Seizing Success Conference – Day two

seizing-success-tree(Sorry for any grammatical errors but this is written on a phone)
Well, despite a bad experience with Skype and no spare pair of trousers, I enjoyed my first day of the national college conference so I awoke with a spring in my step and ready for day two.
First up a speech by Pam Warhurst about her propaganda gardens as part of her edible incredible scheme. This was fantastic and inspiring and a testament to how far a simple idea can go, if you let it and if you take other people along the way. There were some great ideas here: if you eat: you’re in, sometimes action is more effective without a three year action plan, give people a real opportunity and they will contribute back a future investment worth ten times more, and people don’t,  it turns out, vandalise food. Talking to another head about starting this food for the community idea in our own schools we found ourselves thinking too far ahead. We had to stop and think about Pam’s key message: start small and let it grow and evolve naturally. I can’t wait to see how my own school propaganda garden starts and ends.
Then it was Charlie Taylor, the new chief executive of the national college, who took to the floor to put across his vision for the national college. To say he delivered a clear and concise mesage would be like saying Skype is a reliable replacement for a state of the art satellite link. He began with an anecdote about an inadequate lesson he did as a young teacher, very funny and we’ve all been there. But then he decided to follow this up with a fairly inadequate speech, now this was either nerves or a post modern attempt to allow us to relive the bad lesson experience from his past, looking back I’m still not sure. He mentioned education being school led, then he said something about sharing good practice, then something about governors, then something about ignoring government. All of this whilst drinking more water than I would have thought was humanly possible. (Seriously, don’t get into a drinking competition with Charlie because you will lose.) Maybe Gove had said to him beforehand “Look, I’m on after you and it may be a tough crowd, so do me a favour and make sure I look good’. I can’t be sure. He seems like a nice guy but if you want to find out what he was trying to get at, I suggest you read the blog put out by the national college afterwards.
A chill came over the room and twitter went into a frenzy as people began saying Gove was in the room and indeed he was, not to give a speech but to take part in a q&a session. A mix of agreed in advance questions and ones straight from the floor. As a politician, Gove is always worth the price of admission. To start with he said that he was accountable to all us head teachers; there was a healthy laugh that spread around the room and at that point he actually winked at us, either to say ‘I know, I don’t believe half the stuff I say either but it keeps me amused’ or to say ‘bring it on bitches’. He delivered a professional politician’s performance: talked a lot but didnt really say anything, responded to questions without ever really answering them and managing at times to come across as a ‘listener’. He only offended the room once or twice: ‘think of the children’ got a fairly angry groan and saying that he ‘doesn’t like to look to the past’ got a big laugh and even he seemed to acknowledge that this was pretty funny.
From the pair of them, the gist seems to be that ‘school led’ improvement translates into…you do it on your own without any authority support. If you do really well you should develop by taking on/over other schools, if you don’t do well, then, well, you’ll be supported/taken over by other schools. Gove wants to listen to us but he seems to lack any emotional intelligence. Yesterday Sir Terry Leahy talked about how leaders should trust their employees;  I cant think of another time  where those in education have felt so untrusted by the people in power: those who are meant to be our leading lights.
Anyway, he didn’t shout at us and it was all in fairly good spirits and humour so I didn’t feel too dejected, plus I knew Mick Waters was on at 2.30pm.
And I’m pleased to say he didn’t disappoint. He was so good. Interesting, bang on the money about the wealth of educational potential that is being wasted by a stifling curriculum. He showed us fabulous examples of how children achieved incredible things and how schools are responsible for helping children achieve their potential and learn about the wider aspects of the world. Highlights included using the news to teach the full curriculum;  Mick saying that if he had his time again he would pretend he couldn’t write; and a video clip of him trying to convince a primary pupil that they are called SATS because you do them sitting down: ‘otherwise they’d be called stands wouldn’t they?’ He also provided a far better analysis of Gove’s speech than I have. He got a huge round of applause and I promptly went and bought his book.
Now, I’m off to buy some trousers.

