This is the ‘doing’ post I probably didn’t dream that I would be writing this year. It has only just been three years since our last Ofsted inspection, in which we were judged to be outstanding for all categories other than teaching and learning, and yet on Monday lunchtime the call came. And now, on Thursday morning, I sit reflecting upon the two days that have passed with a weary head on and a willingness to share some of our experiences (although I am, of course, unable to share the judgments).
This is my third full Ofsted inspection since becoming a member of SLT eight years ago. In the first I was a novice as Assistant Head and relatively unused other than as an actual teacher and virtual gopher (that’s probably unfair but in comparison to the Head and Deputies it felt very much that I was on the sidelines). In the second I was an established Deputy Head in charge of data, putting me very much at the centre of things (and oh how I missed those sidelines) but petrified that I was going to drop a massive clanger that would ruin the process for the whole school. In this third, under a different inspection schedule from either of the other two (by gosh how these ‘reliable’ inspection processes have changed down the years!!), I have been once again pushed to the sidelines but this time because of the intense focus on teaching and learning which is pretty much as it should have been all along.
So, for what it’s worth, here are some of my reflections shaped by those three inspections and sharpened by the experiences of this week. I hope that they are useful.
Be ready for your inspection
For those of you worrying that this is going to be about getting paperwork sorted and processes ready for the spring into action, don’t. It isn’t. For me being ready for your inspection means having the highest expectations of achievement, teaching, behaviour and leadership all year round. I know that sounds like teaching Grandma to suck eggs but fundamentally the worst thing that we can be doing for Ofsted is asking people to put on a show, particularly with the virtually zero-notice framework that we now have. There simply isn’t the time to create things or fake things. You can’t get students to bring long lost books in. You can’t round up all the naughty ones and get them off to Thorpe Park for the day (never done it and never would, btw!!!). You can’t mark swathes of unmarked books. You can’t brief staff about this or that policy that you had meant to bring in. You can’t cut up endless strips of paper for endless card-sort activities. You can’t, you can’t. you can’t do anything but do what you already do. That’s not to say that you can’t do it as well as you ever have done it, or hopefully even better, but that you can’t do something new and different.
I’ve upper-cased this because ‘THE CALL’ is the educational equivalent of ‘THE TALK’ that your parents and/or partners wanted to have with you from time to time: a two-word phrase dripping with doom. For a school like ours this time round, outstanding just three years ago, this is an unexpected heartsink moment. For others it is a welcome release from the pent-up period of over-the-shoulder expectation that has been engendered by the awful risk-assessment statements released to schools each year (back to the bad old days of two terms’ notice IMHO). Whether doom or release is your initial reaction you need to get over it once you take ‘THE CALL’.
Personally this isn’t something I have ever had to do but I have seen at close quarters how it should be done and am immensely thankful that I work with such exceptional colleagues that can do what I suspect I would have struggled to do: keep calm and, above all else, friendly. Those first few minutes have set the tone for every successful inspection that I have been a part of as a member of SLT. The rapport with the lead inspector is, perhaps unhelpfully, a defining feature of an Ofsted inspection and ‘THE CALL’ is that first opportunity to humanise the process for you and your staff.
Get your ‘fighty head’ on
Perhaps the most important thing that I have learnt over the last three inspections as a member of SLT is that you need to fight for your school, your teachers and your students. Although an inspection team of five people visiting 49 lessons can see a lot (and I’ve yet to be part of one that gets us badly wrong, touch wood) they cannot see everything and as a member of SLT you have to be adamant and uncowed by their status as inspectors.
I’ve recently seen Ofsted compared to Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series and am minded to think that if this is the case then we need to be like Potter, unafraid to call them out and with an ability to see their internal frailty through their external strength. After all, as I have blogged elsewhere we are the chefs whilst they are merely food critics. Thay cannot do what we do on a day to day basis, so we mustn’t let ourselves be timid with them. More to the point we need to pass that message down to every other member of staff in the school up to and including middle leaders. That means expecting and welcoming challenge on a daily basis as leaders and resisting the temptation to act like Ofsted in our leadership and management of the school. If we sow the seeds of fear, particularly as we approach an expected Ofsted window, then we will surely reap the harvest of ‘unfighty’ teachers and middle leaders. That way lies defeat.
