A message to education ministers: 'Beware Hubris'

Janet Downs's picture
One of the many downsides of the 11+ (now being given the nostalgic treatment in a BBC repeat The Grammar School: A Secret History) was telling young children they were cleverer than their peers.

Being told you're brighter than others can lead to overconfidence - the belief you're always right because others aren’t bless with your intellect. This over-inflated self belief is obvious in many politicians: 'It's right because I say it's right.' And they’re encouraged in this delusion by fawning underlings (all the better to climb the slippery pole of politics) and an unquestioning media.

It's called hubris. Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, writes in Saturday's Times that 'hubris...haunts every chancellor'. He calls for 'the need for humility; the need for honesty and transparency...'

Although he was writing about economic affairs, the same holds true for education. The last education secretary knew he was right - those who opposed him, however well-argued their case, were 'enemies of promise', 'Marxists', 'bigots'. He was Valiant-for-Truth – they were hobgoblins and foul fiends.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan believes she is right. Morgan has an unblinking belief in academy conversion - so much so she will push a Bill through Parliament imposing this solution on 'coasting' schools who don't satisfy the Regional Schools Commissioners (who are rewarded for the number of schools which become academies) they can improve without a multi-academy trust winding them in chains.

Schools Minister Nick Gibb believes he is right. Gibb knows the only way to teach reading is the sole use of synthetic/ systematic phonics when he appears not to know the two aren't the same thing and teachers of reading admitted they supplemented phonics with other methods. He has a blind faith in the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) and its ability to increase literacy despite the NFER not finding ‘any evidence of improvement in pupils’ literacy or in progress that could clearly be attributed to the introduction of the PSC' after a three-year evaluation.

The shambles surrounding the 'coasting' schools scrutiny committee was explained away by the same Nick Gibb. He said he would make “no apology for the swiftness of our actions to tackle coasting and failing schools”. Making ‘no apology’ appears regularly in speeches by education ministers – it makes them look tough. But it's hubris – because they know they’re right.

Nothing exemplified this more than Gibb’s comment to the Education and Adoption Bill committee about removing the right of parents and others to argue against academy conversion: ‘There is no point in protesting because that is going to happen ‘. No point in exercising the right to free speech – ‘because that is going to happen’. No point in saying the school in question is already improving (Gibb was referring to Downhills) – ‘because that is going to happen’.

‘That is going to happen’ is not what we expect to hear in a democracy. We’re told this is a British Value – we're supposed to teach about these in schools. But a value isn’t just words, it’s a way of acting. And hubris tramples over democracy.

Paul Johnson called for humility in Chancellors of the Exchequer. But humility is lacking in school ministers - they think they know best and what they say 'is going to happen'.
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Linda starkey's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 12:47

I find all of this truly dressing and hope if anyone comes up with ways of defending schools they put it out on this and other networks so we can at least prepare ourselves. Linda. Starkey

Brian's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 14:45

I wrote recently to Morgan asking about the discrepancy between her democratic principles and the removal of democratic rights when academy conversion is on the cards. In particular I asked why a ballot of parents, allowing a range of opinion and evidence to be considered, was not acceptable.

The short reply said:

'We would expect that the consultation would normally include parents, but it is a matter for the governing body or the sponsor to decide exactly who they consult.'

So presumably the democratically elected (!!!) sponsors can choose to be democratic ... a fundamental principle of democracy being, it seems, that it can be dished out as a gift if the people with power decide so to do. British Values indeed.

Guest's picture
Sun, 05/07/2015 - 15:48

Here is another message that has fallen on deaf ears. A cynic might argue that this represents too much collaborative partnership working for the benefice of pupils (and the taxpayers) and not a party political agenda with a now less than hidden agenda. The former is imbued with democratic values whereas the former is absent of democratic process (well, save winning a first past the post general election):

"Non-academies can help struggling schools, says LGA"

"The LGA is calling on the government to remove restrictions which mean a school must have academy status before it can sponsor a school in need of assistance.
The LGA says this would allow councils to intervene much more swiftly when parents raise concerns about a school.
Ministers say becoming an academy is the best way to improve standards.
'Unnecessary bureaucracy'
But David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, said 80% of maintained schools were rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted inspectors.
These schools were, therefore, in a strong position to help other council controlled schools which were struggling, he told the BBC.
He said that when parents had concerns about standards in a non-academy school, they turned to the local authority for help.
"We could intervene much more swiftly, but there's a requirement that schools convert to academy status before being able to sponsor a struggling school - now that takes time.
"It's a piece of bureaucracy that doesn't need to be there." "


agov's picture
Mon, 06/07/2015 - 09:57

A recent conference was opened by a Conservative Councillor saying there was no point in talking about academisation as the government was going to do it. Apparently modern Conservatives believe the gentlemen in Whitehall and their flunkies in the regions know best.