Ofsted – it may have been tough but it made me realise how much I care


Since becoming Head Teacher of a new school in September I felt I had a proportionately dispassionate view of the school. I had invested all of my energies so far in establishing what sort of school it was and working out the most effective way of making it my school. This meant re-establishing a school vision, ethos, set of expectations for standards and galvanizing the whole school community together. I had been pleased with how rapidly things got moving and as we entered 2013, after two terms, I felt that although it was becoming my school, my judgement of the school was still firmly rooted in the past. I believed that this was a luxury and I used it almost as a suit of armour: I could robustly challenge everything but with a safety net of it not being my fault. This also worked well with staff as I wasn’t necessarily judging or ‘blaming’ them but the systems under which they had been operating. This also allowed them the freedom to commit whole heartedly to my vision (or move on).

The pace of change since September had been rapid with numerous systems and structures being developed, invented, and implemented: all designed to improve standards across the school…at some point. I made the judgement call that the systems had to be in place first, in line with everyone’s commitment to them and then we could focus on using those systems to improve and monitor their effectiveness. So, I felt that I was in the ideal place for an early inspection and I hoped the school would get a challenging inspection judgement to help justify my changes. I was certain that I would be immune to any feelings of responsibility of past standards and that I would only feel fortified and reassured, ready to push on some more.

And then I got the phone call.

I was fine, I kept my cool and as I calmly told staff and reassured them that we knew what we had to do, I was certain that I could convince Ofsted that I was the right person, in the right school, doing the right job. As the first day continued, two rather unpleasant feelings began to run through me in successive waves: I was not doing the right job and I was letting everybody down.

I have never felt so inadequate in my life especially when trying to justify whole school trends over time after spending 22 weeks in the job. The ‘narrative’ of the school that I had been telling myself, my staff, my governors, my parents was falling on deaf ears. Suddenly the firm ground I had been standing on was crumbling from underneath me as the inspection began spiralling out of my control. I was terrified.

By late afternoon, I had concluded that my judgement on how to play the inspection had completely failed. I had planned to be incredibly positive. Positive about the inspection, positive about the judgement I knew we would get, positive about the size of the task in hand, positive about the abilities of everyone to get the job done. This evidently is not what the Ofsted team wanted to hear. Instead, they wanted to hear me say how awful I thought everything was and how when I had first arrived I had thought the school was a bloody disgrace to education. If they had heard that come from my lips, only then would they believe that the governors had backed a winner when they appointed me.

If at this point I was feeling inadequate as a leader, it was after the team had left that I began to feel even worse. Why? Because everyone was being so, well, nice. Teachers, support staff, governors and many parents began rallying around me saying incredibly supportive things to me. (Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t curled up on the floor weeping and declaring that the school might as well be taken out to the knacker’s yard and shot) but as I went around trying to support them, it was clear that they wanted to support me. It was then that I realised I wasn’t as detached to this school as I had tried to make myself believe. I also realised that my initial plan for improving the school had worked: everyone was united and behind me but sadly this just made me feel worse. On the outside I was trying very hard to put on a calm and brave face but inside all I was thinking was: ‘You’ve all put your faith in me…and all I’ve done is let you down.’ It was almost too much and that was the real surprise: I love my school!

Luckily, day two went better. The team seemed more willing to listen and they finally began to say the same things that I had been saying all throughout day one. By the end of the inspection they concluded that I did in fact know the issues of the school and I could be trusted to implement improvements. Was it frustrating to have them write areas to develop that were identical to the ones I had identified on my school development plan and school self-evaluation plan? Maybe.  Did they have to conduct day one with their ears blocked and eyes closed and unable to listen to my story? Maybe not. But, due to their uncompromising attitudes throughout that day they allowed me to see, for the first time, that I am leading a school community who trust me and want me to do my job to improve their school. They also made me realise that I am possibly, more attached to the school than anyone else and for that I suppose I should be grateful. So through slightly gritted teeth: ‘Thank you Ofsted.’