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Chasing the ace

ace bet business cardThis year, the annual SSAT national conference has a timely and uplifting theme: Pure imagination. Taking place over two days at the ICC in Birmingham, I was delighted to be invited to kick off the conference with a nine-minute talk. This is what I said:

Imagine if, after all this time we’ve been chasing the wrong ace. And imagine if the ace we should have been chasing is so powerful that if we were able to play it, it would trump everything. What if I told you that we all hold that ace, but do so in a deck that’s been shuffled so many times – often beyond our control – that we’ve lost sight of it. We no longer know it’s there.

Flip it

Before I share with you what I believe that ace to be, imagine if as leaders we could flip the system. We need to take back control of the agenda as system leaders and define for ourselves what we mean by sustainable school improvement. We need a system that operates from within – an inside-out approach – where schools and their community work together to decide what their core purpose is and how best to evaluate this. We no longer need to rely on being told what is best for our pupils from forces beyond our schools.

Can you imagine if we could look at our schools through a different set of lenses that enabled us to perceive our schools in a better way. Our beliefs are simply perceptions of reality, and so by wearing these lenses it allows us to see clearly what we believe to be right and proper, regardless of whatever somebody else may think from outside the organisation. For too long, we’ve been forced to look at our schools through the lens of an external regulator, and as a result, our perception of reality has been skewed. It’s time to recalibrate.

Imagine if we really could transform our schools by flipping the system and that we could do so in a way that is wholesome, values-led and worthwhile, without giving two hoots about Ofsted. I wrote a book about this once and in it I concluded that the best leaders understand the need to wear a number of very different lenses. I’m going to share one of them briefly with you now.

Wear the right lens

It’s called the telescopic lens, and is perhaps the most important one of them all, for this is the lens that will help you reveal the ace. I would put it to you that we’ve all been looking at our schools through a telescope for a number of years, but unfortunately through the wrong end. As a result, we’ve been reduced to seeing our world through a narrow hole and are focusing on the wrong things. We are not seeing the big picture.

Flip the lens around, and your perception of reality changes. When used correctly, a whole new vista opens up. As with any telescope, if you use it indoors in confined spaces when things are too close up, reality will look blurred. Your perception will become distorted. A wise leader knows this and so strives always to climb high and scans not only the distant horizon, but also penetrates deep into the surrounding local community a lot closer to home.

And it is here where we’ll find the elusive ace. As a headteacher for almost two decades, I was sick of being judged as to how good I was based solely on my ability year-on-year to eke out an extra half of a percentage point here or there. There must be a better way.

Thankfully, I believe that there is, and although it starts from deep within our schools, the solution lies out there in the heart of our school communities.

The ace, revealed

It is called social capital, and this, colleagues, is your ace. By increasing the amount of social capital (or resources) each of our family members own, in so doing we increase their power and agency. The more social capital a parent has, the more connections they make and their sense of belonging within the community increases. They become more advantaged.

More importantly, they become less disadvantaged. This is important, as it now gives them a much-needed foot onto the social ladder so that they can make better choices and appear more desirable to trade with. For many of our parents – especially those new to the country, seeking asylum and unable to speak English – this represents a huge step. The problem we find in a number of schools though, especially in more deprived areas, is that quite often, parents don’t even have a ladder to climb in the first place. Therein, lies the challenge.

Imagine the difference it would make having families that engage meaningfully with the school? Not just participate and take part – things such as assemblies and school productions, but deep, meaningful engagement at an emotional and intrinsic level.

Imagine what you could do as a teacher, if every child came to school highly motivated and wanting to learn, who were supported and encouraged at home by family members, who valued the importance of education and bought in to the school’s vision.

Imagine if these families themselves then became released from the poverty trap because your school increased their social capital. Imagine if these parents were then able to get jobs as a result of greater self-esteem, confidence, power and agency. Imagine how this would impact on the children that come to your school.

Social breakdown?

But it’s not that simple. According to a recent New Policy Institute report, one in five of the population are living in poverty. This is a shocking and damning statistic. This means that at any one time, six children in a typical classroom are living in poverty. Just think about that.

