Ofsted’s new chief in the East of England: Education in Norfolk still has “an awful long way to go”

Andrew Cook, the new Ofsted regional director for the East of England. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Andrew Cook, the new Ofsted regional director for the East of England. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2015

School inspectorate Ofsted is arguably the most influential player in education in our region. Education correspondent MARTIN GEORGE meets its new regional director in the East of England.

He may be the new face at the helm of Ofsted in the East of England, but many of Andrew Cook's messages about problems facing schools in our area are familiar.

The 51-year-old was a primary school headteacher in Staffordshire, before joining Ofsted in 2005 - first as an inspector, then senior inspector for the West Midlands, and then deputy director of school policy.

Two months into his new role, he was vocal about the state of education in our region, and a staunch defender of Ofsted, but tight-lipped about the allegations some Norfolk academies were tipped off about inspection dates.

All he would say is that publication of an independent lawyer's review of the original internal investigation is 'imminent'.

Click here to listen to a five-minute podcast from Mr Cook's visit to the EDP

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Education in our region

Mr Cook said the eastern region 'has its challenges', and reeled off the proportion of 'good' schools, the performance of looked after children, and teacher recruitment.

He also raised a lack of 'system leaders' - high quality school leaders who help other schools improve.

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On Norfolk, he said there was 'still an awful long way to go', and the county is still 'very much at the bottom of the region'.

He added: 'Whilst yes, there are some signs of progress, there is in no way enough progress to ensure that enough pupils in Norfolk go to 'good' or better schools. Nigh on 40pc of secondary schools are still not 'good'.'

Headteachers' view of Ofsted

In a recent EDP survey, 74pc of Norfolk headteachers said they did not have confidence in Ofsted inspection judgements, with many saying the quality of inspectors was too variable.

Asked whether this gave him cause for concern, Mr Cook said: 'Of course it does. It's not good to hear news like that about Ofsted, but I go back to this point that actually, are we surprised sometimes that headteachers aren't happy with what we do? Maybe not, because we are out there making important decisions.

'I think it does raise this whole issue about consistency of inspection teams, and inevitably that's something that we will always be concerned about, and will always want to get right. I think we work very hard to ensure that our quality assurance processes within Ofsted are robust and rigorous and we do respond when headteachers or governors raise concerns about their inspections.'

Ofsted criticisms

Does Ofsted have a pro-academy agenda? No, Mr Cook said, it does not have a view on school structures, but added that it has concerns about convertor academies, that are independent of wider organisations.

He said: 'Is it being held to account, or supported, as much as it should be? But I don't think that's because it's an academy, I think it's because a school that's on its own.'

Does the high-stakes nature of Ofsted judgements distort what schools do, as they try to secure a positive verdict?

'I think it's very unfortunate if it does, and I don't think it's Ofsted's intention at all. I think we have quite clear criteria set out in our school handbook as to how inspectors make judgements. I think skilled inspectors will see beyond any window dressing.'

What about concerns inspectors rely too heavily on a school's data, and not on what they see while visiting a school?

'I really would challenge that. We talk sometimes about data being the first port of call, in a sense, the things that starts you to think about how well a school is doing, but inevitably what inspectors then have to do is test that out in terms of what they see in the school. It is a starting point, but certainly not the end point.'

Getting parents involved

Mr Cook signalled a big push to encourage more parents tell Ofsted what they think of their child's school - something that could trigger new inspections, for good or bad reasons.

He wanted more parents to use the Parent View system on the inspectorate's website to comment on teaching, bullying and other issues.

He said: 'We really want to get a message out there to say that parents: 'We want to hear what you are saying about your child's school, we are not just interested about that at the time of the inspection. We would like to hear about that now'.'

A new role for Ofsted?

Some have criticised Ofsted for handing down judgements on schools from above, instead of working with them to improve. Mr Cook rejected that, citing work inspectors do with schools that receive a 'requires improvement' rating.

But he also raised the possibility of inspectors taking on a more hands-on role in school improvement.

He said: 'Within the region we have begun a project where we group schools in threes and help them, train them, to do thorough peer reviews where HMIs [Her Majesty's Inspectors] are quality assuring those reviews.

'I think that's a really powerful strategy to promote school improvement, and in a sense, what Ofsted needs to do is help build capacity within school leadership.

'We have started doing it in Cambridgeshire, and we will look elsewhere.'

Norfolk County Council's target

The council wants all schools in the county to be 'good' or better by the end of 2016. Does Mr Cook think that will happen?

'I think that will depend on the effectiveness of local authority support, the effectiveness of any academy schools that need support from the regional schools commissioner, and the impact of our own inspectors on the schools that they are supporting.

'Most importantly, it will be up to school leadership. With good leadership, that could be possible. Does Norfolk have enough good school leaders? That is the question.'

Do you have an education story? Email martin.george@archant.co.uk

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