It seems like it was only yesterday: holed up inside my flat for two days completing the factual accuracy check that would eventually revoke the inadequate judgement that an Ofsted team had given my school. All twenty pages of it, plus the accompanying post-Ofsted survey – in which I lambasted the professional capacity of the lead inspector – helped my school get out of a serious black hole. No need for me to try and issue a gagging order, I did it the old fashioned way. The report was never published. Instead, a hastily (and at times spitefully) written RI report was delivered and I was advised that this was as far as Ofsted HQ would take it. I would have to sit quietly and wait for another team to visit.
A huge part of leadership is about ‘sucking it up’. This Ofsted experience was incredibly difficult for me to cope with. I was openly critical about the report but even here I had to tread a fine line. Too much poo-pooing looks like sour grapes and denial. Too much acceptance, and those around you begin to believe the hype. I refused to be a passive victim of Ofsted’s failure: nodding my head in acceptance when people agreed with the report’s falsehoods. I was certainly not going to become a martyr to my school’s ‘failings’, as they were presented in Ofsted’s version of my school. To me, that would only signal to others that Ofsted had a point.
My role as leader was to navigate the school through the mess Ofsted had left behind. To do that properly I had to divorce the school from the report and establish our own place in the world. I needed to prove that the school was above Ofsted, in terms of the scale of our ambition, and that the leaders were more tenacious than any inspector, when honing in on what we needed to do better.
So off we went. And what a jolly journey it was. I was free from the shackles of the Ofsted inspection framework. Not once did I say or write the words ‘good’, ‘requires improvement’ or even ‘outstanding’ in the time after the inspection. I happily deleted emailed updates of what inspectors were looking for. Why not? I knew the needs of the school and I knew we were addressing them. I couldn’t care less about what was popular with Ofsted; they hadn’t cared about my community last time, so why should I care about theirs?
We entered a new and nuanced phase of whole school professional development. I walked into lesson observations with blank pieces of paper – no check-lists – and had professional dialogues with teachers about the quality of their teaching as we both saw it. My senior leaders focussed on monitoring impact rather than systems. We threw away our marking ‘policy’ and replaced it with ‘effective feedback guidance’ that was informed by what our most effective teachers actually did to move children on.
We embraced life without levels. Even though we had a bought in assessment tracker we scrutinised it and adapted it to meet our needs. We were honest with our teachers, and our governors, that looking for a certain number of ‘points progress’ was futile and, as a result, we developed a more sophisticated approach to monitoring pupils’ progress.
Whenever I was asked about our progress since the last Ofsted, I answered the only way I could: with a shrug of my shoulders. I didn’t have a clue. I knew how we had progressed, from previous years, against different benchmarks, and I had to assume that was enough. My school improvement officer would occasionally look pained when I stubbornly refused to put a ‘grading’ on his visit notes and he would gently tell me that I may want to reconsider my revolutionary ‘Balls to Ofsted’ approach come the time of the inspection. I told him I wouldn’t. I thought to myself…would I?
In my darkest hours I wondered what I would do on judgement day. Would I cave in and recite the mantra so the lead inspector would be pleased with me? Would I sacrifice a positive report for the sake of my pride? Could I risk another RI? What would be more difficult for me to live with…losing my job or losing my self-respect? I hated Ofsted. Would I really sleep with the enemy to get a good result? But then again, it’s not about me, it’s about the school. Surely I wouldn’t risk the stability of the school just so I could stand up and say that I refused to bend? I’m a pretty stubborn person but was I prepared to be a total idiot?
The phone-call came.
The lead inspector seemed like a decent chap. I was honest about how anxious people were because of what had happened last time. He said he understood and that he was aware of the context. He re-iterated the motto that this inspection was to be done ‘with us not to us’. In a few minutes he, and his team, had put us at ease and the inspection began.
It was pretty soon that he raised the point that he wasn’t sure where I was pitching the school in terms of a judgement. I took a sip of water, followed by a deep breath, and made my decision.
‘Well, the thing is,’ I said, ‘and please don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t use the Ofsted framework so you won’t actually find any judgements on my SEF or anywhere.’
He smiled and asked me to continue.
‘You see, I don’t find Ofsted that helpful in determining what the school needs or in assessing how effective we are. I draw on a range of information to judge the effectiveness of the school and from that I am able to say whether we are meeting, exceeding or falling below the expectations we have set for ourselves. I hope that’s OK.’
He continued smiling and simply said, ‘The thing is, if you don’t actually say ‘good’, or better, I can’t write it down, and, if I can’t write it down, it’s not in my evidence base.’
The canny fox used the phrase ‘good, or better’ to try and break me. What was I going to do?
‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you hear me say the phrase ‘at least expected’ then you can interpret that as ‘good’ and if you hear me say ‘exceptional’ then I suppose that would mean ‘outstanding’ in your world.’
He nodded with a smile that suggested he would indulge me, at least for the moment. As the first day continued I think it became clear to him that I was not being recklessly foolish with my self-evaluation. Through his careful leadership of the inspection there developed a shared understanding between Ofsted and the school. And, as the two days went on, he was able to quality assure that our benchmarking was accurate and consistent with his. The war was over and what some people had referred to as my ‘dangerous game’ of going against the Ofsted regime, resulted in a report that celebrated the robust and innovative approach to school improvement that has been the bedrock of our continuing success.
This Ofsted was easier than the last. The team was professional. They came in to the school trusting us and they listened. I was allowed to think beyond Ofsted and they saw the impact this had had on the school. They were not offended by the fact that I would not hinge my whole school on the Ofsted framework. They respected my professional judgement and as a result I respected theirs.
Should you ever read the report you will see that it is a summary of an individual school and not an ‘off the peg’ inspection report full of stock phrases and tired evaluations. They took the time to explore what makes the school unique. I care more about that than the judgement number at the top of the report.
In terms of where the school goes now…well, that’s as up to us as it was before. Some things, thank goodness, never change.