Ian Bauckham interview: ‘Let’s free schools from Ofsted’

The president of the Association of School and College Leaders believes that his school has a lot of tips it could pass on to institutions in similar circumstances

The number of routine inspections should be drastically reduced, believes Ian Bauckham, the new leader of the main headteachers’ organisation and himself the head of an ‘outstanding’ school

In his mind’s eye, Ian Bauckham had fixed on spending three years at school where he worked when he was appointed head of sixth-form studies.

Now, nearly 18 years later, he is still at Bennett Memorial Diocesan School in Tunbridge Wells, Kent – the last 10 of which he has spent as its head teacher.

It is not a lack of ambition that has kept him at the school. Indeed, he has become a key player on the national education scene and tomorrow will take centre stage as president of the Association of School and College Leaders, the main organisation representing secondary school heads in the country.

The school has expanded during that time and he enjoys feeling part of the community, being recognised by parents and pupils alike as he does his shopping in the town. For him, it is a powerful argument against moving on.

“I’m usually not too bad at identifying all the pupils and most of the parents,” he says. “I like the feeling of being embedded in the community.”

He believes that his school – now 1,600 pupils-strong and attracting around 700 applications for just 224 places – has a lot of tips it could pass on to schools in similar circumstances.

Tunbridge Wells is exactly the kind of area chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has been talking about when he says that disadvantaged pupils in the leafier suburbs are the most likely to suffer from a lack of aspiration.

Not so in Bennett Memorial’s case. The school was originally opened as a girls-only secondary modern in the 1950s, concentrating on teaching things such as good manners and typing skills to pupils who were not expected to be high flyers.

It then became a comprehensive in the 1960s, offering a rounded curriculum to all pupils – boys and girls. One might have expected that to be a difficult task for a school sandwiched between two boys’ grammar schools – one of which he describes as “ultra-selective” – and with a girls’ grammar school within a quarter of a mile radius. In neighbouring Tonbridge, too, there are a further two girls’ grammar schools and another boys’ grammar school.

Now, though, its results are better than some of the country’s 164 remaining grammar schools, and many of its pupils obtain places at highly selective Russell Group universities. Eighty-one per cent of pupils get five A* to C grade passes at GCSE including maths and English, and 90 per cent attain at least the expected levels of progress for them during their secondary school career.

“We offer a co-ed education,” he says. “All the grammar schools here are single-sex.” He believes his school’s results give lie to the  11-plus exam – pupils who fail it come here and get top grade passes at GCSE.

“We are in the top four per cent of state schools,” he says. “There are grammar schools that are less effective than us.”

In his early days as a teacher, he was an active campaigner against the 11-plus. “I spent a lot of energy actively campaigning against [it] and did a lot of work with people such as Fiona Millar (the journalist and pro-comprehensive campaigner),” he says.

“Then it got to a point about three years into my headship when I pulled myself together; when I thought, ‘It is wrong. I’ll always know it is wrong, but you’ve got to fight in the world you live in.’ Nobody’s going to abolish it. The political stakes are too high.

“It became clear, despite David Blunkett’s speech [before taking office and becoming Education Secretary under Labour], when he said, ‘Read my lips: no more selection’, that it  was here to stay. I did feel fundamentally betrayed by the Labour government on that issue at the time.”

Now, though, he is concentrating on beating those who favour selection at their own game – by concentrating on his own school’s academic results. Its success has been achieved, not by just running an “exams factory”, but by providing the kind of “rounded and grounded” education favoured by – among others – the Confederation of British Industry. All pupils do at least the Duke of Edinburgh bronze award in addition to their academic studies.

The school has expanded and it could expand even further, but he believes there should be a limit to the size of the school to ensure it is most effective. “I do think there is an optimum size for a school – up towards 2,000 or bigger and there are real risks associated with that,”  he says. “You would have to split it into  separate units.”

Tomorrow, at the ASCL conference in Birmingham, he will be making his debut on to the national stage.

He will be introducing both Education Secretary Michael Gove and chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw as guest speakers – one following the other. Sir Michael’s Ofsted, of course, is at the centre of controversy at the moment, with two think-tanks closely associated with Mr Gove expected to produce reports critical of its modus operandi. One – Civitas – is said to favour a lighter-touch regime for inspecting free schools and academies, along the lines of that currently enjoyed by the independent sector.

Controversially, perhaps, for someone leading a headteachers’ organisation – or any teachers’ organisation, for that matter – he has time for both of them. He describes his as a “Goveian” school, in that it is doing many of the things the Education Secretary favours, the only difference being that it was doing so before the advent of the Coalition Government.

As for Sir Michael, he thinks it is wrong to consider the chief schools inspector as a “bogeyman”. “He doesn’t always say the things that people want to hear,” he says. “I’m a trained Ofsted inspector – although I don’t do it at the moment because of a potential conflict of interest. Inspectors should carry out their role without fear or favour and that is precisely what Sir Michael is doing.

“In some circles he is seen as a bogeyman, but I have huge respect for him and it’s time to move on from that.”

However, he adds: “I’d like to hear Michael Wilshaw talk about a radically different approach to school inspection. Routine inspections of effective schools should stop and Ofsted should reflect on this.”

As well as an end to routine inspections, he would like to see a check on any school where risk is identified through data, and full-scale, robust inspections for those identified as having weaknesses. “Most schools ought to be liberated from Ofsted,” he argues.

As for Mr Gove, he would like to see him “get his message out more clearly”.

“There are too many people in the English education sector who don’t get his big vision,” he says.

“I think, for whatever reason, he hasn’t managed to communicate his vision clearly enough to enough people.”

Too many people, he believes, were confused as to whether he wanted to give schools more autonomy or favoured a more centrally controlling influence on the system, for instance.

On a more practical note, efforts to encourage more teachers to seek headships would be something he would like to hear about tomorrow.

“There are particularly acute problems in some parts of the country and in some schools,” he says. “Getting new heads into outstanding schools is particularly difficult – there’s nowhere to go but down,” he says. “They are scared of being judged too quickly by Ofsted (under its new inspection criteria) and losing their outstanding status.”

Church schools and those outside the metropolitan areas are also facing difficulties, he says. One he knows of, a successful grammar school, only attracted one candidate for a headship vacancy. A lighter touch inspection regime for successful schools could help overcome this problem, too.

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