Quite rightly, Amanda Spielman has raised some serious concerns earlier this week, about the lack of support children are getting from home and are coming to school overweight and unprepared for learning. This is nothing new. Only five years ago, Sir Michael Wilshaw made similar claims. We were on the verge of ‘social breakdown,’ he said. And yet here we are in 2018 saying the same thing all over again.

Nothing has changed, and it’s only going to get worse. We need to act now.

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The lost generation

These parents it seems have become a lost generation and they need our help. For many of them they are socially immobile. We perhaps only need to take such decisive action the once; the next generation I believe are all accounted for, as we have them safely tucked up in our schools. We know that these young people are well-placed to become future changemakers. Their social mobility is, by and large, locked in and assured, providing of course we are able to release the social capital for their parents.

But for our very youngest children, those starting out in primary school especially, in times of great uncertainty and austerity, never before has there been such an urgent need for schools to step up and stand out as the key driver for social change.

So here is my challenge to you: Imagine if our children came to school loaded with social capital. Mums, dads, aunties, uncles, all massively in credit and willing and able to exchange resources with each other, especially trading it up for cultural capital.

Grasp the nettle

Research has shown time and time again that when it comes to increasing a child’s life chances at school, it’s often what goes on outside the classroom in the local community and family home that has the greatest impact. Yes, I accept that a lot of this is beyond our control. But that must not detract us from trying.

It takes a bold leader to grasp this nettle and goes against all that we perceive to be true as we become entangled with an inspection framework that often detracts us from doing the right things. To many of us, our logical brain tells us that the only ace worth chasing is the one to do with inspection judgements. After all, it’s often only by wearing the right Ofsted badge that we are guaranteed a job.

But thankfully colleagues, when it comes to making bold and imaginative decisions, logic doesn’t always come into it. As a certain Albert Einstein once said, ‘Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.’

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Thanks to Andrea Stephens (@andream656) and Paul Foster (@pjf_paul) for the pics.

You can read more about my thoughts on social capital in a previous post here. I’ll be following this up in the new year with some practical examples of how schools can release social capital.

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Why it’s time we all grasp the Ofsted nettle

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Following the publication of the recent Public Accounts Committee findings, Amanda Spielman finds she suddenly has an awful lot to do. And it might just sting.

There is no doubt that Amanda Spielman knows she’s in a job. As Her Majesties Chief Inspector, she is very welcome to her in-tray. It currently looks something like this:

#1: Write to the Parliamentary Accounts Committee (PAC) with thoughts on the main risks to schools’ effectiveness along with ‘the systemic causes of poor performance, including the impact of funding pressures’.

Many an academic would dedicate several years’ research on this. Ms Spielman has until next month.

No sooner has she fired this one off, she then has these four to deal with:

#2: Correct the misreporting in the 2017-18 Ofsted annual report 

#3: Write a report on the rationale for exempting outstanding schools from inspection

#4: Write another report on how Ofsted can gather better evidence, including from parents

#5: Write a further report on the most appropriate model for school inspection, ensuring all alternative models are evaluated, including costs and benefits

These are all due by December. Not December 2019, but the one at the end of this term. If she had planned to consult widely, then she will be disappointed.

Once these reports are duly dispatched, Ms Spielman then needs to swiftly turn her attention to explaining to MPs why turnover of inspectors is high and to account for the discrepancy between actual numbers of HMI and those budgeted for. It’s not due until next April, presumably because March has been designated ‘full’ in MP’s diaries.

The reason for HMCIs sudden additional workload is in response to the damming recommendations in the recently published PAC report. When you read it, it does appear as if Ofsted have had a bit of a mild ticking off. To an outsider reading the report – someone perhaps who has never heard of Ofsted or HMI – it may all seem rather odd, especially for an established century-old organisation funded to the tune of £151m.

You would not be forgiven for asking why it is not in a much healthier position given the number and urgency of the recommendations. This is a very good question, one Ms Spielman may struggle to answer.

It all seems as if the regulator has lost its way and is in need of a major reboot. This isn’t necessarily the fault of Ofsted; it can only work within its prescribed remit. That said, Ofsted appears to be slowly turning into one of the behemoths of the High Street, akin to a Woolworths or a British Home Stores that failed to adopt more modern ways-of-working in response to an ever-evolving landscape.