A Cooper's picture
Tue, 07/07/2015 - 10:54

I have way of knowing if this is true or not. If it is true then it is a scandal worthy of headline news:


Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/07/2015 - 11:36

According to the link, AAA has sent copies of the letter alleging irregular behaviour during Ofsted inspections at Harris academies to Ofsted and the DfE. It will be interesting to hear their reactions.

A Cooper's picture
Tue, 07/07/2015 - 10:55

Correction: I have 'no' way of knowing ...

A Cooper's picture
Tue, 07/07/2015 - 13:54

Janet, I wouldn't hold your breath.

Guest's picture
Tue, 07/07/2015 - 16:01

The key word here is 'if'. If the allegations are accurate. It should also be factored into peoples thinking that it may also be accurate to float the idea, but what if this arising from a disgruntled colleague?

I would also suggest that to keep 40 full-time regular colleagues at home and parachute in 40 different colleagues and also ensure 10% of the potentially difficult pupils stayed at home is bordering on a manic conspiracy theory. The nature of inspection is such that these issues would be bowled out very quickly, e.g.: a mandatory strands of enquiry cover:

1. Pupil attendance (on the day of the inspection and overtime)
2. Teaching staff issues (anyone to avoid such as student teachers, short term supply)
3. Meetings with pupils (usually a sample from each year group and the school council)
4. Lesson observations (number on register v present, questions to pupils such as is this your usual teacher)
5. Opportunity for colleagues to make a confidential approach to the Lead Inspector or an additional inspector.

On that basis I find myself pushed to the limits of credulity in accepting the proposition from the author of the anonymous letter.

Having worked in that part of London fairly recently I do know that the Harris school had gotten a negative name for itself amongst the teaching fraternity.

A Cooper's picture
Wed, 08/07/2015 - 09:31

As I said before I have no evidence to support or refute the claims in the letter. However, I will say that it's not uncommon for schools to change the timetable for an Ofsted inspection. We did it during our inspection last year so that the inspectors would see more maths and literacy lessons taught. A teacher employed by the school on a supply basis was also asked 'not to come in' on the first day of the inspection, some teachers had their PPA time re-arrangeed so that HLTAs did not deliver any lessons during the inspection. If a child had been asked 'is this your usual teacher' they may well have replied 'No'. Ofsted do observe NQTs, but it is made clear to them that this is the case when they are presented with the teaching timetable.

In my experience it is difficult to find time during the inspection process to approach lead members of the inspection to alert them to things that are a little untoward. In fact, I know of one head teacher who opened the staff questionnaires to find out what staff had written on them. Nothing could be proved, but it was obvious at the next staff meeting that they had read some of the comments.

Guest's picture
Wed, 08/07/2015 - 10:24

With respect, I would suggest that the half a day's notice tends to make the antics you outline less likely than those practices might otherwise be. I would also suggest that a HT is fooling him/herself if they think they can effectively direct the inspection teams lesson observation schedule. In my experience inspectors work to the trails determined by the lead Inspector and then select their own observation schedule: each inspector will be allocated foci to report on e.g. one for Eng, one for Maths. The core plus literacy and numeracy are compulsory strands of the inspection.

I never said that Ofsted don't observe NQTs. What I said was they didn't observe student teachers and short term supply. Indeed, inspectors avoid observing colleagues on phased returns, those who may have personal issues such as a bereavement, those indicated as being under competences.

Your school appears to misunderstand the inspection handbook if leaders think that observations focus on the person delivering the lesson. First, lessons are not graded. Second, its the impact on learning and progress and this is caveated by overtime. So removing HTLAs is a fools errand.

In the absence of any comments regarding the other points I covered I assume that you accept that the likelihood of a school getting away with 40 staff and 10% of pupils kept at home is somewhat difficult to keep secret during an inspection.

A Cooper's picture
Wed, 08/07/2015 - 10:39

As I have said before I don't believe or disbelieve the contents of the letter to AAA.
I agree with you, that a school would be unlikely to get away with exchanging 40 teachers from another school and keeping 10% of pupils at home. However, schools have done and still do arrange for some disruptive pupils to be 'educated offsite' during an inspection which is a valid reason for absence as far as I am aware. I don't think Ofsted analyse exactly which pupils are absent (in terms of looking at individual pupil records), as they are limited by time, but you may know better than I on this.

Schools can do quite a lot of papering over the cracks with a half day's notice, with staff often working into the small hours to ensure that everything is Ofsted-ready.

agov's picture
Wed, 08/07/2015 - 09:42

The AAA site does publish what seems to be a very full and credible rebuttal provided by the Harris Federation.

Guest's picture
Wed, 08/07/2015 - 13:24

I have no doubt that some school leaders do tinker around the edges but that is the best they can do, tinker.

Yes, educated offsite is still a valid attendance code. Note, it is not an authorised absence rather it is a valid code to signify that a pupils educated at a location other than at school. This in turn falls under the inspection purview of alternative provision, which in itself is for full or part time provision and as such a child attending just 1 or 2 days coinciding with the inspection would stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. So to answer your point, yes, Ofsted do scrutinise alternative (off site) provision (including speaking with the providers and pupils).

