Saturday, 14 April 2018

Ofsted: crucial – even life-changing – but, fundamentally, unimportant

Requires improvement
Requires improvement

The Ofsted ratings of the three schools I have worked in read somewhat like the fates of Henry VIII’s wives - admittedly, if one of them hadn’t made her infamous trip down the aisle and, of course, if the outcome was an Ofsted judgement and not a decapitated head.

However, having now worked in schools in every category, I am aware that an undesired judgement can feel like an amputation of sorts. Indeed, I have been through an inspection where it certainly felt like the school was being slowly severed, limb from limb.

When I started teaching 12 years ago, I already had some inkling of the crucial nature of Ofsted to teachers. My parents were both senior leaders in local schools and I still remember the glint in my dad’s eye when he told me that his school had been awarded Outstanding for ‘Teaching and Learning’. It was clear that of all of the judgements that led to that overall ‘1’, he held that one as being the true mark of success. I also remember the crushing blow of RI almost immediately before his retirement.

I’d be lying if I said that my own first school’s Outstanding rating didn’t influence my decision to apply there. Sure, it was an easy commute and its status as a comp with a relatively average intake appealed to my socialist sensibilities, but I also remember feeling impressed by that branded Ofsted logo and the idea that surely I would be working there with THE BEST.

As it turned out, my department was led by the brilliant Chris Hildrew and I ended up working with a whole host of other talented teachers who indelibly left their mark on the na├»ve trainee that rocked up at their door. There was even an English Ofsted ‘good practice’ inspection on assessment during the 4 years I was employed there.

But I’m a lot more cynical nowadays about whether excellent teaching plus a solid school leadership team will always lead to the ultimate Ofsted accolade. You don’t have to look very far to see examples where A + B doesn’t always result in C. Fast forward to a very different Ofsted framework and the school in question is ‘Good’ whilst others – like my dad’s – are struggling. But the particularities of the most recent framework are for another blog entirely.

What that Outstanding badge did give every single member of staff was confidence, space, and respect. Confidence in their own abilities, space to develop their practice free from outside meddling, and the respect from others to support meaningful collaboration.

I left that school with the belief that I was a good teacher with the power to work anywhere and be successful. On future dark days, this confidence – almost arrogance – would sustain me.

And so ambitious 24-year-old me leapt to a new school for a promoted post. Looking back, it’s no wonder it instantly felt like ‘home’ given that it had just transferred to a new PFI build literally based on the blueprints of my first school. Ah, the unexpected joy of commodification.

My second school was in an ex-mining community: 98% white British with roughly a third of students qualifying for the Pupil Premium. Its humongous size (1800 on roll when I first joined) coupled with entrenched lack of aspiration in some areas of the local community meant that school improvement was like trying to reroute a cruise liner.

As a semi-rural school, recruitment and retention also added to the feeling of being permanently under the cosh. Having enough applicants to create a genuine shortlist became a thing of distant memory as we began to look to more creative ways of growing teachers internally without them being pinched by the local ‘Outstanding’ SCITT hub.

With one ‘Satisfactory’ under its belt it was not a great surprise that a ‘Requires improvement’ followed shortly after a new Head had been appointed.

As RI grew teeth and the ‘haves and the have nots’ became more sharply delineated so the scrutiny, pressure, and self-doubt grew. Having been promoted to Head of English I felt keenly the pressure to improve results quickly. Green shoots – like a three year trend of improvement at A*-C% in English and top 25% A Level results – gave us some small hope that we’d be given the time we needed to see our headline figures emerge from a consistent flatline. But we always knew that a third ‘3’ was going to be a difficult pitch and the inspection, when it came, was brutal.

It wouldn’t be fair to go into details about the inspection itself - and I’m not sure that I’m ready to pick open that particular wound - but I will say that it doesn’t matter if your individual gradings read 2, 3, 3, 4, 4: you are ‘Inadequate’ overall and to the world at large.

The leaders and teachers at this school cared just as deeply and worked just as hard as in my first. I’m also going to stick my neck out and say that there were aspects of practice that were just as effective, if not more so. With a legacy of ten years of 3s under its belt what there indelibly wasn’t was the confidence of those who have tasted Outstanding or the space to create a plan for improvement free of the whims of external forces.