Achievement: Know your onions and how to slice and dice them
In my ‘Doing’ Data post (here) I stress how I think RAISEonline can and should be used by members of SLT. The main thing to remember with Ofsted is that this is definitely where it can be won and lost before they even enter your classrooms. The main thing to remember is that you should already have identified what is not good about your data and should already be acting upon it as a school in a concerted manner. If you aren’t then basically you are toast. If you are then even the weakest data need not be a barrier to an overall judgement of at least good. This week I spent most of the night before the first inspection day poring over the data for anything I had missed (I found something) and everything that I would want to know about if I were inspecting our school. I made a list of every likely area of challenge. By the end of the meeting with the lead inspector I had ticked off all but one of them and had not added any unexpected challenge to the list.
In my first inspection I watched in amazement as the Deputy Head in charge of data absorbed the blows of a negative RAISEonline dataset, parried them with the shield of better data in our Fischer Family Trust report and punched back with even better Jesson report dataset and reliable and robust internal datasets painting an honest and exciting picture for the immediate future. What might have been an ‘inadequate’ judgment was transformed into a ‘good with outstanding features’ one. It was inspirational and since then I have learnt that RAISEonline isn’t a definitive document even though it is the only one they will have had access to prior to your inspection. Know all your datasets and be prepared to use them and defend their methodologies.
Teaching: Look after your teachers well
I’ll be brutally honest here and say that not many things irk me more than senior managers saying that the job of leadership “is all about the kids”. It isn’t. For me the job of leadership “is all about the adults” and the job of teaching “is all about the kids”. In short if you’re a member of SLT with responsibility for Ofsted (and that’s all of us) then you must look after your staff and let them look after the kids for you, and in the current incarnation of Ofsted that means looking after teachers who are seen in such large numbers.
But what do I mean by looking after the teachers? Firstly I don’t mean cakes and chocolates (although that’s not a bad thing to do), and I don’t mean directing support staff to be there for them at a moment’s notice. Instead I mean letting them know that you trust them to do their job spectacularly well without the need to check their lesson plans for them. I mean giving them the confidence to teach how they want to teach rather than how you think they should or, worse still, how you think that the inspectors think they should. I mean being highly visible in the staffroom and around the corridors (and if you have to think about doing this differently than usual then you really need to be thinking about your usual practice). And I also mean telling them to go home, to relax, to sleep and to enjoy their families. After all, a relaxed and confident teaching staff will be far more likely to teach well than a stressed and self-doubting teaching staff.
Behaviour: Don’t hide challenging students: Deal with them
This is another of those egg-sucking comments I’m aware but perhaps one of the proudest moments this week for me was when I received the email on the second day of the inspection saying that there would be “no seclusion today”. Our seclusion room was created to house students who would otherwise receive fixed term exclusions; some days it runs and other days it doesn’t. In many schools I am sure that there would be a temptation to pack it to the rafters with the more ‘challenging’ (euphemism klaxon) students. This week I can say with not a hint of exaggeration that we never once talked about potential banana skin kids and what to do with them. It goes back to my first point about being ready by being at your best.
The biggest issue around behaviour that I have seen in all three Ofsteds I have been subjected to as a member of SLT (and to a certain extent that is a feature of behaviour more generally) is the fear of being seen to be dealing with poor behaviour, especially low-level disruption. Teachers often feel that to send a student out of class will be a barrier to an outstanding, or even good, lesson judgment and so they hang on to them longer than they should. Please, please, please let us put that myth to the sword. If you are a member of SLT take time every week (or even every day if you can) to tell teachers to deal with misbehaviour proactively by using school systems and don’t pass across the message, by word or deed, that the use of removal is a failure on the part of the teacher or the department. It usually isn’t.
One last word on behaviour. I have countless small stories from Ofsteds past and present where students who are considered challenging have had the biggest impact on the inspection team. The same is true this week, although I can’t share details here. When that happens one of the best things you can do as a member of SLT is to find out who the students and teachers involved are and go and thank them personally. Please remember though to tell the student that they have just raised the expectations others will have of them and then keep those expectations raised.
Leadership: The further it penetrates the better
The best feedback about leadership and management I have heard from inspectors has been when the phrase ‘senior leaders’ is left out. There are, in my opinion, way too many reports that praise the SLT whilst condemning middle leaders and I’m not sure that the two can coexist. For me leadership is all about simplicity of systems that leaders are expected to follow allied to a cultivation of enterprisingness within those leaders. If you get those two elements spot on then you will be able to put any middle leader, junior leader, non-TLR holder or student leader in front of an inspection team. For me the more the merrier is a good rule of thumb. Overwhelm them with the breadth and depth of leaders and potential leaders, but don’t cherry-pick them because they are SLT wannabes compliant in all aspects of their leadership. Show them a diversity of leaders and contextualise it for the inspection team beyond the RAISEonline data.
