The outpouring of concern from head teachers and teachers this week has been rigorous and sustained (To use Ofsted terminology ).
I have been a head teacher for almost twenty years and in truth it has always been like this. In 1998 I remember a respected headteacher’s school getting an inadequate inspection weeks after he he was awarded a national headteacher gong for decades of service. Head teachers (contrary to Micheal Wilshaw’s expected response) do not welcome Ofsted. Even those who have no particular gripe with them. I have faced many inspections and though there are good examples of them getting it very wrong, the vast majority of my experiences (never worse than good and including outstandings – oh look at me!) have been professional and mutual. But, this is not about individuals, it’s this personalised approach that often gives Ofsted it validation as much as it’s condemnation.
The outpouring of feelings is about the fact that a head teacher took her own life because of Ofsted. Fact. We cannot stray from this absolute reality and anyone who says that this is ok (Carry on. Nothing to see here) needs to look at themselves in the mirror. If you cannot see the pressure headteachers are under or how school leadership is becoming utterly toxic then you have missed the point. Ruth was not the first, and if the current regime and punitive Ofsted approach does not change she will not be the last. Ofsted inspections are not a stable and fair process. Far too many headteachers have far too many stories and experiences that show there is no equity in the Ofsted process. It is, and always will be a lottery. You are, basically, at the mercy of a couple of strangers who have complete and utter authority and power to make or break your school within a few days based on their personal observations (whatever they me be). You only have to spend 20 minutes on twitter to understand how polarised education is. Schools are far too nuanced to have a blueprint judgement approach and yet, this is our national norm… We just accept it. In fact, some of us encourage it. Part of Ofsted’s legacy and legitimacy is that some head teachers give them authority. Whether it’s through excited tweets, banners or badges… we validate them and give them life and purpose.
As a very experienced head teacher I still make decisions that are wrong. Schools are complex. Education is multifaceted. One thing I have learnt after 20 years of leading is this… you can not and should not make sweeping judgements that impact across a school unless you have done your research and know your context better than anyone else. I have started as a new head teacher three times… you need at least three years before you can even begin to make authoritative decisions that stick. Research takes time. Ofsted do this in two days. The impact has far more implications than if a head teachers makes the same judgement and yet, they are very unlikely to be better placed to make these judgements than even the least experienced head teacher. I have seen and supported schools in crisis too many times and every time you see a pattern. Bad Ofsted, team of experts… do it it like this.. staff conform… in comes another team of experts… it’s not working, do it like this (why were you doing it like that?)… and repeat.
My last Ofsted was great, as were the all the others except the one where they said we were outstanding and then gave us RI because of an administration error (Gone in 15 seconds blog). But the person who made those judgements in my last Ofsted had far more than a decade less experience than me and their experience on making sweeping judgements on our Specialist Provision was one year teaching in a resource base? This was less than any teacher in my specialist provision at the time. They had never led a school. Their judgement would have made or broke my time as head teacher at my current school… after 20 years of headship I still fear that Ofsted will end my career and I will have to face that I was a failure, this never escapes me… and I’m (currently) one of the lucky ones.
Ofsted is a broken system… we have created something in which Inspectors are ‘The Untouchables’, somehow better than those that lead their schools day in, and day out… immortals, supercharged to lead national policy and improvement. They know more than you says the scary poster with the pointing finger that they should have created.
All of this is an issue and reason for Ofsted to be up for serious review… but do you know what the worst thing about Ofsted is for most head teachers? It’s the fact that the organisation makes us all believe that they are one of us. They have been there and lived this experience…That their inspectors do what we do… that they stand naked in the storm, that they fight the good fight day after day… that they know what it is like leading a school with no CAHMs support, in a deficit, fearing parental complaints, facing a recruitment crisis, solving behaviour issues, mental health issues, worries about attendance, facing a broken SEND system, fearing the pressure of SATs and GCSEs. I could go on and on and on.
My performance management for the past few years was to become an Ofsted inspector… I could not think of anything that would professionally demean me more. As a profession we need to reclaim our dignity and authority – Ofsted are clearly not able to reflect and accept that they need to change. Until they do we can continue to count the days until another tragedy.