There was also a serious lack of respect from others. For to work in a school in Special Measures, or even one branded as ‘requiring improvement’, is to be subject to patronising attitudes and pre-judgement. It is to be seen consistently as the poor relation. It is to have little or no autonomy to plot your own course based on the needs of your school community.

I strongly suspect that it is often not the actual working in the school itself that makes it so tough for teachers and school leaders at schools like these, but instead this persistent, exhausting denigration.

As part of my work with Teacher Reference Group, just a week after receiving our ‘4’, I met Sean Harford at the DfE.

I should state now that I have a lot of time for Sean who has gone out of his way to address teachers’ concerns about Ofsted on social media thereby providing a human face to a government organisation. I’ll also state that my most recent experience of inspection was of a team taking great pains to understand the complexity of a school context far from the norm which, in my mind, is a credit to the reformed training of Inspectors. But when we met I was battered, bruised, and looking for empathy. His response?

‘Inspection isn’t an effort grade.’

And he is right, at least in part. Ofsted is not about school improvement – it is an inspectorate whose role is to judge. At best, it will award that judgement in a way that is fair, accurate, and impartial. Whether you can make such a judgement in so short a space of time again is for another post, but I will say that - like capital punishment - if future evidence proves you wrong then you will not be able to retract the sanction. It is dark humour (but horribly apt) to say that Heads will have rolled.

However, I also know that it is the profound effort of the teachers at this school that will see it move forward – now under even more intense pressure than they were before – and my friends and former colleagues don’t deserve just my respect and compassion, but that of every teacher in every school, as well as every parent and every politician.

But Special Measures is not the end of my Ofsted story.

After a year in an Associate Senior Leader position, I had applied for a substantive AHT post prior to the inspection but had not yet been interviewed. Post-Ofsted, I was heartbroken to think others might perceive me as jumping ship. I was therefore perversely proud of revealing to colleagues both my appointment and my new school’s P8 score of -0.8. This wasn’t about me copping out by seeking somewhere I’d have an easy ride.

With students hailing from 51 countries at the last count, my new school is in a very different context. To me, it’s a return home – in fact, it’s on the exact street where I bought my very first flat. We’ve got a higher than average percentage of students with EAL, SEND, and who qualify for PP. Our attainment on intake is in the lowest quintile, we’ve got a highly mobile school population, and we are all-through 3-18. It is a truly glorious place to work.

Perhaps due to the complexity of the intake, the Headteacher has had to plough a furrow that doesn’t have ‘success’ in Ofsted terms at its core. When over 40% of your school intake doesn’t have matched data, it could be argued that national performance measures aren’t necessarily the best way to measure your performance.

What removing Ofsted from the immediate eyeline of staff has fostered is a school community that has an individual identity that radiates with confidence. I wasn’t surprised to hear that students had spoken to Inspectors unprompted about their pride in their school. It is that type of place.

When we were inspected before the Easter break, I had to put my own recent memories of inspection on the back burner and allow myself to be once more the confident practitioner of inspections past. When the judgement came it was with both a sense of pride and catharsis I shed tears.

Crucially, our ‘Good’ judgement now means we also have a bit more space to continue on our path of school improvement. Having only been in post for two terms, I don’t yet feel like I’ve fully made my contribution to the school and I’m genuinely excited for what comes next. Not least because I also know that my colleagues will start to receive the more immediate respect of others that comes with shedding the shackles of RI.

To me one of the most heartening lines in our report is the recognition that ‘This is a school with much joy.’ It captures perfectly the feeling that reverberates down our corridors. But then, if I’m honest, I have never worked in a truly unhappy school and have often felt joy whether it was in the classroom or staffroom. In an age when teachers don’t seem to be staying in teaching very long I’m not sure that every teacher can say that.

So what have I learned from my relationship with Ofsted over the years? What wise words can I pass on? To teachers, I would ask hold on to the idea that:

Ofsted is utterly unimportant. Cast but a fleeting glance at the latest report. Make your decision about where to work based on the school’s culture, the children in front of you, and your faith in the Headteacher. Be prepared to work hard regardless of the school’s Ofsted grading. Focus on the school’s next steps and how you can be a vital cog in the machinery that gets it there. If you happen to chance upon an Inspector in the corridors – or, in fact, any visitor – smile, talk about what you love and why you work there, and how you’re contributing to making the school even better.

