Other than to my mum (obviously) it is getting harder to figure out who I answer to for my school’s performance. To give you some idea of the level of confusion here’s a quick who’s who of the usual suspects:
It is a bit like being a child whose parents have split and therefore has 2 pairs of parents/step parents who don’t communicate with each other, all wanting to impose a different set of rules and not knowing who is in charge.
Here I think of OFSTED as my somewhat distant father who has custody of me very rarely (currently for only one day every 3 years) but who has strict rules which I’m supposed to understand are there to help me be a better person. I am always scrupulously polite to him as I know the severe consequences of angering or disappointing him, but secretly I have come to dislike and resent him intensely.
The Regional Schools Commissioner is a somewhat creepy new step mum whose motivations and expectations I haven’t yet managed to work out and who I don’t really trust.
The Local Authority is my mother whose position has been eroded. She spends a lot of time trying to be my friend rather than my mum, but occasionally realises this is inappropriate and over-reacts.
The private School Improvement Company is mum’s abusive new partner who thinks she’s being too soft and therefore feels it’s his responsibility to apply the iron rod of discipline that mum doesn’t deliver.
And so to the story…
We are now 3 and a half going on 4 years from our last inspection; we are well in the window of fear. We have been very busy firstly trying to do the best job we can for our children, but also checking that we have everything in order ready to show an inspector, especially since our writing data last year, then Maths this year were for various reasons disappointing. In these circumstances we would welcome any support and advice to help us retain our ‘good’ category, and from my point of view even more so since this will be my last OFSTED before I retire in July.
My excellent team all know exactly where we stand with having an uphill task with inspectors and we have been hard at work making sure that we have all the evidence we need to support our case with previous data, and that we can show how well children in the school are currently doing, but without getting so obsessive about it that we stop giving the children such a good deal.
In the middle of this comes our Local Authority with their school improvement private company/partner. They have looked at our data and decided, justifiably in my view, that the school is in some danger of losing its good grade. However, suddenly and somewhat suspiciously at the end of the summer, all the local consultants who know the school, know me and have worked with us for years, previously with the LEA and now for the Improvement Partner company, retired en-mass. I received a call from one of their new consultants saying that they were going to do an evaluation visit. I responded politely and said that we welcomed the opportunity to get to know new advisory team and that we also were concerned to make sure that the school gets it right/continues to give the children the best opportunities. I also said that while I welcome constructive visits, I am not in favour of mock inspections which damage schools and don’t add value. She assured me that it would not be a mock inspection.
Meanwhile I had spoken to a colleague who had experienced one of these ‘evaluation visits’ and described it as worse than actual inspection. She shared the timetable with me and it looked exactly like the timetable for a real inspection even including feeding grades back to governors at the end. I awaited our plan with some trepidation and my concerns proved well founded when I was emailed something almost identical. I called up the consultant and asked her what differentiated this from a ‘Mocksted’. The only bit of her answer that made any sense was when she said that they had called it an ‘Evaluation Visit’ instead.
I also enquired why the template for the visit was almost exactly the same as one for another school that I had seen. The process seemed to be a ‘one size fits all’ approach that ignored the context of the school. The lack of professional courtesy and trust annoyed me too. Now I am not boasting but merely providing context when I say that I have led schools in my authority through 4 successful OFSTEDs (two schools, two inspections each) all in quite challenging circumstances and so being treated like a rookie head in front of my staff felt like a total lack of respect for my experience and hard work for the children and authority.
Meanwhile my colleague phoned to say how her visit had gone. She was incandescent with fury saying that her staff were on the floor after the experience and that she felt that her leadership had been undermined with them. She was now really hoping that she had at least a couple of months for them to recover before her real inspection
Supported by my highly principled deputy, I tried my best to negotiate the most unhelpful parts of the process away: the grade, the judgemental nature, the being done to rather than being helped with, but with little success. The consultant told me that other schools had found the process useful and gave me the name of a colleague who she’d recently conducted a review with who could back that up. Guess who that was?