Unlike Ofsted, Woolies was a bit of a national institution. At the time of its demise many people were angry that such an established and well-respected company was allowed to go down the pan. As tempting as it may be to wish the same fate on Ofsted, we mustn’t.

In much the same way as supporters rally round an ailing local football team to prevent the administrator from stepping in, we must do the same for Ofsted. Whether we like it or not, a national regulator is here to stay. With that being so, the challenge that we now face is, what should it look like and why?

Accountability is essential in any successful ecosystem. The issue as I see it is that the school ecosystem has largely become unrecognisable compared to a decade ago. Even a high-tech social media company would struggle to keep pace, given the rate of continual change.

Add to the mix the fact that we can no longer agree on who is accountable to whom and why, it becomes blatantly clear that we need to take drastic action. I cannot remember a time when the DfE and HMI have been so divided.

What we need therefore is a moratorium. We need to pause and take a long hard look at the current landscape. Only then can we make a considered and collective response.

Rather than rush through a load of knee-jerk reports, Ms Spielman needs to be given time and scope to consult widely on what an intelligent, holistic and purposeful accountability system looks like in the modern age. Above all, it needs to be fit-for-purpose and take into account different contexts.

Schools are far more complex than they were a quarter of a century ago when Ofsted was born. We need to create a model that is intelligent enough to take this into account. A one-size-fits-all approach is too simplistic and lacking ambition.

To really understand the situation, Ms Spielman needs to talk to you and me, the children that you teach, the staff that you work with, the parents and communities that you serve. Her team need to sit down with governors, trustees, unions, professional associations and the finest researchers, both at home and abroad.

If Ofsted really do see itself as being a research body of note, then it needs to embrace and acknowledge all of the international research that is already out there in regard to the most successful systems of inspection and intelligent accountability.

It then needs to align this with the many levers and forces that impact on schools, many of which are beyond their control: Funding, poverty, recruitment, testing, workload and mental health, to name but a few.

Most importantly, once this has all been completed, the chief inspector then needs to tell the secretary of state exactly how it is, without fear or favour, a phrase much loved by the inspectorate.

I’ve got a lot of time for Ms Spielman. I want her to stay and see the job through. She needs to be given the freedom to make the changes that are required, root and branch. I suggest she starts by writing to MPs asking them to use some of the £44m that would be saved on school inspections to set up a year-long national task group. Once established their remit will be to design a contemporary accountability system that will see us in to 2020 and beyond.

In the meantime, whilst we continue to consult and debate on the matter, we have more than enough expertise in our schools to keep the inspection process ticking over. The system won’t come crushing down around our ears.

Between us, we can ensure our children remain safe without the need for grades or high stakes. The RSC budget alone is in excess of £30m so we have the cash as well. On top of that we can add the remaining £100m or so in Ofsted’s budget.

A small senior team of HMIs can continue to provide oversight and quality assurance. It surely can’t do any worse than the existing arrangement given the damming comments by the chair of the committee: ‘If the level of inspection continues … its credibility will evaporate’. I’m sure this is something that Ms Spielman would not want to happen on her watch.

The task though is huge, which is perhaps why over the years nobody has ever really wanted to grasp the nettle. It must be incredibly frustrating for HMCI that the matter has never been tackled before by previous incumbents. Instead, it’s been allowed to continue to a point that may now be beyond the point of no return.

With Ofsted seemingly stranded at a very large crossroads, the time is now right to act. We may never get another opportunity like this again. Ofsted in its current format is in urgent need of reshaping, rebranding, call it what you will. It cannot be allowed to continue to drift.

If the Public Accounts Committee really are committed to ‘providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need’ then ministers must realise that unless radical changes are made to the way we scrutinise our schools, the future of Ofsted – and indeed the integrity of the inspectorate –  remain in considerable doubt.

 

The Art of Standing Out by Andrew Morrish is available to buy here

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What Gareth Southgate can teach us about leading

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(This post can is also available in the TES here.)

If the World Cup is not your thing, then look away now. But if you have a passing interest in leadership and how the manager of England can teach us a thing or two about the art, then read on.

On the eve of the greatest game this nation has seen for more than a generation, we need to revisit the last time we found ourselves in this situation – Wednesday 4th July 1990 and the semi-final of the greatest tournament in the world.