And, to Ofsted inspectors I would say:

Remember inspections, to teachers, can feel utterly crucial, life-changing even: when inspecting a school, take the time to look beyond the last report or outcomes data. Make your decisions based on the school culture, the children in front of you, and the Headteacher. Be prepared to show empathy, understanding and compassion regardless of the school’s Ofsted grading. Focus on their next steps and how your report can be a vital cog in the machinery that gets them there. If you meet a teacher in the corridors – or, in fact, any member of school staff – smile, ask them what they love about the school and why they work there, and how they’re contributing to making the school even better.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Nurture 17/18

I read somewhere recently that you should plan for how you want your year to end, rather than setting resolutions for the new year. This year, imagining a year ahead is really difficult for me due to the serious illness of someone I love. Looking back at the first of last year's 'hopes' that 'My new Withings fitness tracker stays on my wrist' now feels horribly insignificant. To be fair, for the most part it has, but I'm also a stone heavier and still can't run 5k without collapsing into a sweaty heap. However, most importantly, I'm healthy and I will never take that fact for granted again.

My second hope was to 'keep doing things that scare me a little bit'. With three conferences in the next four weeks - two of which I'm speaking at - I think I've managed to meet that one. It feels timely that I've got a TES piece coming up on the concept of bravery. Spoiler but I think now, if anything, it's time for me to be less brave, to pause and consolidate what's been a steep learning curve over the last few years.

And so ahead into a new year. 

I wish you all love, happiness, and contentment.

3 positives for 2017

1. I became an Assistant Headteacher

2. I bought a wonderful, stupid, ridiculous house with my husband
It's got stained glass, odd-shaped windows, a view of the countryside, hidden rooms, and a den at the bottom of the garden. We're flat broke, and it probably wasn't sensible for two people who can't do DIY, but I'm utterly in love with it: it gives you a strange sense of contentment to think you may be living in the same house of 30 years.

3. I got to contribute to a DfE policy document that I'm really proud of
I'm pretty sure I wear my political allegiances on my sleeve so receiving a 'thank you' email from a member of the Conservative cabinet wasn't something I ever thought would hit my inbox. However, I'm prepared to work with anyone to improve our profession, for the good of teachers and students alike. Should the proposals fall victim to party reshuffles, it will be short-sighted in the extreme. Our children deserve better than being subject to the whims of any political party

3 hopes for 2018

1. I can be a really good friend
I've got friends who deliver birthday cards by hand. I've got friends who you come off the phone feeling better for speaking to. I've got friends who prioritise things other than work. I want to be more like my friends.

3. I can be a really good line manager
As a Middle Leader, I managed a large team and people with considerable areas of responsibility, but working with someone whose specialism is wholly new to me, and in a considerably different context to which I'm used to, brings new challenges. I've got the mantra of 'support and challenge' ringing in my ears and I hope I'm able to get the right balance in the next 12 months.

2. I can have a tangibly positive impact in my current role
In a new school and new post, this is a year of learning, but our children can't wait for me to get my s**t together, they need a strong leader now. I hope that my Head feels he's appointed the right person when the summer comes and that together we can continue to build on their successes.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Women Ed - Part II

Many moons ago, when WomenEd was but a spark being kindled into being by its founders, I wrote a blog post that started with a plea to “the wonderful women involved in Women Ed”:

I'd love to be involved too. But let's get serious. Let's stop talking about wearing heels to work. Let's stop using sassy pop references. Let's talk about the fact that boys are underachieving as well as the appalling lack of female Head teachers. Let's make this a real gender debate.

Fast forward two years and I’ve just spent my Saturday at my second Women Ed event and I can happily report that – despite one Take That reference – it’s a world away from the Union Jack dresses that I feared.

Instead, CEOs, Executive Headteachers, Company Directors, and Doctors are the order of the day with a roster of workshop leaders and keynote speakers that brings together truly inspirational female leaders from all sides of the educational landscape. So, how has my response to Women Ed changed since that first hesitant blog post?

