It’s always refreshing to know that you are not alone. I had that experience last Monday whilst I was in a meeting with Sean Harford, the National Director of Ofsted, who had kindly invited me, along with a range of other educators, to a meeting regarding the future of Ofsted. It is always genuinely nice to be invited to such events because not only does it make you feel like you are a voice that could be worth listening to, but, far more importantly, you feel like those with the ultimate power are keen to listen.
I am totally convinced that, in Sean, we have a rational, determined and dedicated educationalist at the helm of Ofsted. His vision for Ofsted’s future is sensible and picks up the slack in terms of ‘good’ schools being left alone for too long. He was open and honest, especially in terms of his expectations of inspectors, and it was during these moments that I reflected and thought, ah, you have the same problem as me.
That problem being consistency. As a leader of a school I know what should be going on in my school. I know what consistent approach every member of staff should be applying to the job. I know the values and principles that I expect to be followed. Sadly, I also know what it’s like to find out that, in reality, this isn’t always the case.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bashing my staff here. I have never worked with such a devoted team of professionals who, over the years, have been behind me every step of the way. They believe in what we are doing one hundred percent; it’s just, they’re human. At times, humans slip up, make bad judgement calls and occasionally get things wrong. Again, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about massive mistakes every day but, as a leader, when your own public rhetoric is so strong, every little doesn’t help – as the saying doesn’t go.
It only has to be a minor thing: they deviated from school policy just a tiny bit; they agreed to one thing to a child and yet denied it to another; they marked a correctly calculated sum wrong by mistake; they (and this will happen next term I guarantee it) get their ‘he’ and ‘she’ mixed up when writing their 29th end of year report. But when this miniscule error is presented to me, normally by a parent, you can’t help but feel a bit silly, irritated and wonder why people can’t just do things exactly the way you told them! And if you didn’t explicitly ‘tell’ them, why can’t they just bloody well guess what you want!
There were moments during Monday’s meeting when, on hearing Sean make very clear to us exactly how inspectors should operate, those of us who have experienced Ofsted recently were able to point out that, although that may be how he envisages inspectors behaving, it ain’t always necessarily so.
• It really is all about the SATs.
• They really do have a bias regarding best practice.
• Some really don’t follow the handbook properly.
• Minds really are made up before the visit has started.
Sean reassured. Sean empathised. Sean promised. At times, Sean denied. But I suspect there were times when Sean was thinking: ‘Thanks a lot you bunch. I’m trying my hardest here and you idiots are making it bloody impossible.’
It can’t be helped. It’s what happens when you run a massive organisation. You can’t micro-manage every employee. What you can do though, and this is what Sean is committed to, and to which I, and pretty much everyone else in the room, thought was a great idea, is rigorous training and future-proofing. The new framework will require further training for future inspectors as well as a drive to bring it back in-house. Less outsourcing and more HMI. This can only be a good thing and should provide some extra quality assurances, so that we, along with Sean, can sit back and relax when the inspectors arrive because we will know the standards and expertise they bring with them. Because unlike when a member of my staff drops the ball, and the consequences are relatively minor and can be addressed instantly, the same, sadly, cannot be said for when an inspector miscalls.