I wonder how honest we are as heads when people ask for feedback. Once inspected by OFSTED do we positively fill in the questionnaire out of relief that they’ve gone, and out of a childlike fear that they will come back, or share a negative evaluation with the next team to come in? And so it seems with the Local Authority. I feel that we need to be more confident as school leaders and defend ourselves by being honest about these things by saying when they are unhelpful, and I’m as guilty on this as the next head for example…
I am not boasting but merely providing context when I say Inspectors have left all my inspections truly believing we found their input helpful and developmental, which just goes to show what a good liar I have become (sorry about that Mr Garvey).
Into the fray steps the hero of this tale, my superb chair of governors who spoke to our regional OFSTED director and others before informing the consultant that he would not let her on the premises (on a technicality he had found – dm me if you want to find out more). This ground the process to a halt.
Here I should perhaps be very explicit about what I’m saying and what I’m against. I am all in favour of the local authority knowing how things are going at the school and very open on our strengths and weaknesses. However we all know how stressful inspections can be, although consultants who have not worked in school for many years might have forgotten, and how they require us to dig deep into reserved that once depleted take months or even years to recover. Schools are amazing places at inspection times burning with a bright flame but this cannot be sustained and exacts a heavy price on everyone in the school. We are often at our flattest immediately afterwards. This impacts on everyone and takes time and energy to reverse.
We then had a visit from the new big boss of the consultancy, whose predecessor was universally known as The Grim Reaper, as you only ever saw him in interviews and when you were in trouble (except for that one time I got free tickets to see a magician/hypnotist at a local small theatre and was called up on stage to pretend the chair was glued to my backside etc and I looked out to see him and his young family glaring at me from the centre of the fourth row, but that’s another story). She was able to negotiate with myself and my chair a revised format for the day that did away with the judgemental bits (though of course they would have some idea by the end and be able to report back to local authority) and hence the grand feedback of grades. They will be working with us to see how accurate our self evaluation is. They will still sit with my excellent deputy and be very thorough about the data and action plans. They will still be rigorous with me in looking at safeguarding and they will still look around the classes and look at books. Crucially though,the whole purpose of the day will be to give us advice on how to improve or how to present our case more coherently to make sure we retain our good grade, rather than on locking themselves up in a private room and then emerging to give us a grading which will have no real validity or significance for OFSTED, who would disregard it anyway and make up their own mind.
Our key message was that we are busy getting ready for real inspection, we do not want to deplete our energy and exhaust our staff on something that is of little real-world consequence and then not be ready for the real deal. Our schools are Schrodinger’s Cats, you can’t measure us without collapsing our waveform and it wastes a lot of energy (not to mention kitty litter) to rebuild it.
Sean Harford, OFSTED’s National Director of education has been very clear on Twitter (@HarfordSean) that schools should not waste their money on conducting Mocksteds or Quasi-inspections because they do not add value and in fact become a distraction from our real purpose of providing a high quality education for the children. Even,as in our case, when the school doesn’t have to pay the distraction is still there and I understand that OFSTED will be advising against this approach too.
There are many better ways for the authority to evaluate:
Far be it from me to tell local authorities how to evaluate schools, but if I did I might suggest that they simply come in and have a cup of coffee (or beverage of their choice since I don’t subscribe to a one size fits all refreshment policy) and talk to the head about the challenges facing the school and then have a look around and maybe look at books etc and plan together a programme of support.
Equally far be it from me to tell Mr Harford and his fellow inspectors how to make sure that Local Authorities don’t impose, and independent ex inspectors don’t sell, the MOCKSTED approach which actually harms school, but if I did I might suggest that they include commentary on it in their reports. For example:
The school’s improvement ambitions have been significantly hampered by inappropriate interventions from the local authority and their partners offering unofficial and unhelpful grades and judgements rather than working with school leadership to identify what support is needed and then deliver it. Fortunately, in this case, the head was able to use their ferocious intelligence and film star good looks to inspire staff to overcome this impediment.
The moral of my story is that, with the support of a good chair of governors and leadership team, you can take control of these processes and make them useful. So what happens next? Will the revised process be more helpful? And will OFSTED go well. That’s a story for another day…
An, as alway, the last word should go to The Clash
Sean H don’t like it
Mock the MOCKSTED
Mock the MOCKSTED
Sean H don’t like it
Scrap the MOCKSTED
Scrap the MOCKSTED