Not quite sure which inspection regime you last worked under but I'd have to say that no amount of midnight or small hours working trying to paper over cracks can:

a. Change inadequate safeguarding
b. Over write 3 years of cumulative data
c. Rewrite a school's own internal data (and data trail) for the in-year progress and attainment projections
d. Effectively muzzle a child from saying what it wants to say
e. Change an weak curriculum
f. Make governors word perfect and knowledgeable for their inspection meeting
g. Rewrite or hide every exercise book for every pupil in every subject
h. Make good the absence of teacher feedback in books that highlights strengths and what is needed to improve
i. Remedy any lack of evidence that the PP pupils are improving their progress against non-PP counterparts (and likewise the impact in secondary schools of the Y7 catch-up)
j. Improve the reading ability and literacy & numeracy of pupils

The good/bad old days of ensuring display boards were relevant and refreshed and everyone having lesson plans at the ready are gone. The focus is impact and evidence of progress. Any school leader thinking otherwise is deluding themselves.

So a school may be able to fiddle around the edges but as for the level of fudging you allude to I'd have to say it's either not going to happen or be a rare occurrence.

A Cooper's picture
Wed, 08/07/2015 - 14:22

I think my experience is current, having been inspected three times in the past year. I am on the front line, so to speak. I have a very good idea of what tinkering goes on.

Perhaps, Guest, you would care to share when your most recent experience of being inspected by Ofsted was.

Guest's picture
Wed, 08/07/2015 - 14:52

My most recent inspection was last week of June this year.

May I ask whether your experience is as a school leader and were the inspections Section 8 or otherwise.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/07/2015 - 08:28

Nick Gibb appears to be changing tack slightly. Gone is the reference to synthetic and/or systematic phonics. This is replaced by 'phonics' (presumably any method is acceptable, then?). He's also stressed that phonics should be within a 'language-rich curriculum'. Is this what teachers describe as supplementing phonics by 'other methods'?

'Research shows that using phonics is the most effective way of teaching children of all abilities to read. The evidence indicates that the teaching of phonics is most effective when combined with a language-rich curriculum to develop children’s positive attitudes towards literacy. (Written answer 7 July 2015)

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/07/2015 - 08:31

In a Parliamentary Written Answer, schools minister Nick Gibb said:

'This government has therefore placed phonics at the heart of the early teaching of reading.'

But the Europe-wide Eurydice report into reading found phonics was already widely used to teach reading in the UK in 2009/10. It appears Gibb has made a great deal of noise (and money for producers of DfE recommended synthetic phonics material) in banging at an already open door. (See Fig 1.3)

He also wrote: 'Three years after the introduction of the phonics screening check, 100,000 more six-year-olds are on track to become confident readers.'

He obviously hasn't read the latest NFER research (cited above) which found no evidence which clearly linked the phonics screen check with improved literacy.

A Cooper's picture
Thu, 09/07/2015 - 10:13

I notice his reference to the research undertaken by EEF. Pity his department are choosing to ignore EEF's research that indicates that performance pay has no effect on pupil performance, but costs approximately £170 per pupil to implement. Granted the research evidence was limited, but I don't hold out much hope for the result being any different if and when the research is repeated on a wider scale.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/07/2015 - 10:32

A Cooper - the Gov't ignores much EEF toolkit evidence which doesn't fit with its prejudices while hyping up EEF evidence which found only modest improvement (eg 'mastery'.

Guest's picture
Sun, 12/07/2015 - 14:43

I note you preferred not to disclose whether you were a middle or senior leader or whether you knew the category of inspection. With regard to the latter 3 inspections in one year indicates grade 4, which in turn means it's quite easy for the HT/Principal to gauge when the next review visit will occur. This does give some latitude for playing games but it doesn't reduce the danger of such approaches.

To be precise, the EEF toolkit states:

"Performance pay £ £ ★ 0 Months Low or no impact for moderate cost, based on very limited evidence.

What are the costs?
Increases are usually of the order of £2,500 per teacher or £100 per pupil across a class of 25. Overall cost estimates are therefore low."


This suggest that the jury is still out on performance pay. That said, for me this a crude strategy borrowed from industry and commerce with the potential to damage a schools overall staff attitude, harmony and performance.

It should also be noted that there is a difference between performance pay and pay progression linked to performance management.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 10/07/2015 - 09:57

Gibb's changed tack again. In the Parliamentary Written Answer (see my comment 9/7/15 at 8.31am above) he said 'phonics' was the heart of teaching reading. This was a change from earlier systematic/synthetic/either/or comments.

But in his speech 'The purpose of Education' he's gone back to 'systematic synthetic phonics' as being 'the most effective way to teach children to read'. (But the evidence he cited earlier advocated any systematic method of phonics, not just synthetic. However, I'm not sure he appreciates the difference.)

With Maths, he's boasting about how he's introducing Shanghai methods. But Shanghai is busy moving away from its earlier methods.

And he wants more textbook use.

How imaginative.

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