The importance of being noticed

Being a headteacher of an academy only a few miles from the Trojan horse schools in Birmingham means that I have taken more than a passing interest in the recent developments. It has made me re-visit our own Articles of Association to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a similar situation, especially now that we are a multi academy trust. I know one of the Birmingham schools very well as I’ve inspected it in the past and it truly was an outstanding school. The teaching staff were exceptional and the children delightful and so it’s tragic to see the situation deteriorate in such a way. As a result we are now seeing front page inspection reports that confirm that achievement and teaching are outstanding whilst behaviour and leadership are inadequate. How can that possibly be so? When placed in the context of the Trojan horse scenario it does of course seem plausible.

The government were quick to respond and came up with a two-part solution: (1) Introduce no-notice inspections and (2) Teach British values. (Note: On first draft I mis-typed British as Brutish which the spell-checker allowed to go through. For a fleeting moment I was tempted to leave it, having noted the irony.)  I am certainly not going to be drawn into the ‘British Values’ debate as I have not a clue what these are. However, I do know a little bit about ‘no-notice’ inspections – a concept HMCI is keen to remind us he wanted to introduce several years ago. The notion of ‘no notice’ has therefore been around for a while and the merits and de-merits have been discussed and debated time and time again. Personally, I have no problem with it at all and am more than happy for any inspector to visit my schools un-announced.

But what does concern me is that when inspectors do turn up with no notice, they end up noticing the wrong things. The danger could be that ‘no notice’ means ‘not noticed’. In fact I think I’m more concerned about some Ofsted inspectors taking no notice of all the good things that go in our schools than I am of no-notice inspections. Ever since the demise of the SEF and the Pre-Inspection Briefing it’s almost impossible for headteachers to be able to tell their school’s story and set the inspection in context. Schools are simply too complicated a place to do justice to an inspection without engaging with the rich narrative that sits behind each and every school. As an inspector myself, I used to find the PIB incredibly useful in learning about the school’s context. Without it I feel as if I’m going in to the school ill-equipped. With every will in the world, I worry as an inspector that I might fail to notice a piece of crucial evidence that confirms how well a school is doing.

I know from personal experience as a headteacher on the receiving end of how frustrating this can be. I can recall more than one occasion, when despite my very best efforts, inspectors failed to notice things in my school that I felt were crucial to the inspection and subsequent evidence. On one occasion I even put in a formal complaint taking it right to the final stage. But alas, it made no difference, the complaint was not upheld. At least I tried.

I recall in particular a post-special measures monitoring visit several years ago involving a single inspector.  I remember trying to get the HMI to notice how independent our pupils were when in class. The pupils were lead learners and would decide themselves when they needed to leave their seat and go and find the solution to a problem to help them become unstuck. We didn’t want them to be reliant on simply asking the teacher. This might require the use of one of the 5Bs, perhaps by speaking to a Buddy or looking at the Board (learning wall) before ultimately going to the Boss. Or it could be the use of a TASC wheel that requires pupils to move around the classroom so that they get to Think Actively in a Social Context. We do a lot of envoying, swag-bagging, splatting and rainbowing, all of which require the pupils to move around and talk to each other. Learning is messy, active and lively.

As I was conducting a learning walk with the inspector he entered several classrooms where the pupils were out of their seats and wandering around ‘letting RIP’. In one Year 3 class in particular they were actively engaged in learning experiences that were Real, Immersive and Powerful (RIP). It was fabulous and I was buzzing, confident that we’d nailed it.

I watched as the inspector scribbled furiously on his EF each time a child got out of their seat without telling the teacher. I was urging him to go and talk to the children to hear about what they were doing. He didn’t, instead remaining at the door diligently keeping a record of the number of times a child got out of their seat without asking for the teacher’s permission. He seemed very pre-occupied and it was at this point I sensed things were taking a turn for the worse.

We left the classroom and discussed the lesson. He wasn’t impressed. I asked him why and he told me he didn’t like the fact that there was no system in place for children walking around the classroom. I asked what sort of system he would have liked to have seen (Tickets? Formal invites? A rota perhaps?) but he was having none of it. It was the teacher’s job apparently to teach the children the routine correctly, whatever this might have been. Besides, he continued, the children at this age really ought to be able to stay in their seats and learn on their own without keep leaving their desks. I asked him if he’d noticed the learning walls or learning power tools or thinking hats or CoRT 1 thinking tools the pupils kept referring to that helped them learn independently. He said he hadn’t because it was only a brief learning walk, the implication being that he wasn’t expected to notice them. The inspector was so hung-up on the children leaving their seats that he’d failed to notice the powerful learning that was going on around him. I was not in the least bit surprised therefore to read in the final report that the pace of learning in some lessons was slow because ‘classroom routines were not fully embedded…’

Although deflated, the disappointment didn’t last long as ten months later a full inspection team arrived and thankfully noticed exactly the same things and judged the school to be outstanding.

So if we are going to have no-notice inspections, it’s essential that when Ofsted do visit, we as leaders need to make sure they notice all the right things. This has always been one of the criticisms of the inspection regime right back from the days when Ofsted first started over a quarter of a century ago. No matter how complex or challenging schools were, trying to convince an inspector that what they had observed was not necessarily reflective of what goes on all the time was very difficult. So to bring this rather cathartic post to a light-hearted close I am reminded of a story that did the rounds back in the day when Ofsted first emerged. It highlights perfectly the importance of noticing the right things.

An Ofsted Inspector was walking with a friend in a park when he saw a woman throwing a stick into the lake for her dog to fetch. The dog ran up to the water’s edge but instead of diving in to the lake,  it proceeded to walk across the surface of the water, collect the stick in its  mouth and walk back to its master. As if to prove to the astonished onlookers that this was no fluke, the woman threw the stick even further out into the lake. Once again, the dog obediently walked across the surface of the water to retrieve the stick and brought it back to its master. Whilst everyone else continued to be dumbstruck by the awesome event they had just witnessed, the Inspector turned to his friend, shook his head in disbelief and said admonishingly, ‘Would you believe it, a dog that can’t swim’.

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