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Restoring ‘fractured’ contract between parents and schools likely to take years

The impact of the broken links with families can be seen in lower school attendance and poorer pupil behaviour, Ofsted boss suggests.

Eleanor Busby
Thursday 23 November 2023 14:51 GMT
Secondary schools are noticing more absences than normal on Mondays and Fridays, the inspectorate suggested (David Jones/PA)
Secondary schools are noticing more absences than normal on Mondays and Fridays, the inspectorate suggested (David Jones/PA) (PA Wire)

Restoring the “fractured” social contract between families and schools – where parents ensured their children were in class daily – could take years, England’s education watchdog has warned.

Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspector, said the impact of the broken contract can be seen in “lower school attendance, poorer behaviour and friction between parents and schools”.

The annual report, which looks at the state of education and social care in England in the 2022/23 academic year, suggests some parents are “increasingly willing to challenge” schools on their policies and rules.

In her final report as chief inspector of Ofsted, Ms Spielman raised concerns about the “troubling shift in attitudes” in education since the pandemic.

The attitudes of some parents are “falling out of alignment with those of schools”, and there is “less respect for the principle of a full-time education” across society, the Ofsted boss said.

The idea that school can be a pick-and-choose exercise needs to be debunked

Amanda Spielman, chief inspector of Ofsted

She said the unwritten agreement – which sees parents get their children to school every day and respect the school’s policies – has been “damaged”.

“Unfortunately, there is ample evidence that this contract has been fractured, both in absenteeism and in behaviour,” Ms Spielman added.

The Ofsted chief warned: “Restoring this contract is vital to sustaining post-pandemic progress, but is likely to take years to rebuild fully.”

In her report, Ms Spielman said: “The remarkable flexibility many schools showed during the pandemic, and the adoption of remote education, may have had unintended consequences.

“The idea that school can be a pick-and-choose exercise needs to be debunked.”

The watchdog’s report highlighted the “stubborn problem” of pupil absences and worsening behaviour in many schools since the pandemic.

Secondary schools are noticing more absences than normal on Mondays and Fridays, the inspectorate suggested.

The report said: “Far too many children are missing school far too often and schools are struggling to reverse this trend.

“This is likely to have a significant effect on children’s progress and outcomes.”

Pupils and teachers are also seeing “more disruptive behaviour” in school following the pandemic, which is affecting their ability to learn or teach, Ofsted has warned.

“This is especially true of persistent low-level disruption in class, such as pupils refusing to do as they are told, talking back to teachers or using social media in class,” according to the report.

Ms Spielman reflected on the challenges and changes she has seen during her seven years at the helm of the education watchdog in her final annual report.

Academy trust leader Sir Martyn Oliver will take over as Ofsted’s chief inspector at the start of January.

Ms Spielman said: “The pandemic, with all its disruptions, has of course overshadowed this period and left a troublesome legacy.

“This is evident not just in the educational and developmental gaps that some children are still struggling with – but also in a fracturing of the traditional social contract between schools and families.

“We see its impact in lower school attendance, poorer behaviour and friction between parents and schools.”

In her final annual report, the Ofsted boss suggested that some parents are increasingly “undermining discipline codes or ignoring uniform requirements”.

Ms Spielman called for headteachers to be given more guidance from the Government in contentious areas such as “curriculum for relationships and sex education or the handling of transgender and other identity issues”.

She added that greater central guidance was important to ensure “what is and isn’t accepted in schools” is not “simply driven by the loudest voices at the expense of quieter ones”.

Ms Spielman said she was also concerned about a growing number of pupils on part-time timetables.

Ofsted’s annual report stated that inspections are showing “more pupils spending part of their week outside education”, and that the list of reasons for part-time timetables was “lengthening”.

The inspectorate said some of this practice was contrary to Department for Education guidance which states that part-time timetables should only be used in exceptional circumstances, adding they should never be used “as a sanction for poor behaviour”.

The watchdog has faced repeated calls to revamp its school ratings system – which uses one-word judgments – this year following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry in January.

Ms Perry’s family say she took her own life after an Ofsted report downgraded her Caversham Primary School in Reading from its highest rating to its lowest over safeguarding concerns.

Her death is the subject of an inquest due to start next week.

We do not recognise the picture being painted of schools being largely positive about the inspection process - our evidence tells a very different story

Paul Whiteman, NAHT

A survey by the NAHT school leaders’ union has suggested that the majority of school leaders believe headline grades awarded by Ofsted are unreliable.

Ms Spielman acknowledged the “wave of publicly expressed discontent” in the annual report, but she said the issues could not be resolved by Ofsted alone.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said Ofsted inspections had a damaging and “sometimes dangerous” impact upon staff mental health and wellbeing.

Responding to the report, Mr Whiteman said: “Ofsted still seems to be in denial about the growing consensus across the education sector that as an inspectorate it needs fundamental reform.

“We do not recognise the picture being painted of schools being largely positive about the inspection process – our evidence tells a very different story.

“Ofsted inspections have a damaging, sometimes dangerous, impact upon staff mental health and wellbeing – fuelling difficulties in recruitment and retention – and its single-word judgments are neither fair nor consistent.

“The limited changes Ofsted has introduced so far do not go nearly far enough.”

Mr Whiteman said pupil attendance and behaviour were “significant challenges right now”, adding that they were impacted by “the Government’s failure to invest enough in help for families through social care, mental health services, and to fix the broken, under-funded SEND system”.

There has indeed been a troubling shift in pupil behaviour, attendance and attitudes towards education since the pandemic, and parents are increasingly willing to challenge school rules themselves

Geoff Barton, ASCL

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said the education system was “being let down by Ofsted” and that the inspectorate was “incapable of self-scrutiny”.

Mr Kebede added: “The Beyond Ofsted report, published this week, shows all too clearly that the current regime is not fit for purpose and Ofsted is out of touch with the profession.”

“It is quite clear that pupils and parents have been sorely let down by a Government that refused to fund a proper recovery package post-Covid and have done nothing to address the fact that there is now a significant shortage of people going into the profession.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the inspection system needed fundamental reform “to scrap punitive and counterproductive graded judgments”.

Mr Barton added: “Amanda Spielman’s observation that the social contract between parents and schools has been fractured reflects what we are hearing from many school leaders.

“There has indeed been a troubling shift in pupil behaviour, attendance and attitudes towards education since the pandemic, and parents are increasingly willing to challenge school rules themselves.”

Mr Barton said it would be difficult to rebuild the social contract between parents and schools “without also rebuilding the infrastructure of family support services which has been eroded over the past 13 years”.

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