Living in Liverpool as a trainee teacher at the time, 1990 was a watershed year. Not only did it herald a brand new decade, but it arrived full of hope and expectation. The people of Liverpool were still coming to terms with Hillsborough and the ravages of 80’s Thatcherism. Reagan had now gone and his mate Gorbachev was well on the way to receiving his Nobel Peace Prize of that year. The cold war started to feel just that little bit warmer, the Berlin wall was nothing but rubble and England were marching on in the World Cup finals.

As a newly qualified teacher about to put the world in motion, New Order dominated the airwaves for a fortnight leading up to that fateful night in Turin. Half an hour down the East Lancs Road, that upstart city was smashing the music scene, not least with the birth of the Mondays’ Madchester movement. The Stone Roses and Inspirals all got in on the act that year but for me, none more so than James, with their much looked-over anthem, Come Home. Oh, how we wished football would do so that night.

It didn’t of course. Several weeks later I found myself still taking it out on the Banda machine in the staffroom as an NQT. Little did I know that it would be another 28 years before England get to do it all over again. So here I am hammering away at the keyboard, wondering where on earth the time went.

Euro 96 offered temporary relief. I was fortunate enough to get a suite of tickets, including group games at Anfield and Old Trafford, a semi-final (not England) and the final. I cannot tell you how excited I was to be seeing Gazza, Sheringham and Shearer at Wembley. What a team! It was two days after my birthday. I was due to get married later that year and we’d just bought our first house. I was high on life. Even the hapless Stuart Pearce redeemed himself that night.

And then up stepped Gareth Southgate.

You can imagine from that moment on I was never going to be his greatest fan. In fact I hated the man with a passion, refusing ever again to step into a Pizza Hut. In that one stupid kick he ballooned sky-high my hopes and dreams to see England in a final at the home of football.

Instead, I had to endure the lucky Germans once again ride their luck. We winced as they robbed us once more, this time having the cheek to steal it from our own backyard on the back of a Golden Goal. Heck, they didn’t even know they’d won the thing at the time and in so doing denied us the fun of penalties, ever the party poopers.

The passing of time has been kind. I’d by and large forgotten all about Gareth Southgate until he popped up as the FA’s head of elite development 15 years later. I do remember thinking, oh well, that’s another generation of young talent wasted.

But I was wrong. And now, after almost three decades, I want to put it right.

Gareth Southgate is a leader blessed with talent. He may not be up there with the most enigmatic and ebullient of managers – he’s no Venables or Robson, or Shankly or Klopp. But he’s certainly one of the most authentic and effective. Here’s why:

Class is permanent

The man oozes class, not just in the understated way he goes about his business, but in the way he engages with people. There is a genuine warmth in his eyes and as gatekeeper he is always willing to let (the right) people in. He epitomises what it means to be a host leader.

He looks the part as well, suave and in control. He understands the importance of branding. The FA may well have given him the blazer, but he has the confidence to ditch it and be seen only in his now legendary waistcoat. For those of us who were taught at headship school never to be seen without your jacket, this makes for welcome relief (especially in this heat).

Know thyself

It may be a philosophical cliché, but as maxims go, ‘know thyself’ resonates throughout the camp. This team of players know themselves exceptionally well. They are the first to concede that individually they are not world-beaters. Be truthful, how many of you had to Google the likes of Pickford, Trippier and Maguire when we played Tunisia? Hardly any of them would have made it into the starting line-ups of the seeded teams.

I read last week that the Swedish press actually like us as a footballing nation now because the arrogance and swagger shown by previous A-list players has gone. This new-found attitude starts and ends with Southgate. He knows the limitations of his team and creates a system to accommodate this.

He is honest about himself as well. When questioned about his penalty miss, Southgate’s answer was as refreshing as it was insightful: ‘I wasn’t technically good enough to perform that particular skill under pressure.’ He didn’t lay the blame elsewhere, just parked it, dusted himself down and went again. And now, here he is, ex-manager of Middlesbrough, about to grab the greatest prize of all.

Leading down the middle

Southgate knows that any successful organisation needs a strong spine right down the middle. Everyone instinctively knows who these people are. They are the ones you go to, the ones that always put in a shift above and beyond, no matter what. They step up, especially when the chips are down. The spine is what connects the brain to the heart, hands and feet.

