Last week, almost 12 months earlier than expected, we had the call that we were to be inspected. Ofsted would be with us for the next two days. The usual mixture of substance and theatre would apply. Staff informed and briefed. Assemblies for every year group to remind them of the messages from every other assembly: politeness, good behaviour etc. The SEF review was to be presented that Tuesday so, fortuitously, we were ready with this. In fact, despite the frustration of the timing, we were ready in so many ways. Internal data had been collected and analysed, the final RAISE had been soaked up and discussed at length. We have even had, barely 8 school weeks earlier, a commissioned inspection by a private company of experienced Ofsted inspectors who pointed out some fairly difficult “home” truths. Almost all of which we have acted upon in the time since. We were actually as ready as we could be.
The team arrived and the lead met with the Principal. As polite and approachable a collection of inspectors as I have ever met. The obligatory introduction to the staff was different in tone to other inspections I have experienced, the Lead telling the staff that they should be reassured that despite the fact they were making judgements on lessons, a favourable one did not necessarily mean a forever good or outstanding teacher. The same, he added, was true of a less than favourable outcome. A nice touch and not one he had to share I’m sure. The staff: suitably nonplussed. They were being inspected. We all know how that feels, reassurance or not.
The atmosphere around school was, frankly, delightful. Kids and staff alike had raised their game and were responding to requests to accommodate both the visitors and the expectations we are trying to work towards. We all lived up to our new building as the inspection team seemed to glide through the day. Polite and, reasonably unobtrusive.
Feedback from meetings was positive. Colleagues receiving lesson feedback at least appeared to be suggesting more “good” than anything else. The interim meeting suggested that, in many senses, it was “all to play for”. Pretty positive, within our context, it is important to note.
Within the atmosphere of calm determination, kids and staff kept up a wonderful commitment to the cause. It was a palpable feeling that everyone was pulling in the same direction. A highlight during break duty: the site of Year 10 boys approaching an inspector, shaking his hand and really passing the time of day with him. It made myself and the Principal (whose assembly earlier in the term had suggested this conduct) grin.
More meetings and some clear issues came to the fore. You kind of expect this. However it does add to the stress of the approaching verdict. From my perspective, the day went well. Teaching and Learning came out reasonably well. A swift meeting with a very reasonable inspector confirmed our SEF as “brutally honest” and ensured that we appear know “exactly where we are”. He was approachable and actually quite complimentary. I also conducted a joint observation with him, as clear cut an outstanding lesson as you will ever see. He agreed with my judgement and then, awkwardly, observed me provide feedback. This was all fine. Other colleagues did the same, and were praised in feedback.
One anomaly: as Teaching and Learning lead and English teacher, I wasn’t observed. No idea why.
The day continued and we began the waiting. Time went by and myself and the other Assistant Principal began to worry that, if the feedback and discussion was taking this long, did that mean that things had taken a negative turn?
Predictably, and those of you who have been through an Ofsted will know that the report and the finding is largely based on data. Rightly or wrongly, achievement data drives the overall judgement. It follows that, if achievement is not up to the standard expected, then teaching and learning can’t be, in which case behaviour and safety can’t be contributing to the learning in the way they should. And what is so frustrating is that leadership and management is hamstrung by these judgements. No matter what data can be presented to show initial impact and strategies that have been implemented, leadership is judged in line with the other outcomes.
We got what we got last time. We had to. Due to the early arrival of our visitors, we had no “new” data to present that showed our improvement. The data, as I was told at the end of my teaching and learning meeting, would largely dictate the judgement.
The initial feedback reads well. We have, realistically, improved a lot, even in the time I have been in post. But it is all within a grading. Positives abound but the fact remains that we are being asked to “embed” rather than be “embedding”. This is difficult to hear, given the fact that visits could come any time from a year to eighteen months to two years. Where is the time to create and embed the changes that need to be made?
We have made strides forward in so many areas, thanks to determined leadership and management but also in response to, for example, our commissioned Ofsted inspection earlier this year. But, despite eyes being firmly on the ball, it seems that school improvement is like a macabre game of Whack a Mole. Despite dealing with everything in front of you, operationally, and catering strategically, “moving the tiller” when necessary to guide improvement forward. Something else rears it’s ugly head. Be it PSHE or SMSC, behaviour for learning or more determined improvements to teaching and learning, something else becomes the focus of the feedback. It’s the “Whack a Mole” model of school improvement and it’s not dictated by us. Despite this, we need to wield the baseball bat with the word “rapid” carved into it and move determinedly on.
The overwhelming feeling is that of being flat. Resisting the temptation for self congratulation on the minor points in which I was given positives and pulling everything towards the bigger need for Improvement. Striving. Every day.