In my recent work with school governors at the RSA, I have been asking, “What are the barriers to creativity in schools?” Time and again governors tell me that they feel Ofsted holds their schools back from releasing the latent creative potential of staff and students. But when Ofsted say they don’t expect any specific method of teaching -be it creative or not - are we, as a society, taking the easy way out by laying the blame squarely at their feet? Maybe we aren’t being the ChangeMakers we should be?
I’ve worked in schools where the dreaded ‘call’ was expected at any minute, and have seen first-hand that creative practice can, and often is, swept away in preference for ‘grab-folders’, pro-forma lesson plans and weekly ‘drop ins’ when the Ofsted Spectre looms large. A good or bad judgement can make or break a head’s career and can mean the difference between oversubscription or a intervention, such as forced academisation. When the stakes are so high, is it any wonder that schools, governing bodies and academy trustees err on the side of a compliance culture, which values consistency over creativity? Only when every teacher is working from a preordained checklist do school leaders feel confident that nothing will go wrong.
But when we take a closer look at exactly what it is that schools fear, something surprising comes to light. Ofsted does not determine whether or not a head keeps their job, provide advice to parents on which schools their children should attend, or have any hand the process of academisation. With this in mind I asked Ofsted what they thought about being described as a barrier to creativity, and they told me, “Headteachers and governors should not feel constrained by the inspection framework and should focus instead on ensuring that the school has the maximum impact on outcomes for pupils.” Now while this is far from a full-throated endorsement of creative methodologies, it certainly makes clear that Ofsted cares about outcomes not process. If creative teaching is what children need, Ofsted wants you to do it. Their assertion is echoed in a 2014 briefing for schools, which makes clear that they have no interest in seeing certain types of lessons, planing or specific pedagogies, leaving the stage open for new takes on them all.
It would be naive of me to suggest that Ofsted presents no barrier at all. Unfortunately, when you talk to school leaders you see that there is a gap between what Ofsted says and what they do. Although Ofsted says it doesn't look for specifics, the fact that they are trying to pass judgement on an entire school in a couple of days often forces an inspector to go in with preconceived ideas about what success means. This means that schools do what they know for certain will meet a set definition rather than trying something new that has the potential to be better. But don’t rush to condemn Ofsted – it’s not all their fault. This barrier has been co-authored by the inspector and the inspected alike, neither of which should be acting in this way.
The Ofsted framework has a narrow definition of success and definitely values attainment targets over creativity, but they are not alone in this. As a school governor I am well aware that the majority of the questions my fellow governors and I pose are about attainment and progress rather than research and innovation. Parents too continue to use league tables rather than values and creative practice to choose a school. Heads buy into this destructive cycle when they bow to external pressure and choose to link pay to exam class performance and high-stakes appraisals. If we want Ofsted to embrace and value creativity, then we all need to start practicing what we preach.
Governors, school leaders, educators, and parents who believe that creativity will improve our educational ecosystem shouldn’t be blaming Ofsted and waiting for it to change. Governors and parents can make it clear to school leaders that they value creative practice and want to see more of it in schools. In turn, school leaders and educators can create a culture of experimentation and rigorous innovation for both themselves and their students. How about we all abandon the blame game and be ChangeMakers instead?
RSA Academies in action
School leaders & governors at the RSA’s family of Academies are always looking for ways to support the creative practice of their educators. With this in mind they will be holding a celebration of research and design practice in September (2015). At the event those teachers who have been working hard to trial and test new ideas will have an opportunity to showcase their findings and share best practice. Events like this are an excellent way for school leaders to show that they value far more than results and Ofsted grading.
Are you a governor? Take our Governor’s survey here and tell us what you do to make your school creative.