‘You’ve got to work to do’ - Ofsted chief warns Norfolk and Suffolk primary schools

Ofsted regional director Andrew Cook. Photo : Steve Adams

Ofsted regional director Andrew Cook. Photo : Steve Adams - Credit: Steve Adams

Ofsted's regional director has warned that the pace of improvement in Norfolk and Suffolk's schools is still not fast enough.

Andrew Cook, who has led the school inspectorate in the East of England since December, was speaking in an interview in which he also set out his organisation's priorities for the new school year, and defended it from critics.

How are Norfolk and Suffolk schools doing?

The last year has seen Ofsted rate an increasing number of our schools as 'good' or 'outstanding'. But although this summer's end-of-primary exams results saw overall improvements, both counties remained below the national average, with Norfolk near the bottom of the table.

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Although he acknowledged improvements, Mr Cook said: 'It is patchy because you can see some improvement in some schools, but is that accelerating, is there the momentum of change that you would hope for? No, I don't think there is.'

He added: 'There are still things that are not good enough in some Norfolk and Suffolk schools. There is still more work to be done by the local authority of Norfolk to accelerate the improvement in Norfolk schools. I can't just stand by and wait for that to happen, because my role is to point out where those things are not good enough.'

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He recognised that even if leadership and management had improved at a school, results could lag behind because of a 'legacy of underachievement', but could not say whether that was the case here.

'In the end, those pupils will go out with those results and it will be too late for them. That's the thing that exasperates me. Any improvement needs to be a rapid as possible because we are dealing with young people's chances in life through good education.'

Ofsted's priorities for the new school year

September marks a key moment for Ofsted, as it starts lighter-touch inspections for 'good' schools, and contracts its own inspectors directly, rather than using private companies – previously Serco in our region.

Mr Cook listed this as a key priority for this term, saying 70pc of the East of England team is now made up of serving school leaders, and said the key was making sure the quality and consistency of inspections is 'really thorough'.

The gap between results for disadvantaged pupils and their peers, will also move into sharper focus, and could cause a surprise for some schools with otherwise impressive results. Mr Cook said: 'One of the key issues for Norfolk will be to understand how influential the progress and improvement of disadvantaged pupils will be on inspection overall outcomes.

'There are some schools out there in Norfolk, as there are in the region, where they feel 'actually, our proportion of disadvantaged pupils is relatively small'. However, they are still very influential in coming to a decision about how good a school is, and rightly so.'

He said the third key focus will be the quality of leadership and governance.

Strong leaders for our schools

For Mr Cook, strong and effective leadership in schools is the key to higher standards, and the government is relying on expert heads to support schools that fall into its newly-created category of 'coasting', and are judged able to improve.

But Norfolk and Suffolk have comparatively few designated national leaders of education, to help support struggling schools. Where are these key leaders going to come from?

Mr Cook said: 'I don't think we should assume we suddenly need lots of new leaders. What we need to do is challenge them and support the current leaders to actually improve.'

He said Ofsted had a role to play through its recommendations following school inspections, its work with schools judged to require improvement, and conferences it holds for leaders.

How reliable are Ofsted inspection reports?

When parents choose a school for their child, Ofsted reports can be a crucial factor, giving clear, independent and objective assessments.

It matters for schools too. A series of damning Ofsted reports in 2013 and 2014 led to profound changes in the education

landscape in Norfolk and Suffolk. But how trustworthy are these inspection reports?

In June Ofsted announced that, following 'robust assessment', 1,200 inspectors who were previously employed through outside companies, but who were interested in working directly for Ofsted, had not met the grade.

So, was Mr Cook confident the reports written by these ex-inspectors, which led to heads leaving their jobs and schools becoming academies, were reliable?

'Yes, I am,' he said, 'and I think even at that time we had good quality assurance processes in place.'

He said the new workforce meant 'the quality and consistency of inspection, I am confident, will improve'.

So, if it will improve, does that mean it was not good enough before?

'No, I don't think so. You can just have something that is even better than something that was fit for purpose and did the job.'

Does Ofsted have a future?

Ofsted has been battered by critical reports from think tanks, while the recently-created system of regional schools commissioners appears to encroach on Ofsted territory, overseeing academies and sending civil servants to rate schools – but without publishing their findings.

And recently ministers decided to completely ignore Ofsted judgements when deciding how to define the newly-created category of 'coasting schools', relying instead on exam data. This only added to suspicions the inspectorate may be falling out of favour.

Is Ofsted being marginalised? For Mr Cook, the answer is simple: 'No, not at all.'

He added: 'I still think there's a place for Ofsted, which inspects the breadth of the work a school does, behaviour, safety,

leadership and management, the curriculum.

'We do need Ofsted in order to tell parents what this school is like as a whole.'

Andrew Cook will appear on News Extra on Mustard TV tomorrow.

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

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