You’re only as good as the sum of your parts

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.

Who do you think I am?






I am anonymous. I am aware that some people know exactly who I am and that doesn’t particularly bother me. I am also aware that it probably wouldn’t take a particularly highly skilled hacker a lot of time to uncover my identity. But the truth is, I am happier blogging and tweeting anonymously. Why? Because I think it provides me with a smidgen of freedom. Now don’t misunderstand me, I do not consider myself to be an influential underground freedom fighter relentlessly sticking it to the man. There is nothing that I blog or tweet about that I wouldn’t say in person to anyone else, and, as my blog is about me, I have often shared my thoughts with people in the real world before posting them online.

So why, you may ask, do I bother with anonymity?

For the simple reason that it makes my life easier. It frees me from any line blurring. My Twitter timeline isn’t a mixture of my own comments juxtaposed with updates on the school tombola. @theprimaryhead* can ask for help, moan, celebrate, mock, support, and comment on anything, without members of staff, governors or parents explicitly being exposed to it and judging me accordingly. That, believe me, is quite liberating. By being anonymous I have a little bit less accountability too, which, as any Head will tell you, is a blessing. Less accountability, however, does not give me licence to be a pillock. It is unlikely, even when I’m at my most annoyed (and therefore most vulnerable to making a misplaced online comment), that I will broadcast anything so controversial so as to upset anyone who stumbles across it. I understand my real world responsibilities and don’t wish to make someone cry, resign, or, take a law suit out against me so I end up getting sacked.

With regards to my blog, being anonymous allows me to exist within a very comfortable ‘grey area’ between writing as an actual Head and as an aspirational one. I have never lied about my experiences and I do not use the blog to create a fictionalised ‘better’ version of me, but, by committing to ‘blog-print’ my beliefs and values, it helps me stay on the straight and narrow when I’m back in reality and trying to lead a school. I know the leader I want to be and my blog can help me explore that.

One criticism about anonymity online is that others cannot trust your credentials and therefore your words carry with them little or no validity. ‘If you’re so right about everything why don’t you come out into the open and stop hiding? What’s the problem? Worried that people will see you for what you are?’ No. But I’m not writing my blog for them; I’m writing it for me. If my words resonate with people, for whatever reason, then that’s just swell, but them knowing or not knowing who I am does not strengthen or weaken that resonance. You can either choose to believe me or you can choose not to-it’s all the same to me. Who you choose to think I am is not my concern and I am not asking to be anything else than one among a million voices, contributing to the online world of educational debate. I do not need to stand up and be counted, but that doesn’t mean that my anonymous views don’t count for something.

*If you ever hear me talk about myself in the third person again, please unfollow me immediately.


My highly esteemed friend on twitter @emmaannhardy posed a question the other evening:

I keep hearing about Mocksteds in schs & the crazy pressure they put staff under.  I wondered what you thought to Mocksteds @HarfordSean?

Now, I am not Sean Harford and I don’t know what one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors and the National Director for Schools has to say on the matter, but Emma’s tweet got me thinking. I have never experienced a Mocksted and I don’t think I would ever organise one for my school. Not least because I agree with Emma’s point about the ‘crazy pressure they put staff under’ but more for the simple reason that I don’t see the point.
Why would a Head decide to carry out a pretend Ofsted in their school? As far as I can work out, there are three reasons:

1. They just can’t wait!
It’s like a child who simply has to open a Christmas present on Christmas Eve because they can’t bear the tension anymore! The inspection could be a result of two things, one being that the school is long overdue an inspection and the Head can’t resist a sneaky peak at what the judgement might be, so they draft in an ‘in it for the cash’ A-team bunch of Ofsted mercenaries who will put you through your paces and give you a judgement that you may or may not get in the real world. The second is that the Head can’t wait to leave the school but Ofsted aren’t going to turn up in the foreseeable future and they need something to put on the CV, so, again, they draft in the Mocksted team and hope that the sentence: ‘A group of paid people visited my school and gave me a judgement that has all the validity of a forged passport’ will get them the job. My advice: patience my friends, patience. They’ll come eventually and, when they do, you won’t be able to wave your Mocksted judgement in the air while spluttering ‘But, but but…’ when it hasn’t gone your way.

2. They just don’t know!
Far more distressing is the possibility that a Head doesn’t know how good the school is and considers the Mocksted to be some kind of fortune telling genie that’ll do the job for them. There is the argument that a new Head, who has arrived at a point where the last Ofsted was a long time ago and the next one may be a long way ahead, may wish to draw a line in the sand by getting the Mockers in. But, in all honesty, surely the cons outweigh the pros? If you’re trying to prove to a school that they’re not as good as they think they are, then for your own sanity, find a more inclusive way of getting that message across to the people you’re meant to be leading. If you’re not a new Head, then shame on you. I mean, come on, muster up a smidgen of courage and put your own judgement on the SEF and see if it sticks. If you honestly don’t know, then, if you’re a locally maintained school ask your school improvement officer; if you’re an academy, ask the executive Head; and if you’re a Free school, well, go and ask a Toby Young, I suppose.

3. They don’t know you!
This is basically the same as number 2 insofar as it suggests that the senior leaders don’t have a strong enough handle on your capabilities as a teacher. Now, this may be because they don’t know how to judge teaching or it may be that they know their judgement of you but they want to check how you ‘perform’. This is rather distasteful and belies the whole point of triangulated evidence over time (which is soooooo 2015) and would suggest the SLT don’t keep very good evidence. It could of course mean that they do know you and are wise to the fact that you literally have a nervous breakdown whenever you’re observed and they’re worried how you’re going to react when an inspector walks in. Again though, I don’t see how a Mocksted is going to help, especially as you actually may need some help, as in support, not just practice in crying into your book corner until the nasty inspector walks away.

Whatever the reason for a Mocksted, I personally think that there are more effective ways for a leader to a) judge and b) improve their own school. My biggest reason for not conducting a Mocksted of my own, however, is consistency. There is just no guarantee that on any given day, any given observers will judge a school the same way. When anyone visits your school, the only variable is the group of visitors filling in the forms and yet the variability in consequences is gargantuan. Judgements can vary between senior leaders conducting observations in the same school; school improvement officers will think differently when visiting the same school; and the same goes for HMI inspectors and Ofsted inspection teams. To conduct a Mocksted and to then expect consistency in judgements forever after is a nonsense. Now I’m not saying that is correct, but it’s the way it is. So, why put your staff through it? Why put yourself through it? Save your money, get into your classrooms, work with your teachers and forget all about Mocksted and Ofsted…well, between 12:15pm on Wednesday and Monday morning anyway.


A piece of advice I heard about ten years too late but am now going to try out…

Don’t make judgements anyway.

There is no law that says your self-evaluation has to contain an actual judgement based on the Ofsted framework. So, don’t bother. Know what is good. Know what needs improving. Get on with it. Let the external observers do the dirty work of judging for you and allow yourself the dignity of carrying on improving outcomes for your children with the professionalism you’ve earned.