The First Rule of Ofsted Club? There is no Ofsted Club!

Posted on January 25, 2015

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Dear Secret Leader,

You don’t mind if I call you Secret Leader (perhaps SL for short) rather than Secret Teacher, do you? After all, it’s fairly apparent from your post that it’s written from a leadership perspective. Which is a bit sad when I come to think of it, that the discourse of leadership should be so far removed from the discourse of teachership. Not your fault, I know, but sad nonetheless.

I also hope you don’t mind me responding to you directly, even though I’m not the intended audience of your letter in this week’s Guardian. But if you will write so openly on a topic that is so dear to my heart, then I can’t resist the opportunity to contribute.

I think the thing that most troubles me about your letter is the very opening line, “I used to think I knew the rules for inspections – I built my career on it.” It rather brings to mind the concept of building one’s castles on foundations of sand: doomed to failure and particularly foolish. I know plenty of SLs who worry a lot about the rules of Ofsted Club, but very rarely have I come across anyone who proudly declares that they have built their careers on it (even those who have secretly done so). By openly starting from this point, you lost my sympathy or empathy for pretty much everything that followed, and I doubt that I’m alone in thinking that way.

You see, most of us in this profession have built our careers upon relationships with the students we teach and the staff we work with, on raising their expectations of themselves and of the potential they have within themselves to achieve great things. Ofsted, for all of its goods as well as all of its ills, is a secondary concern at best. If you ignore everything else I advise in this response, please don’t forget the reasons why you got into teaching and why you got into leadership in the first place. It’s all for naught otherwise.

You go on to say that “I’ve spent the whole of my career playing by your rules”, that you’ve become an expert in them and that you are happy with that. Really? Happy playing by someone else’s ‘rules’? That would seem to me to be the antithesis of a leadership perspective. Surely bending and breaking rules, shaping them to suit your own context and sweeping them away when they actively work against your context is what real leadership is about. Following them blindly and being content with ticking the boxes as you do so would seem to me to fit a managerial paradigm far better than a leadership one. If we do so we become little more than an executive arm of an executive arm (and even Ofsted are trying to resist their status as an executive arm) of government.

Your letter indicates that you have a great track record in school improvement, and that’s a wonderful thing indeed, but as always we need to ensure that we bring more to the party than an ‘ends justifies the means’ to our work as school leaders and as teachers. After all, if all your box-ticking and hoop-jumping has led you to a position where effectiveness trumps morality then you are sending out some pretty troubling messages to your staff and students. Monkey see, monkey do as they say.

I’ll give you two specific examples from one paragraph that haunt me as I re-read your letter. In one place you say “we don’t mind working through weekends and cutting our summer holiday short because…you said so”. Doesn’t this trouble you? That the hard won terms and conditions of the workforce, achieved against the odds through collective bargaining, are being sacrificed on the altar of Ofsted? It bothers me, and leads me to question why we think an “I must work harder” mindset is the only way to skin this cat. You’d benefit a lot from considering the parable of Boxer from Animal Farm to consider where this 24/7 approach to ‘intervention’ may take us. Is already taking us.

The second of your comments that sent shivers down my proverbial was this: “We only take the very best people along with us and get rid of the dead wood.” I’m used to metaphors to dehumanise teachers (off the bus and the radiators versus drains thing) but this is the most sickening of the lot, and probably the least accurate. Let me explain. What you seem to mean by referring to your colleagues and fellow human beings as “dead wood” is that they are useless and ineffective, and therefore worthy of shitty treatment that causes them to leave the profession (aka constructive or unfair dismissal – take your pick). By contrast, I assume, those who follow your rules and tick your boxes must be spry young saplings or mighty oaks?!?

But let me tell you, as an English teacher and sometime utiliser of extended metaphors in my blogposts, that the image of “dead wood” is utterly problematic for your intentions. In many ways dead wood (aka wood?) is more useful than its opposite. It can provide shelter against the storm. It can be carved into things of great beauty and/or great utility. It can provide light in the dark and warmth in the cold. And, even after it has been burnt, it can be used as a means for communicating all that makes us great as a species. Give me your “dead wood”, and I’ll show you just how undead it is. That should be your mantra, and I hope more than anything else that it is for me.

Perhaps it is the case that your “dead wood” are still living, breathing trees in your forest, but ones that need more than the soil of suspicion and the climate of conformity in which to thrive. Ironically, now that your box-ticking has been deemed by Ofsted not to be up to the job any more, would you consider yourself to be “dead wood”? Just a question, but one worth considering out of respect to your presumably erstwhile colleagues.

Which brings me to your recent and difficult experience of Ofsted. I’m genuinely sorry to hear of your experience and the likely negative impacts it will have upon the staff and students of your school. None of us wish that upon any of us. But your description of the experience seems to indicate that your role was simply to get them to tick certain boxes and, in doing so, reach certain conclusions. I’m afraid that’s not enough for me, and a part of me wonders if this back foot stance, reactive and essentially defensive in nature, may have been a part of the problem.

I have a simple approach when it comes to the inspection process: be ready for it but don’t plan for it. Get on the front foot and show them what is great about your school on an everyday basis, and constantly remind them that this is done for your staff and your students, not for them. There are two reasons why I think that this is the best approach to take. Firstly because it shows your colleagues that it’s not about an inspection team, but about your staff team and it’s a whole lot easier to ask people to buy into an approach that is about them and their concerns than about Ofsted. Secondly, if all else goes wrong, and the judgement goes against you, it is easier to complain about the process and get empathy from others by saying “we did it our way and they didn’t get us” than by saying “I can’t play without [your] rules and I don’t want to”.

A part of me wonders whether you are really a disgruntled member of the “dead wood” brigade parodying a school leader in writing this letter. If so, then the joke is very much on me in giving up a good chunk of a Sunday to write this post when I could have just “let it go”. If it is, then I tip my hat to you and will smile my way through the rest of the day.

The alternative, that this is a genuine letter from a disgruntled member of the “live wood” brigade of school leaders, makes me sad. And a little cross, for this reason. The first rule of Ofsted Club is that there is no Ofsted Club. It’s also the second, third, fourth and fifth rules (feel free to continue ad infinitum and to infinity). There are no other rules, and nor should there be. Rules, as the kids say, are for fools (the kids don’t really say this but they should!).

The best part of your letter is contained in your final, postscript whinge: “I understand from talking to colleagues up the road that the rules vary widely by inspector. Maybe you could forward each school a copy of their inspector’s rules before the start of the game”. I like this section best because in it you have unwittingly hit upon the very answer to all the questions arising from your letter. Every inspector is individual and, consequently, every inspection is an unknown quantity. Perhaps you’ve simply been lucky in doing well in your seven previous inspections? Or perhaps the rule book that allowed us to tick boxes in order to secure good and outstanding judgements had been torn up? Either way, good riddance to it. Such an approach is stultifying.

Learn from your recent experiences and put those days of approval-seeking behind you. Lead as you should live life, like there’s no one watching. Most of the time there isn’t. Or if they are, it’s your staff and your students, and they’ll respect you all the more for it because it will give them the courage to do the same.

Best wishes. I think you need them.

Keven

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