Judging the judges

Earlier this week I wrote a piece for the Guardian with the headline ‘A message to the new chief inspector of schools: on your first day, scrap your job’. You can find the digital version here.

It received encouraging support on Twitter, and I am grateful to those of you that found the time to retweet it or engage with the debate. I received some lovely emails as well, many from people that I’ve never met.

One in particular came from a retired teacher of forty years. He said, ‘the point of view that you express is precisely how teachers have felt about the lottery that is an Ofsted inspection for some years.’ He continued by summing up the general consensus of feeling when having been on the end of an inspection:

‘I never found the experience one that inspired me or made me want to pursue avenues that would significantly improve my practice, rather I was just relieved to see the back of the whole affair… It is approaching the point where it is becoming both repressive and inhibiting the creative energies of young people. No wonder so many are leaving the profession.

The irony of course, is that only last week the chief inspector was raising concerns about the fact that so many teachers were choosing to leave teaching and work abroad. The solution was to offer them golden handcuffs. You may have heard the Radio Four interview on the morning of his announcement. The presenter was quick to remind Sir Michael that there was nothing ‘golden’ about them. They were just handcuffs.

If you have followed my blog recently, you will know that I was forced to resign from being an inspector after 7 years. Ofsted wanted me to take down a blog post I wrote but I refused and so resigned. I resolved that I’d much rather be remembered as a headteacher who writes, than a headteacher who inspects.

You can read the offending blog post here along with a follow-up here. What saddens me most about all of this is the fact that Ofsted have still not bothered  replying to my letter. As a leader myself, I’d like to think I’d never be like that. I’d at least thank the person for their loyal service, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with their views. Instead, I received a nice one-line  email from someone in head office saying I’d been deleted with immediate effect. Class.

I’m very grateful that Ross McGill @TeacherToolkit has taken up the cause. He put together a brilliant summary of all of the above, within hours of the Guardian article. If you don’t have time to read any of my posts above, then go here and read his summary.

In the meantime, here’s a very brief extract from my forthcoming book, ‘The Art of Standing Out’. It’s from a chapter called ‘Judging the Judges’, where I lament (and celebrate) my experiences of inspection over an 18 year career as a headteacher and more recently an inspector:

I loved working for Ofsted. I felt I was making a difference in some small way. It was fabulous professional development for myself, as it was always a privilege to be able to have access to the intimate workings of a school. Strange as it may seem, I always felt a sense of pride wearing the badge. It was also a great experience to see first-hand some truly brilliant headteachers operating in the most stressful of circumstances. You really do see the real leader emerge when people are under pressure, and boy there are some superb people out there.

Magnanimous, humble, uber-passionate and always fiercely determined to fight for their school, heads very, very rarely went down without a fight. Despite having to maintain a professional front whilst on Ofsted duty, I can’t deny that under my breath I’d be egging them along. “Go on my son…Get in there!” I’d be doing exactly the same as a headteacher myself if I was in the same situation. Likewise, as inspectors, we’d expect nothing less.

I can’t say this was always the case, and for some of my colleagues the experience was simply too much to bear. It was tragic to see decent, honourable headteachers unravel before your very eyes. It was car-crash. At times, I just wanted to take them to one side and put an arm around them, but I knew I couldn’t. They were broken, crestfallen.

The fear of failure is ever-present when on an inspection. It’s so tangible, like cordite hanging in the air. Over the years, as headteachers we’ve come to accept this as being an acceptable occupational hazard. We’ve become boiled frogs.

You may or may not be aware of the boiled frog analogy. If you don’t, then may I suggest you buy the book, as all will be revealed in chapter 4. I believe in fact you can pre-order a copy here at a bargain price of only £15.

I hope to post further extracts from the book over the coming months, so I’d love to know what you think.

‘The Art of Standing Out: Transforming your school to outstanding and beyond’ is published by John Catt later this year.

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