper plane makers? Or the sex education lessons where condoms were tested to destruction by blowing them up, the discovery that diaphragms make excellent frisbies, never mind the mess that can be made with contraceptive foam?

And what about the fact that most of the above (apart from gum chewing and paper plane throwing) actually made me laugh? I was obviously a very, very, very bad teacher.

rogertitcombe's picture
Fri, 22/08/2014 - 16:54

Andy - I agree with Janet that the S5 handbook descriptors are astonishing. Does it really mean ALL pupils consistently display ...etc in all the many categories? If not all, then what proportion at any moment in time counts as a threshold?

It doesn't sound like real life to me.

Even in schools with optimum behaviour and relationships, with 500+ adolescents seething with hormones and personal issues of every variety, sometimes things 'kick off', most usually in terms of pupil-pupil relationships. The mark of a school with good behaviour is not that these things never happen, but how they are resolved and the degree of positive good will and co-operation displayed by pupils and teachers alike. The 'culture' is everything.

Things 'kicked off' fairly often in our home between our own three children in their adolescent years. I don't think our family was in any way unusual. Fortunately families are not (yet) subject to Ofsted style inspections and their inadequate/requires improvement/good/outstanding judgements.

I don't believe that the current Ofsted inspection structure has the slightest chance of getting under appearances in order to form sound judgements on these profoundly complex issues. Two or three days by two or three inspectors popping in to a small proportion of lessons is never going to provide for a reliable judgement.

As I have previously suggested I think Ofsted inspectors may largely make up their minds from performance data prior to setting foot in the school, then they may look for examples to justify their preconceptions to pad out the inspection reports. I have long thought that the 'outstanding' label is the most suspect of all four categories. Hasn't it already been accepted by 'insiders' that inspectors use 'triangulation' so as not to notice poor behaviour in 'outstanding' schools and good behaviour in 'inadequate' schools?

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/04/pupil-behaviour-worse-than...

The S5 handbook descriptors greatly reinforce my scepticism.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 22/08/2014 - 21:40

Janet and I are in agreement over the descriptors (see my comment 20/8/14 @ 7.46 am) "Janet, I share your feelings of doubt regarding “outstanding” behaviour. The S5 Handbook descriptor is explicit in this regard"

In the absence of tangible evidence to support your your personal opinion about S5 teams arriving with predetermined outcomes is just that, a personal opinion and we are all of course entitled to hold personal opinions.

Phil Taylor's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 15:27

I'm sure the cynic would be right Janet.

You're right, Gove was quite unscrupulous. I'm sure there are many similar examples. Either he or his advisers (or he and his advisers) must have known what they were doing as it happened so often. I'm sure similar things happened pre-coalition but it didn't become a way of life until Gove appeared.

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 19/08/2014 - 19:23

Most episodes of The Thick of It were written pre-coalition, so I doubt it was exactly an age of innocence when Mr Balls was there.


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 20/08/2014 - 07:32

Unfortunately, it's a tendency for politicians to deceive. But it now appears it's on an industrial scale supported by most of the media. However, as you say, this happened before (WMD?) and deception about academies has been going on since they were first established and I pointed out here.


Andy V's picture
Wed, 20/08/2014 - 07:57

Cameron's mantra "We're all in it together" must surely be his most damning deceit/deception. No reform of MPs pensions vis a vis state sector workers. No withdrawal of taxpayer subsidies and VAT free drinks for the plethora of eateries in the houses of Commons and the Lords while such 'perks' would attract benefit in kind status from HMRC for everyone else and there has been an explosion of food banks across the country! Oh, and let us not forget to mention their miserly 9.26% pay award for 2015 while almost everyone else is likely to enjoy a projected zero through to 2% at best.


Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/03/2015 - 09:28

UPDATE I complained to the Information Commissioner's Office about the refusal by the DfE to release notes of the visit to Oasis Isle of Sheppey in which DfE officials allegedly said it was their 'worst-ever visit'. The DfE has told the ICO this comment is not in the visit notes so there is no point in pursuing the matter further. David Millar, head of Oasis Isle of Sheppey, also complained about the article in the Times claiming it was full of 'inaccuracies'.

In the meantime, Ofsted inspected Oasis Isle of Sheppey in early March 2015. The academy was still judged to Require Improvement but Leadership and Management were judged Good. Inspectors praised the 'newly appointed head'.

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