Sometimes in life things can feel unfair. That the die is loaded against you and no matter what you do you are doomed to a predetermined fate. This is no different for me when thinking about school leadership. Therefore, you have to cover every angle; stalk every shadow; know detail like you know the contours of your face. Predict the unpredictable and become skilled in Aeromancy (divination from the state of the air or from atmospheric substances)
This is how I feel before Ofsted. Let’s be clear – I do not feel that this is always the reality… But it is how I feel. As much as I think I know my school there is a sense of the unknown – that what I thought was an ordinary straight forward looking die might in fact be a loaded one.
Let me explain.
I experienced Ofsted as a governor this week. I took this weighty role on for a number of reasons. I wanted to know how children at my school got on at Secondary school (In a few years time I can ask to be there on GCSE day and know what it means to those in the hall). I wanted to see the journey out. I wanted to learn what came after Primary… I want to continue being a part of my community and making a difference beyond the walls of my island of primary education. Governance is a powerful thing. I realised during this Ofsted just how much governance could swing an inspection. How important it is that Governors know their school. I also realised how a governor could (If they were inclined) be the greatest thorn in the side of a head teacher.
When Ofsted call the clerk sends all governors a letter from the inspector. I felt this was weighed against the head. It talks about confidential conversations and offers governors to contact the inspector. I just felt… how many phone up to say what a great job the head is doing and if they did would the inspector go… ‘Great! Thanks for that!’ Or, ‘Thank you Mr Walton… but as you know that’s why we are in’. Whereas, if I was a governor with an issue or personal grudge how much damage could I have done? The reason I say this is recently I have read too many Ofsted reports which are utterly brutal in their conclusions. They tear the leadership apart. Language like ‘weak’ and ‘failed’ are chiselled out on to the report… sometimes months after the inspection. It then ends up on the news… its sensational! It’s GOOD news! It’s also peoples lives. Hard working, skilled leaders trying to do their best are put in the stocks and left to the social media masses to pick their bones dry. This is a game that can so easily become a survival gameshow where the food eats you and the water is contaminated. Therefore, the small stuff matters. We don’t need loaded die because the stakes have become so HIGH. A bad Ofsted is as good as a P45 wielding comedian pointing out your weaknesses to the gathered community as you desperately try to splutter your defence (whilst realising you are naked… Yes, I still have that dream). I also see how Parentview and the staff survey could be terrifying prospects for some leaders in challenging circumstances. They are important but they need inspectors who search for context rather than looking to write headlines.
The solutions are simple though. Governors need to stick with their schools. They need to ensure that ‘challenge’ is natural and robust. They need to know their schools strengths and weaknesses and what they are doing about them. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in a sea of detail… keep it simple. The following might also help.
Know the last Ofsted recommendations and what has been done.
Know the KEY points within the data (Strengths and Gaps).
Know what Governors have done to challenge and make a difference – a few examples are key to have during that meeting.
In any inspection there will come a time when any inspector worth their money will increase the pressure. It is key to keep on message and remember we are in this together. That leadership judgement is a judgement of us all.
I am still a fan of Ofsted. But, I also feel that we need to gather some rational sense of the role higher authorities such as Ofsted and the DFE have in ensuring that School Leadership does not become so undesirable as to lose its core. Schools need head teachers who ‘get’ the communities (and this takes time)… they need leaders who care and who are as fallible as they are passionate and driven. When I see that the stakes are so high and it’s my time to roll that die… I want to feel that it is a fair and balanced experience. Not sure I do at the moment.