Like most first time parents we took choosing a primary school for our eldest child very seriously. We pored over league tables and Ofsted reports, toured all the local schools and eventually chose the school we thought was best for our son.
In fact we feel head over heels for one school. I still remember that after lots of desultory trips around schools that seemed unruly, lacking in ambition or downright dirty, this one shone out above the others. It was a big school, but had a fabulous community feel. The children were courteous and the headteacher seemed to know each one by name and nature. It had a choir that would sing carols in the local area at Christmas, a busy PTA that arranged well-attended events all year round. The teachers seemed engaged and enthusiastic and the head was inspiring. To cap it all the buildings and facilities were brand new and fantastically well resourced thanks to that great PTA.
This, I decided was the school for us. We moved heaven and earth (well OK, just house) to get our boy into the school and when he started we were just as over the moon. Our son thrived, as did his younger brother who followed him there two years later. They did well academically and made lots of lovely friends. The school was quite rightly ranked as Outstanding by Ofsted.
But then, two years ago, the 'all-new' Ofsted visited. As far as I was concerned the school was as good as ever. The children were happy, safe and learning well and, above all, the school was a pleasure to attend for both children and parents.
Sadly this counted for naught with Ofsted who summarily downgraded our lovely school from Outstanding to Requires Improvement. A huge fall down the rating scale and one that I as a parent, now with four children at the school, felt was wholly unmerited.
Of course there were valid points raised. Perhaps some of the marking wasn't as helpful as it could be, and naturally not all the teachers were outstanding – after all with 18 classes to staff it would be a miracle if they were – but overall the school was doing a pretty good job.
When I read the review it was full of waffle, made no mention of all the fantastic extra curricular opportunities the school offers, or how hard the teachers worked to support a diverse cohort of children. It was most bothered by whether the kids took time off when they shouldn't (something it's hard for a school with children who hail from other parts of the world to police effectively) and whether the school was able to drag children who arrived speaking little or no English up above national averages by the time they left primary school. A laudable aim, but a tall order with an above average number of children who arrive speaking not a word of the language.
It is shocking that this was all it took to rip the heart of that fabulous school. Over the two years following the inspection report teachers have become demoralised and left the school in droves as the pressure to meet Ofsted's criteria was piled upon them. No new teachers want to join what now looks like a sink school. It has gone from being oversubscribed, to the school that will take pupils from anywhere.
Where once you had to live next door to the school to get a place, now the catchment stretches for miles. Teachers who used to be absorbed in organizing enriching activities for the children are now tied up in following tortuous hours of paperwork in an attempt to appease Ofsted.
The PTA shrunk from a body of engaged parents who could fill the school hall, to a few hardy souls who were desperate to see the school return to its former glory.
I wish I could say I was alone in experiencing this, but over 100 top performing schools have been downgraded to Requires Improvement under the new rules, and I imagine the results have been similar for all of them. Far from improving things, I am sure it will have brought these formerly great schools to their knees in an attempt to appease Ofsted.
James, a father at another school that was stripped of its Outstanding rating and burdened with the badge of Requires Improvement, speaks of a similar experience to ours. "For years the school was always outstanding. School morale was high. Parents had confidence. Kids were happy. Mood was good.
"Then the school was inspected and downgraded to Requires Improvement. The reaction from parents was one of stunned amazement. Morale has dropped – some teachers have left or taken early retirement – the head has had a really tough time and some parents – quite a few have moved the kids to other schools
"The other thing that got to me was problems and issues that occurred and occur in all schools, for example the odd case of bullying and so on, used to get worked through efficiently and effectively, but now seem to get debated and amplified because the school community thinks that the school needs improvement.
"Also now there seems to be ever more paperwork and processes and this is not productive for children who want to learn and teachers who want to teach", he explains.
I would never say that any school was perfect, but like James, before Ofsted our school came pretty close. It breaks my heart to see this fantastic school, and clearly many more like it, destroyed by nitpicking inspectors who spent all of a day or two in the school. I lay the blame for the destruction of this and many other outstanding schools firmly at their feet.
Tell us what you think. Have you had a similar experience?
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