The key to high performance is to do your job consistently well, day-in, day-out. It’s no good to anyone stepping up only when you fancy it. The same applies in sport, especially across the course of a long season, be it football, formula one or tennis. All elite performers know this, teachers especially. Southgate’s spine of Pickford – Stones – Henderson – Kane means that the team finally has a permanent back bone that not only props up the team but acts as the central nervous system for the team’s performance, health and well-being.

OST

Successful leaders have a strong sense of Objective, Strategy, Tactics and Gareth Southgate is no exception. As manager, he knows that the single objective to win the world cup needs to drive all that they do as a team. Even at the start of the competition when no-one thought they had a hope, I’m convinced he told his players that this was their objective, their destination. He must have told them it enough times because you can now begin to see that they finally believe it.

With the objective and associated strategy in place and understood by all, the manager has stuck to it, regardless. He hasn’t tinkered with the system and has stayed true to his beliefs. The players all know what is required of them and why. For the first time ever we don’t have square pegs and round holes. Decide on your strategy first, communicate it with everyone, and then build your tactics around it.

When the strategy starts to waver, stick by it and instead change your tactics so that you get the job done. And if need be, write the tactics down on a water bottle and pass it to your keeper during a penalty shootout. It’s called preparedness and it works wonders.

Legacy

What is remarkable about this set of players is that many of them have been playing together for years, in most cases under the watchful eye of Southgate. Although the team may appear youthful and inexperienced, as a unit overall they have come through the ranks together. Seven of the current squad all played for Southgate at Under-21s, Kane, Dier and Lingard included. There are massive lessons to be learnt here about the importance of nurture, succession and the role effective talent management can play, particularly when developing youth.

The role of the leader is crucial in making it clear to his team that he’s not a quitter. He is in it for the long term. This England squad was always meant to be a work-in-progress, with one eye on the World Cup in four years’ time. The Euros in 2020 were to be the real test. This was just a dress rehearsal.

The reason it’s now become the main stage is because there is buy-in at every level. The team enjoy what they do. Players know that if they mess up, they can go again. The crippling fear of failure has been removed. The prevailing culture is no longer about individual egos but the development of the team over time. It’s about continuous improvement at all levels where every marginal gain counts. You sense almost a siege mentality when the players cross the white line, something we’ve not seen before.

At long last we seem to have a team of players that understand that they don’t own the jersey, just the body within. Above all, they sense that there is a legacy to be left behind; that they are the privileged chosen few to play for the England yet to be born. Finally, the three lions seem to mean something.

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Inside the infinite loop

I am writing this in an Apple conference room in Cupertino, California as I await a transfer to San Jose airport. The past four days have been exhilarating to say the least. I’d even be so bold as to say it’s been the best PLD experience I’ve ever had. I am very grateful to be invited by Apple and SSAT to be a part it. It’s not every day you get invited to spend a week behind the curtain with Apple at their HQ.

As I await the long flight home, I’m trying to use this time to reflect and make sense of all that I’ve seen. My head is spinning.

Further, more in-depth posts will follow. Such as how impressive an organisation Apple are when you get to the core. It’s been such a privilege to be allowed behind the curtain and go places very few have been. To have walked the same corridors as Steve Jobs and to maybe have sat in a room where his team of ultimate disruptors changed our perceptions of everything, is very humbling.

For now though, three things that have really hit home for me:

1. Apple are not a company that sells tech. Instead they exist to make us think differently about what we perceive education to be. Technology is merely a means to that end. One particular comment from one of the Austin store retail managers stands out for me: ‘What we do as employees of Apple we do first for ourselves and then for the world. Our soul is our people … people who shine a spotlight on you to stand outside it.’

2. Education in England is exceptional. What we are currently doing in our schools in terms of student collaboration, innovation and creativity is top drawer. When you have the privilege to visit other high-performing schools in other countries, it reaffirms your faith in all that you believe in and that as a profession we are well ahead of the game.

3. Culture is king. And at the heart of any successful culture is simplicity. We are all guilty of over-complicating things. If we want to tell our story in a way that is compelling, engaging and authentic, then we need to strip it right back. Always begin with the ‘why’. Everything else then falls into place.

