I consider Ofsted to be something of an abusive relative. Like a crap Uncle who only visits every fourth Christmas but never fails to find some way of upsetting you. Sometimes this Uncle is an aggressive drunk; impervious to reason or logic and quick to violence should you look at him funny or fail to laugh at one of his jokes. Other times he takes on a passive/aggressive tact: smiling sweetly at the dinner party as you update everyone with the story of your life achievements so far before saying: ‘Well, I’m glad you consider yourself to be a success.’ Occasionally, even when you have done something truly incredible, he will be the one reminding you – and everyone else – of the time you wet yourself on the trampoline during your fifth birthday party. Yeah, it’s pretty safe to say, I don’t look forward to uncle Ofsted coming to stay.
As a result, I try not to think about it. I find this is the best strategy for focusing the mind on what really matters, not to mention the improvements to my sleep pattern. That is why I will never have any interest with Ofsted preparation. In my experience each inspector has been so different that any preparation, in hindsight, has been a total waste of time. It is also the reason why I refuse to lower myself, and my school, to their standards. As in, you won’t find an Ofsted category anywhere on my SEF. Why would I? Why would I use a word that an inspector can twist and use against me should the mood take them? I have my standards. How they compare with Ofsted’s is their concern and not mine.
You may think that I sound like a stroppy teenager. But, if you take Sean Harford at his word then it’s actually the correct approach. Focus on the right thing for your school and everything should be fine. Any visiting Ofsted Inspector will be able to see this, cross-reference it with the inspection handbook, and make their judgement accordingly. I say ‘their’ judgement because it is just that. It lives outside my concern. If it matches with mine, then hurrah! But by the time the report actually ‘goes live’ I will already be further along ‘my’ road and the report will be out of date.
Again, this is the right attitude, surely? I can’t imagine there are many Heads who, after receiving the highest accolades Ofsted has to offer, sit back in their chair and thinks ‘job done’. Likewise, if a report finds weakness, I’ll wager most Heads already knew about them and were already in the process of sorting them out.
So, if I’m so indifferent to Ofsted why do I actively dislike it?
Simple: when Ofsted goes wrong it can destroy decent schools and decent people.
Trust me, I have personal experience. Veteran blog readers (you fools!) will be aware that once upon a time I was visited by a rogue inspector who attempted to put my school in special measures. According to her, the school was inadequate in every single possible way. The draft report gleefully reported on a string of failures that, thankfully for me, were so inaccurate that I was able to overturn the report before it got published. Instead, I got given RI and was told to wait it out. A year later and a different team came in, judging the school to be good with a sprinkle of outstanding. And, guess what? During that year I didn’t do anything differently. Actually, that’s a lie. I did stop caring about Ofsted. But, I didn’t take on board any of the advice from the previous report. So, in that respect the Ofsted process had zero impact on school improvement.
But this monumental and embarrassing blunder is also not the reason why I dislike Ofsted.
I dislike it because of that rogue lead inspector. The first report she wrote was not only inaccurate but also contained sweeping statements that were rather personal about me. Had they had been published, the combination of the judgement and stinging rhetoric would, I honestly think, have finished me off. There would have been no way that I could have carried on in that school. Too many seeds of doubt would have been sewn. I dread to think what the local media would have done with it. If recent cases are anything to go by, I would have been subject to a one-sided front-page lynching. That is partly why I fought it. It was a desperate act to salvage my career and my sanity. Thankfully for me the lead inspector wasn’t just an unpleasant person, she was also rather stupid. It was quite easy to challenge the report and get it totally re-written.
The second report, that she was forced to write, was more accurate but was still relatively spiteful. I remember friends and colleagues at the time saying it was the worst sounding ‘RI’ report they’d ever read. But it was no longer newsworthy. People in the community read it, didn’t recognise the school it came from, and chucked it in the bin. Together we moved on, undisturbed.
But that experience has tainted me. It has made me eternally cynical about the way in which Inspectors conduct their visits and report their findings. If the process is genuinely about providing a consistent benchmark of standardised judgements about schools, and, identifying where improvements can be made then the Inspectors should carry this out without ‘fear or favour’. But, at present, some seem to relish the fear that they themselves wield a bit too much for my liking. These reports that seek to assassinate Headteachers are part of the reason Ofsted has become too high stakes and needs to change. All the new strategy plans in the world will not stop spiteful rhetoric, hell-bent on making a Head’s job impossible once the report has been published. All the pro-Ofsted propaganda on Twitter will not comfort a publicly humiliated Head.
Last year I felt invincible. I was in a strong position. I was leading a fantastic school and Ofsted probably weren’t going to come back for years. Now, I am in a new school. I love it. It’s a great school. But it’s in Ofsted’s sights. I feel vulnerable. I seem unable to take my own advice and ignore the shadow of Ofsted. I even considered buying a book about getting through an Ofsted, you know, just in case. But why? Why did I now care so much about Ofsted?
The answer is obvious: I like my job. I care about my new school. I know we’re going to do great things. I don’t want Ofsted to ruin it.
And that is what you do sometimes, Ofsted.
Like the Uncle nobody wants to end up sitting next to at the family reunion, you end up ruining the party, before making a swift exit, leaving someone else to pick up the pieces.