Welcome to the upside-down.

The Upside Down is an alternate dimension existing in parallel to the human world. It contains the same locations and infrastructure as the human world, but it is much darker, colder and obscured by an omnipresent fog.

[Stranger Things Wiki]

I hope Amanda Spielman wasn’t on Twitter this weekend. I mean, if she’s irritated by all those Headteachers’ blogs that ‘spin up levels of anxiety’ about Ofsted, she really wouldn’t have found #OfstedSongs very funny.

Thinking about it, I think it was a bit churlish for the Chief to have a pop at blogs about Ofsted. I would have thought she’d approve of such things: a singular viewpoint based on a narrow set of experiences gathered over a limited time-frame…isn’t that the original template for the inspection handbook?

Poor old Ofsted. Having to put up with a Colossus of Heads, all chomping at the bit to put the boot in, via their intergalactic blogs. About time someone had a word. I would like to offer a timid riposte, if I may? I don’t think any Headteacher, by sharing their reality of Ofsted, should be accused of ‘spin’. If it was spin, then surely they could be asked to change the content so that it was more in line with the truth. Couldn’t Ofsted, if they felt so aggrieved, complete a factual accuracy check on these blogs?

No blog about Ofsted, that I have read, could be accused of being an unwarranted scare-story. They are sometimes painful to read. But they are often Headteachers articulating their own difficulties with the Ofsted process. I think this is fair enough. Whether they are responding to personal experiences, or, sharing concerns about the known (or unknown) elements of inspection, they are still valid voices. They deserve to be heard – by educators and inspectors – so that Ofsted can evolve.

I agree with Ms Spielman when she talks about those school leaders who have become too focused on Ofsted ratings. A leader’s job is to do what is right for the school because…well, just because! I can’t think of a single decent decision that could be made to please Ofsted that would also guarantee school improvement.

  • Hastily putting up those British Values posters that you bought online…No.
  • Requiring teachers to formally respond to pupils’ responses to teachers’ feedback…Not a chance.
  • Over-aiding Y6 SATS…Nice try.
  • Inventing a progress point system that replicates levels…Dude, just follow @jpembroke already!
  • Buying in a truckload of ‘verbal feedback given’ stamps…That’s sooooo last framework.
  • Forcing staff to have mindfulness staff meetings to support their well-being…Your teachers will destroy you in the Ofsted staff questionnaire.

But these aren’t Heads who are spreading anxiety about Ofsted…they’re just poor leaders who will, most likely, be the ones who are soon bleating about staff retention problems.

So, yes: GO SPIELMAN! Do whatever you can to make sure that Ofsted is not the limit of leaders’ aspirations. But when it comes to uncomfortable blogs about Ofsted, please recognise that it’s you that must change. It’s not the fault of bloggers that, for some leaders, Ofsted dominates their world and causes them to wonder if that’s all there is to headship. That fault lies with you, your predecessors, and your team of Inspectors.

My advice would be to learn from the blogs that seem to be causing you so much pain. Engage with the Heads who are writing them. Don’t dismiss them as spook stories set in an upside-down reality where Ofsted is the ever-lurking Demogorgon. These Heads are writing chapters in the book of your legacy. Just as you should rightly celebrate those blogs that say ‘Ofsted was really positive for us’ you must also take seriously those that call out your failures.

Speaking for myself, I don’t do anything for Ofsted. Not a darn thing. I try to be an effective Head and do my best not to think about you. I consider you to be nothing more than a brief encounter. I hope, when it next happens, it will be fair, without fear and favour. But I’ll be ready if it isn’t. If needs be, I will venture down, into the dark underbelly of the Ofsted upside-down, and I will drag you back up into the light and hold you aloft for all to see.

Listening to you, and Sean Harford, I’m sure that won’t happen. Logic says that if I do what is right by my school then Ofsted will do right by me. That is something that Ofsted and I agree on. So, come on Amanda, let’s lighten up, put on some #OfstedMusic, and dance!

 

What dreams may come?

