Why the Ofsted Queen enjoyed helping Cornwall’s schools meet the challenge

As the whole country becomes gripped by World Cup fever, followed swiftly by the fortnight of unrealistic expectations, rain, strawberries and cream, and tennis that is Wimbledon, my thoughts are with the thousands of schools and young people currently involved with exams.

Finding out how well you had done used to be a personal thing: you went to the school to get your results or, if you are as old as I am, you received them in the post. You could share your results with your friends if you wanted, but that was your decision.  Schools then began publishing A-Level and GCSE results in local papers, which was great if you had done well, but not so positive if you had done badly. Fast-forward a few years and we now have TV and radio reporters going to schools and colleges and filming young people opening their results live on air – definitely not something I would have wanted to do.

While doing well in exams has always been important for young people and their parents, the introduction of league tables means that results have become increasingly important to schools and the media. It is not just students who wait anxiously for their piece of paper in August; schools are waiting to find out if their results have met the latest government targets and what that will mean for their position in the tables. Coming top of the league table leads to positive articles, while being at the bottom inevitably results in negative press and difficult questions.

We all know simply using SATS, GCSE and A-Level results to measure a school’s performance fails to take into account the differing abilities of children and the school’s other strengths and achievements. However, it can be very difficult for schools to make these points without sounding defensive. Supporting schools which found themselves at the bottom of the league table was one of my annual tasks at the council, ranging from managing media requests and dealing with negative interviews to writing positive press releases and, in a small number of cases, issuing strongly worded rebuttal statements.

Education has always been one of my key interests, whether that was working with the team at county hall to manage issues relating to school funding, buildings, admissions, truancy and transport, or supporting individual schools. With queries ranging from the best way to promote a positive achievement to dealing with a potential crisis involving rows over school uniform, managing allegations of bullying or abuse or the death of a child or a member of staff, it often felt like many head teachers had me on speed dial.

One of the most challenging issues I had to deal with when I joined the council was the murder of a pupil on a school trip to France.  With my boss away, I answered the initial phone call reporting the death. As further details emerged, I raced up the A30 to manage the growing media presence at the college.

Then followed a surreal week as what seemed like the world’s media surrounded the college, demanding interviews and answers and desperate to film every moment they could, from the arrival of the coach carrying pupils back to the college in the middle of the night, to the incredibly emotional funeral service. This was my first experience of a media frenzy from the other side and while the majority of the media acted with sensitivity, there were inevitably some national and international publications who did not.

This was also my first experience of the incredible support provided by officers from the local authority for one of their ‘family’ of schools. From hands-on support from the Director of Education, who spent much of that week doing media interviews to enable the head to support his staff, pupils, parents and the wider local community, to the work of the educational psychologists who spoke to the pupils and parents, the team were there every step of the way.

Since then I have seen this same support in action in a number of different situations, from finding a replacement building for the staff and pupils at Budehaven when their school was damaged by fire to supporting a primary school to deal with the potential threat of a violent and angry parent or the aftermath of a serious incident in which a child was injured by a chair. In all these cases, the team swung into immediate action to support staff, governors, pupils and parents. Working alongside them to manage the media has been both humbling and incredibly rewarding.

The educational landscape has certainly changed, with the Local Education Authority and its family of schools replaced by an increasingly fragmented system of academies, multi-academy trusts and free schools, but the support provided by the council’s schools team has not. Today’s officers are as committed and passionate about ensuring that every child in Cornwall receives the best possible education as they were in the 90s, and they fight just as hard for fair funding and improved facilities as their predecessors.

Some things have changed for the better. Decisions on new schools and classrooms are now based on need following detailed analysis of the pressure on school places in specific areas, rather than on a “who shouts the loudest” approach. While there is still not enough money to meet the needs of all schools, the team work hard to make the best use of the money Cornwall does receive.

Other changes have not been so positive. The ever-increasing centralisation of education means that schools have become political footballs at the mercy of the ideologies of different Governments and individual Secretaries of State. All too often, the facts are ignored at the expense of political point-scoring. Criticism over the level of funding leads to attacks on how schools are spending their money and comments on the level of school reserves, and concerns by teachers over increased workload results in snide remarks over their long holidays.

At the same time, staff and pupils have had to cope with continual changes in the curriculum and exam systems. Last week the Government announced it was introducing T levels which sound amazingly similar to the short-lived vocational diplomas of 10 years ago. And then there are the changes to school structures, from the introduction of specialist schools in the 90s to today’s system of academies and free schools.

And last, but certainly not least, there is Ofsted.   As a former Governor I well remember the fear in schools when they received the dreaded letter telling them they were due an inspection, and the frantic focus on dusting off policies and ensuring that everyone was implementing the latest teaching methods.

Helping schools to manage the results of their inspections almost became a full-time job, whether it was schools which received glowing reports and could not understand why the media were not interested in reporting them or schools which did badly and found themselves on the front page of the local paper. Rebuilding the reputation and confidence of these schools took time and patience – leading to my becoming known as the “Ofsted Queen”!