We’ve had the inspectors in. The new term was barely three hours old and we got the call. So in they came – days two and three – and they were all over us like a rash.
I’m still scratching, hoping the itch will go away. Those of you who have been through Ofsted know only too well how it can get right under your skin to the point that it feels tattooed on your soul. Perhaps a tad melodramatic, but you’ll know what I mean.
Let me tell you this. Nothing quite gets the blood boiling and stress levels bulging like an inspection, no matter how well prepared or experienced you are. I’m convinced that there’s only so much a person can take during their career. I guess that when I feel I no longer have the fight, it’ll be time to quit.
It’ll be Ofsted that finishes me off. Not the lack of funding, testing or recruitment crises (you know where you are with these and are in control). Thankfully there’s still fire in the belly, so it’ll be a while before I throw in the towel.
The inspection took place at our first ever sponsored academy. The stakes were therefore high. The school was in deep special measures a few years ago. But we’ve worked tirelessly to bring about change in a period of great uncertainty.
We’ve ditched grading our SEF, have no previous inspection report to gone on, we’ve got no two similar years of assessment data to compare, we are skint, have no idea what expected progress looks like and we didn’t have a clue how the inspection was going to go. Even as late as early afternoon on day two. I obviously can’t share anything with you about the outcome at the moment, but the fact that I’m writing this means I came through relatively unscathed. I’m not so sure I can say the same about the teachers who on the day performed stirringly.
I did something strange though on the eve of the inspection. I read my book. In much the same way as hearing your own voice on record, or seeing yourself on video, I’ve stayed away from it since publication. But I did dip into it. Not very far mind as I only read the opening chapter or so. Strange as it may seem, it actually gave me a sense of calm. It reminded me of who I am as a leader and why I’m prepared to continue jumping through never-ending hoops to please others.
This is what I read:
“I love what I do. I’ve had the privilege of working with so many talented people, whose dedication and zest for teaching always continue to amaze me. I feel incredibly proud to be a headteacher. Even now, when people ask me what I do, I love seeing their reaction when I tell them. It always strikes a chord with people. I sometimes half expect them to give me a hug, as if to thank me for singlehandedly trying to save the world. Do you ever feel like this, or is it just me?
When I was in sixth form, I remember going to a careers event and being told that the key to a successful life was to find something you enjoy doing and then get someone to pay you to do it. Even better, if it’s something you are good at and it’s something the world needs. This then becomes your purpose in life. I’ve since learnt that it’s what’s known as having a firm persuasion in your work, and is – according to the poet and author David Whyte – one of our greatest and missed opportunities: “To feel that what we do is right for ourselves and good for the world at the exact same time.” It is, he says, “one of the great triumphs of human existence.” It’s what allows us to move mountains…
…But as much as I love my job, there are bits I really don’t enjoy anymore. More than anything, I’ve had enough of being judged on how well I jump to other people’s tunes. The relentless pressure, for example, to become ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, to come top of the league tables, to be in the top 10% of this or the top 1% of that. And all based on somebodies tune. It’s about time I started to jump to my own again.
I’ve now come to the point where I’ve realised I can’t see out the rest of my career, continually trying to incrementally improve test scores; to eke out a percentage point here and a percentage there. Marginal gains are all well and good, but not in the context of test scores. I find the thought of this entirely unedifying and certainly not the reason why I became a headteacher. As goals go, it’s not exactly going to rip up trees. Besides, how could I possibly motivate my staff on the basis that this be the sole purpose of our being? Would you want to come and be a part of this magical journey? Of course not.
So there needs to be another way.
If you read this book from cover to cover you will find out how I had the privilege of being a part of some great teams that transformed several schools to outstanding. The highs and the lows. The trials and tribulations. The sleepless nights and nagging self-doubts, especially when inspectors tell you that what you’re trying to do is not good enough. Even though deep-down I always knew my school was great, there was always that fear that others won’t. And unfortunately, it’s their view that counts. Not mine. So if I were to tweet what the #ArtofStandingOut is all about, this is what I’d write: ‘How to transform your school in a way that is meaningful, courteous and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted.’
Perhaps then, this is the ‘other way’. To no longer get hung up by others, Ofsted included. It goes much deeper than this though. What if we could still continue to improve our schools, with or without an inspectorate, but do so in a manner that focuses on a holistic education that is both wholesome and worthwhile? Let us not get hung up on the notion of ‘outstanding’, whatever that may be, but instead, look at it a different way. We need to redefine outstanding to suit our own agenda. We need to be brave enough to drape banners across our gates on our say-so and not on that of others who only step foot in our schools once every leap year.
For too long we’ve been stymied by Ofsted rhetoric and their ever-changing proxies for what they believe the best schools must look like. The Art of Standing Out is about setting us free from the shackles of Ofsted so that we can examine our schools through a fresh new prism, one that allows us to filter out and see only the things that matter…
… This book will hopefully challenge your perceptions of what a great school looks like. When you’ve finished reading it I want you to go back to your school and look again at how good you really are. And when I say ‘you’, I really do mean ‘you’. As a person, with deep-rooted and honourable beliefs that have served you well. Not ‘you’ in comparison to me, or another colleague that you know. It’s you versus you. The only true and meaningful indicator of your success as a leader comes from within. It is your school, your tune.
No matter how ‘good’ you believe yourself to be, I can assure you that if you know where to look, you will be amazed at how much better you really are. The Art of Standing Out allows you to look at your school, not through the tunnelled vision of an inspection framework, but through a set of lenses that helps you make sense of how great your school really is…”
So, Amen to all that. Determined to stay true to the principles of the book, I flicked through the section on the Lenses of Perception and made sure I had a set to take with me to school. And when I did, and put them on, I realised exactly how jolly good the school really is, regardless of what the inspectors may think. In particular I kept my Calibration lens firmly in place to ensure that I stayed true to my moral compass and beliefs. You can read more about the lenses here via @teachertoolkit.
In a few weeks’ time, when the report is published I’ll take you through what happened on the day. If you’ve never been through an inspection before as a leader (and I’ve experienced over 60 on all sides of the fence) I hope that it will reassure you. Or not.
In the meantime, if you are expecting the call, don’t have nightmares.