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I started a new school in September. Compared to my last school, it’s twice the size, is in a more challenging area and has an almost reversed picture of achievement over the last three years. In short: I’ve got my work cut out.

I was told yesterday that I had just passed the 50 days of new headship milestone. That sounded weird. In some ways I already feel such a connection with the school but at the same time, my time here has passed in the blink of an eye. My Deputies and I chuckled at their ‘favourite moments so far’ – which mainly consisted of me being a) lost, b) swearing, c) swearing whilst lost.

My new team are under no illusion about the challenges the school faces. We have a lot to do to turn this big old ‘supertanker’ (as one Head described the school to me) around. But, everyone seems up for it. It all started with the development plan. That was written at a pace that surprised even me – turns out it’s quite easy to write a development plan when the data is only showing one colour, and when the staff are committed to improvement. Despite being only 50 days in, the road to improvement has started in earnest. Although, when my Chair of Governors asked me how far the ‘supertanker’ had already turned I did have to make clear that all we had really done was get the map out on the table for everyone to see…but it’s a start!

In terms of scale, I can’t decide whether this is the biggest challenge I’ve faced as a leader. In terms of ‘bums on seats’, then yes, this school is the biggest. In terms of the scale standards need to improve, then yes, probably.

And yet…

People who know me have commented that I seem more relaxed than I ever have in my entire career. I can’t deny that, for the first time in my adult life, I am sleeping really well. Odd, considering the scale of the challenge I am facing.

Why is this?

Some of this must be down to the ‘honeymoon’ period. I can sleep at night because none of it’s my fault! I don’t mean that I am regularly throwing my predecessor under the bus…that wouldn’t be classy, fair, or truthful. But it is so exhilarating to be the fresh pair of eyes. You can be open to the school’s issues in a way that becomes harder to do once you are entrenched in the systems yourself. I am relishing every opportunity to listen without prejudice and put in place lessons learned. In doing so I can feel other staff members ‘loosen up’ and not take criticism or complaints personally. (I only hope that they can do the same for me later on!)

On reflection, some of my new-found peace and tranquillity is down to having left my previous school behind. There is so much I loved and still treasure about that place. But there were elements that were impacting on me in ways that I now see were causing me immense stress. I shan’t go into details, but it has been incredibly cathartic to experience a new setting where these elements operate differently. Again, I fully expect my new setting to present its own stresses later on down the line, but I feel more confident that I will be able to identify the warning signs and put in place measures to maintain organisational appropriateness as well as my own well-being.

Another reason why I am so cock-a-hoop at the moment is: why wouldn’t I be? It’s a new start, baby! This is the fun bit. This is the time you get to know the school and the people in it, you find its groove and you work out how best to help it evolve into something even stronger. What’s not to love? I focus on three things: equity, unity and responsibility. Get everyone (staff, pupils, governors and parents) approaching their work in school with those three ideas at the forefront of their mind and nothing seems impossible.

Plus, at the moment, it all seems to be going alright…woohoo!

The one catch, of course, is Ofsted. Technically, we’re due an inspection in January. And how sad that the one thing causing me anxiety is a 24 hour (although most likely 48 hour) visitation? The fact is, I don’t trust them. I don’t trust them – and by ‘them’ I mean each individual inspector – to make the right call. I worry that (and I am not a data denier) they could come in, be heavy handed with the stats, presume I don’t know or care, and ultimately, mess up my plan. You see, I know that improvement takes time. There’s loads I want to do at my new school but it’s not all in my SDP. It couldn’t be. If I put everything I wanted to improve inside the plan the school would suffocate. I believe you’ve got to take things one step at a time. Some of that means that not everything is going to be up to ‘my’ standard for quite a while. I am OK with that.

But will that be good enough for Ofsted?

The problem with that question is that there are multiple answers depending on the team you get. And that is nub of the Ofsted issue. I used to think that I would always want Ofsted to visit in the first year of any headship. They’d add weight to my convictions and support my journey to improvement. Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t feel I need them to come in and judge what I already know. I certainly don’t want them advising on what my development plan should be covering because they won’t know the school like I do. I definitely don’t want my school derailed by a wonky report.