Well I think I am pretty brave, but I know I can still be 10% braver by naming sexism when I see it. In my experience, there’s still a pervasive attitude in schools that sexism is some kind of quirky male eccentricity.

I was once warned by several colleagues about an older male Chair of Governors who ‘doesn’t respond well to women’. On reflection, my retort should have been ‘So why is he still in post?’ rather than steeling myself for the condescending tirades that followed. Similarly, it’s not OK when male members of a senior leadership team refer to ‘the girls’ when they actually mean their fellow senior leaders. Or, when members of a panel interviewing a prospective female Headteacher say they’d ‘rather not work for a woman’. And I think we all need to be less tolerant of female leaders being talked down to in online debates, making more liberal use of block and mute for persistent offenders.

I’ve valued the way Women Ed has foregrounded the intersection of issues related to gender and ethnicity. I’m increasingly aware of my own privilege as a white British woman, but not always, I’m sure, aware of the insidious ways this impacts on my experiences. I am trying to shift my thinking and will try to engage with BAME Ed in whatever ways I can to ensure that diverse leadership in all its guises make strides forwards in the schools in which I work.

In a similar vein, it’s only thanks to Women Ed that I now fully recognise the privileged start in life I had. I was never aware of the financial pinch many have been shaped by but, more than this, my family deeply valued education and nurtured me as a leader throughout my childhood. Comment on the many inspirational women in my family is for another blog post, but when you’re surrounded by graduates and women who have led unorthodox lives you have a life without limits modelled for you every single day. I was never scared to make decisions or take risks growing up as my mum always told me everything was reversible. Buying a house? You can sell it. Taking a promotion? You can quit. Going travelling? You can come home. Even as recently as this weekend, on talking to my Uncle about my goal of being Headteacher in what I thought was a hugely ambitious timescale of 10 years, his reply was ‘Why not in five?’

But then it is Women Ed that has given me the confidence to make that statement to my uncle in the first place. The sessions I’ve been to and the women I have met have taught me that it’s OK to have a strong vision for yourself as well as your school: not just ‘what is your story?’ but ‘what’s your story going to be?’ This confidence has developed from hearing first-hand the leadership stories of women like Dr Jill Berry. Jill once gave me a verbal nod as a leader in a speech at a teaching event. That warm feeling sustained me through many challenging months. On reflection, I now have no doubt that she knew exactly the impact that would have on me and for that I am eternally grateful.

I agree with Hannah Wilsey on the powerful value of such connections between female leaders and that it starts with ‘putting yourself out there’. Finding your crew – or, as my students would term it, your squad - has transformational power for women in all sectors of education. For me, Team English has become so much more than a way of sharing resources. Rebecca Foster, Freya O’Dell, Sarah Barker, Amy Forrester, Becky Wood, Charlie Pearson, Nikki Carlin, Fiona Ritson, Sana Master, Grainne Hallahan, Lyndsey Dyer, Nat Masala, Kate McCabe, and… Chris Curtis: when you have that lot behind you, you are not just 10% braver, but ready for anyone and anything.

I did of course put in that final ellipsis for dramatic effect, but it’s an important point that we must celebrate and seek out men who breathe Women Ed in their values and conduct, like Chris. It’s my opinion that we should also celebrate when well intentioned men ‘get it wrong’ or when the light bulb that has gone off is that women might actually be people after all. Progress is progress, after all.

Dr Kay Fuller closed the event in Nottingham by emphasising Women Ed is not just for us but, perhaps more importantly, for the next generation and she’s so right.  I made the mistake two years ago of thinking Women Ed was about discussion of feminist issues in education but that’s only partly true.

The women involved in the movement are living life as feminist leaders (whether they’d use that label or not). They are loud. They are tall. They don’t suffer fools. They ask outright for fair pay. They are strong. They are individual. They are fun and they are free in ways that women even 50 years could only dream of.

In the words of the awesome Charmaine Roche we must all seek now to ‘live it, embody it’. She and so many others have created powerful footsteps for women to use as a guide as they move forwards on their own leadership journeys. I thank her and all involved with Women Ed for making me even more determined to be the kind of leader that I would want the young women I see in my classroom every single day to one day become.