The other thing that I would highly recommend to a member of SLT doing Ofsted is to actually ‘do’ the staff questionnaire and don’t attempt to play around with the findings. And if that scares the living bejaysis out of you then do it now, before you get ‘THE CALL’, when staff are more likely to be negative/honest with you. If you don’t like what you read then the answer is simple: DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT!!!!! Whether that something to change what you’re doing, adapt it, explain it better or hold firm in the knowledge that sometimes good change can be badly received. But don’t wait for Ofsted to tell you what’s not right about your school for your staff. Or worse still don’t try to hide the bad bits in the hope that they won’t be found out. That’s a strategy that is doomed to fail eventually, however long you manage to get away with it.
Overall Judgment: Know when to fight and when not to
One of the best things about both post-2005 inspection incarnations is that the inspectors’ team meetings are attended by the Head and some members of the leadership team. Resultingly the decision-making process is open and, where necessary, can be called into question. It enables you to see which members of the team have ‘got’ your school and which haven’t. But being in these meetings is also tortuous for those of us who have done it. It requires a judicious blend of passive listening and active intervention, and I’m not always good at the first of these. The first piece of advice for anyone who hasn’t done this is to take a piece of paper and scribble furiously because it goes at a rate of knots. If you feel the need to jump in, don’t do so immediately. Instead circle the thing you’re not happy with and push it under the nose of a colleague. If they nod at you then you might be onto something, but even then don’t jump in if it is the first day of the inspection. The reason for this advice is because no matter how good your school is there will be gaps in their judgments and it’s your job to fill those gaps with ‘Day Two’ actions not ‘Day One’ words. If there is something that urgently needs to be said then you will know because all of the SLT in the room will be jumping at it simultaneously.
There is a third way (Tony Blair would be proud of me) in these situations and that is to decide afterwards what issues you think that the Head needs to raise with the lead inspector quietly and these might be about members of the team who you think are weak or misguided or biased or just plain wrong about something. From my experiences in the past it is usually clear to the lead inspector when they have someone who isn’t ‘getting’ the school and Day 2 can bring an amazing difference in some inspectors.
In the final team meeting you need to be prepared to throw more verbal evidence at the inspection team if they are going for a grade with which you disagree and I have been surprised before at how receptive the lead inspectors have been to such late interventions. You know your school inside out if you are doing your jobs properly so build on the interventions of your colleagues if you feel that you are starting to sway the inspection team to your way of thinking. This is not a place for fainthearts so be prepared to fight, fight, fight for your staff and students (in the politest way possible of course).
Post-inspection: Breathe out, breathe in again and soldier on
An Ofsted inspection, to my way of thinking, is not about the past even though much of the talk is about what has been and gone. Nor is it about the present even though there will be little more on your mind for that befuddling two and a half days. An Ofsted inspection is always, ALWAYS about the future and about your capacity to improve and become better than you have been.
That said, at the end of an inspection there is an immediate collapse into the present as drinks are drunk and stories are told about this lesson and that child and the other inspector. And rightly so. Regardless of the grade the intensity of an inspection and the anticipation of something going badly wrong mean that your staff will have held their collective breaths for two days and they urgently need to exhale. Let them. And model it. They need to see you breathe out too.
If Ofsted is all about the future then it’s up to you to make sure that the advice they are leaving on how the school can improve further is the direction of travel that you yourself would set for the school, staff and students. Again the SLT members will have the opportunity to suggest the areas of focus for this and tweak the wording of the target once it has been decided. It will become your focus for the next four years, or three it would seem in my experience as a member of SLT, so make sure that you own it in every sense of that word.
I’m not sure that this post has unveiled anything particularly inspiring or revelatory. To be honest I’m not sure that my post-Ofsted addled brain could muster either of these two things anyway. Instead the aim of this post is just to provide a well-intentioned and hopefully comforting antidote to some of the horror stories or anti-Ofsted rants. I do know that not everyone has a positive experience of the Big O and that the deatheater labels are pretty potent right now, but I do honestly believe that aberrant, hostile and viciously rogue Ofsted teams are in the minority and we need to calm each other by saying so as often as we can. In doing so we might just be able to show Sir Michael Wilshaw and his team of regional heads of Ofsted the best practice carried out in their name in the hope that it can be used to shape the worst. We can hope.
And finally if you get ‘THE CALL’ anytime soon remember that there is a whole profession behind you and that the inspection team that calls will be absolutely and utterly privileged to see how your students learn, teachers teach and leaders lead. Make sure that your staff know that you believe this to be true.