Most of all though, I don’t want to lose any sleep because I’m afraid of what Ofsted dreams may come.

Cruelty, thy name is blog.

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I write this a wounded man. There I was, going about my twittering day, trying to add my voice to the collective grunt of agony for a blog about injuries sustained whilst teaching. Having submitted my tale, I awaited in anticipation for the forthcoming anthology of professional ouch.

Finally, the moment arrived. Like an over-excited teenager, flicking through the pages of smash-hits to see if their letter about ‘It’s a sin’ sounding a bit like ‘Wild World’ was going to be the star letter of the week, I quickly scanned through this blog, only to find that my injury…Didn’t. Make. The. Cut.

I swiped back to the top. There must be a reason for this. This blogger had said that they had ignored responses relating to damaged pride, credibility or dreams. They excluded mental health injuries and paper cuts. Well, dear readers, my injury was no papercut! Then, this blogger says that he had researched the more suspicious ones.

Was that it?

Was my tale so outlandish that it beggared belief?

I began to put myself in the mind of the blogger: what lengths would he go to, to satisfy his cynicism? I immediately contacted Mother. Had she received any phone calls from strange gentlemen enquiring about my knees? She had not. I tracked down my old Head, the very man who had covered me in ice-packs to curb the swelling whilst drying my tears with his tie. Had anyone asked him to write a confirmation email confirming my tale? He seemed not to remember anything about my injury and, in fact, demanded to know who I was and how I had got his number, before swearing that BT’s suspicious call blocker service being on the bloody blink again and slamming the phone down.

A setback but not a defeat. As I continued to connect with this blogger’s mindset – like an educational warg – I concluded that, even if he had met such a stumbling block as my forgetful, and potty-mouthed, ex-head, he would not give up. A true traditionalist, he would demand more evidence. So, I contacted my GP to see if anyone had requested my files. They had not. I tried to find the surgeon who had operated on me, but, after conducting a 36-hour stakeout in the hospital parking lot, I was told by a carpark attendant – who was as verbally aggressive as he was certain about the rules of hospital parking – that I would have to leave or face a proper clamping. I left.

Maybe this blogger, whose pedantry for particulars makes the Geneva Convention look like a half-written rulebook for Risk, would look further afield. I got in touch with both my physio and osteopath to see if anyone had been snooping around enquiring about the stretchability of my left knee and my ever-strengthening core. They shook their heads, helped me squeeze into my spandex shorts and asked if they could give me the phone number of someone who I could, you know, just talk to, if I felt ready.

I was left with only one further option. I had to contact the teacher who had lured me away from my classroom, on that fateful day, and put me in the sphere of danger. We hadn’t spoken for years. She, because of the guilt that haunted her like a demonic IQ evangelist who just won’t quit. Me, because I had moved school and am appalling at keeping in touch. I asked someone who used ‘face book’ to find her, and within moments I was on my way to a ‘star bucks’ to meet, latte, biscotti and chat. She was delighted to see me and asked me many questions about my success. I only had one question. I was a bit disappointed with her reply. Not because it confirmed my worst fear: that this blogger, this biographer of pain, hadn’t been in touch with her at all, but because when recalling the incident, she was cruel, belittling and, in her description of my response to what happened at the time, anything but gender-neutral.

In conclusion, my research suggested that the blogging man had not investigated my tale at all.

This is, and I am not exaggerating, an absolute bleeding travesty.

Don’t fret for me, readers. It is you I feel sorry for. There you were, half-heartedly scrolling down the blog wondering if there was anything of interest to share at the next health and safety briefing, and without knowing it, you were denied a tale that would have quite possibly revolutionised your risk assessment for slightly tall humans sitting in little chairs.

I am not sure one can forgive after this. I believe an apology would be apt. I think I am, nay, we are, owed one. And, I would expect it to be complemented by a sincere explanation for my exclusion. Maybe one day I will face my demons and commit to writing down the horror, in excessive detail, for you. But for now, I will leave you with this bit of advice:

Don’t sit on a small chair and try to squish your knees under a tiny table.

May some good come from this.