Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Mocksteds. Still happening. This is what happened when a member of a governing body objected...

This is an anonymous guest post from a member of a governing body, sacked for questioning the merits of a 'Mocksted'.

"I cannot see why any school would/should want to put itself through a mocksted" 

Sean Harford, National Director for Schools, Ofsted

The recent holidays delivered a shock. After two years of association with the Governing Body (GB) of my children's school, a letter arrived terminating this connection without warning or discussion. 

My professional background means I am well-qualified to assist with issues of law and governance. I took up my post with enthusiasm and rigour, initially assuming that my skills would be welcomed. 

However, although the GB was happy to let me undertake enormous amounts of work for it, there was a sense of discomfort attached to this as no one wanted to acknowledge the reason for the work, i.e. there were deficits in corporate governance and management. The letter through the post confirmed that it was easier  to 'shoot the messenger' than deliver real change. 

People may not appreciate the unusual and contradictory dynamic of a GB. It has significant strategic responsibilities for a school, yet it must not interfere with operational matters; it needs to ensure statutory duties are being met, yet it is comprised of volunteers who may have little or no understanding of the law;  it has multiple duties to ensure equality and promote access to education for vulnerable groups, but it may wrongly view these as barriers to league tables places; finally, it may know it has to hold the headteacher to account, but it may be crippled by deference, especially if its members are not prepared to read/understand/question the data produced.

My GB reflected all of these dichotomies. Further, the school's physical location and demographic produced a conservative and traditional outlook which presented significant challenges to providing a rounded 21st century education or even to working collaboratively with staff and parents.  In a way which is perhaps symptomatic of the malaise affecting many modern bureaucracies, the GB often seemed to lurch from panic to complacency, lacking an overall strategic vision. I think this is partly a consequence of the Ofsted blame/praise game where the focus of the school is distracted by appearances and its desire to 'look good'.  I have some sympathy: there are significant external and internal pressures acting on all schools . However, a relentless search for quick fixes and 'magic bullets' fails children and staff and distracts from the real business of educating pupils.

For me, the turning point in my relationship with the GB proved to be a proposal to conduct a 'mocksted'. It was not discussed at GB and seemed to spring from nowhere. It was to be undertaken by someone whose ability to 'pretend to be Ofsted' seemed open to question but, more importantly, although the GB and the head were arranging it and so had several weeks' notice,  it was proposed that the teachers were not to be told until the day before.

This concerned me greatly and I made my views known. I didn't expect Governors to agree with me but I genuinely believed they would be prepared to discuss the issues I was raising. I suggested we work collaboratively with staff rather than 'surprise them'. I felt this was damaging to school/staff relationships. I also questioned the purpose of a 'mocksted' when the GB did not even self-evaluate. I stressed that we had to know our school first and foremost.

The inspection went ahead on a day when the GB knew I could not attend school. It went ahead in the way planned. It was very clear that some Governors saw my views as undermining but they did not discuss it with me so I did not suspect that they would respond by ejecting me. 

Inevitably, the 'inspector' confirmed what the school thought about itself. So that really was money well-spent. Governors can now rest assured that not always implementing or understanding policies and practices is not necessarily a problem when it comes to inspection time as long as they can 'handle' what is thrown at them. And, clearly,  inspection time is what counts.

The first GB meeting after the inspection was then also changed to a date I could not attend.
I heard nothing more. Two weeks later, without any attempt to speak to me, my holiday time letter arrived, telling me that the GB had decided to terminate my position, leaving me feeling hurt and shocked. This termination felt like an act of bullying which could have been incredibly damaging to someone who hadn't developed my rhino's hide and could have irreparably damaged the relationship between school and parent and possibly even school and child. 

Are the two issues related by anything other than timing? The letter suggests otherwise but a reasonable conclusion is that they are as the last GB meeting had seen me being assigned additional roles.

The GB's decision was entirely challengeable legally and I have told the GB this. But what benefit is such a challenge to anyone but me? And, realistically,  who wants to be part of such an organisation?

After raising the illegality of their practices, I was asked to attend a meeting. I said I would if I was to be provided with an apology for their poor handling of this matter. This response has been complete silence.  Clearly, the school's 'values' agenda applies only to children.

Interestingly, on Monday 2 March I was alerted to a twitter conversation which was started by @emmaannhardy who asked:  "I keep hearing about Mocksteds in schs & the crazy pressure they put staff under. :( I wondered what you thought to Mocksteds @HarfordSean"

The answer from Sean Harford, Ofsted's National Director for Schools, was:

"I cannot see why any school would/should want to put itself through a mocksted. A good L&M team will know its school and 1/"

"2/3 staff well enough to support school improvement. Why should it need to put more stress on staff and spend more public"

"3/3 money? Just can't see any justification for this."

I felt slightly vindicated on reading this but as the conversation progressed it was clear that the only accountability mechanism being suggested was the local authority - a body unlikely to involve itself in these type of school disputes, especially when LAs take money off schools for these 'mocksteds'.

Schools should not be fiefdoms but the reality is that, with no genuine accountability, GBs can effectively do what they like. In the hands of managerialists this will result in a focus on targets and a concern with how schools look to those who inspect them, irrespective of the true picture.  My view is that this fails pupils and staff but evidently it was not a view I was permitted to hold. 

I can only conclude that Thomas Paine was right when he said: “A body of men holding themselves accountable to nobody ought not to be trusted by anybody.”