It’s been an absolute honour and privilege to learn with so many inspiring colleagues who themselves are all facing the same challenges back in their schools. But the schools and communities they serve are in safe hands because I’ve seen first hand – up close and personal – how passion stokes the fire in their bellies.

I’m looking forward to spreading a bit of that warmth around my own colleagues on my return. For now though, I’ll spend the flight home mulling over even more how I intend to change the world.

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Hands up for Ofsted!

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There will come a time when we’ll all look back and ask ourselves, how on earth did we allow it to go on for so long? Ofsted have been around now for over a quarter of a century and still the debate rages on about their role.

There can’t be many organisations who, during a 25-year period, have changed their ‘product’ quite as much as Ofsted. Apple iPhones come to mind as do premier league clubs and their football kits. But with Ofsted, despite the continued conveyor belt of new-and-improved frameworks, it’s still the same old beast. One of these days, I like to think the inspectorate will finally get it right. I’m reminded of Trigger’s old broom, the same one he’s had for years with 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

What we need though is a new broom, one that we get to sweep ourselves. Unfortunately, Ofsted remain as resolute as ever, despite not seeming to be able to agree for longer than two or three years at a time as to what our schools should look like. We do though; the best school leaders know exactly what a great school looks like, but unfortunately that doesn’t seem to count.

I’ve worked with and met dozens of brilliant leaders across the country who are so expert at education that I feel unfit at times to tie their boots. People who have a track record to die for, who have created fabulous learning environments for children from all four corners of the world. Teachers and leaders, that day-in-day-out, continue to transform the lives of young people in the toughest of communities.

These people give their lives to the job and represent the most creative, passionate and inspirational people I know.

So here’s something controversial. Why not just let these people have a go at evaluating how good our schools are, perhaps through an accredited national peer-review model? Why not trust them to visit our schools and tell it how it is? We learn this weekend, following a FOI request, that Ofsted would rather fast-track 25 rookie inspectors to go into our schools on a short inspection than reach out to experienced school leaders who can tell how good a school is with their eyes closed. I know who I’d rather have in one of my schools.

Here’s the funny thing: If NLEs or experienced school leaders were given the reins it probably wouldn’t be any better than Ofsted. Any system that relies on people’s opinions will always be flawed. But with no grades, or high stakes, at least the system will be authentic, kind, purposeful, relevant and humane. I can just about live with that. I’m sure you can too.

So who out there really and truly believes that Ofsted in its current form adds value? By value, I mean thirty million pounds a year worth of value. I’m talking value that makes a real difference to the children in the classroom. We all know of teachers who are highly proficient at appearing to be discharging a duty i.e. teaching. But does it lead to anything? Does it add value? Are the children learning anything? Possibly not. So as much as Ofsted fulfil a mechanistic role that requires them to spend a few hours in a school in order to assign a series of numbers from 1-4, does it make a difference?

If we abolished Ofsted tomorrow would parents be bothered? I have yet to meet any prospective parent who has decided to send their child to any one of my schools because of the Ofsted grade. By and large, parents simply don’t do this. All they want is a school that is close to home and that their children are safe, happy and cared for.

In my 12 years as head of Victoria Park Academy in the West Midlands, I have never shown a parent round who was thinking of attending the school and was comparing it with another. If there was a vacancy, they were in, regardless of the Ofsted grade.

Even the DfE’s own data confirms that less than one-third of parents take an Ofsted report into account when choosing a school. Almost three-quarters of them instead rely on gut feeling based on visiting the school. In a 2014 survey by NASUWT, only 39% of parents were persuaded by the latest Ofsted report when choosing their child’s school. Location came top, with two-thirds listing this as their main priority. Interestingly, in the same survey, the school’s league-table position was in the bottom five with only 21% of parents being swayed.

Even worse from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations in 2012: On a scale of 1-10 (10 being high), parents were asked which from a list of 15 factors influenced their decision when choosing a new school. Once again, location was ranked top (a mean score of 7.2). Ofsted only managed 11th with a score of 5.5.

So it seems that those people whose well-earned taxes are paying for the Ofsted reports clearly don’t read them. Neither it seems, do teachers when deciding where to work.

In a highly scientific Twitter poll earlier this week, I asked: ‘When applying for a new post, what most influences you when choosing where to work?’ As with parents, location came out top at 48%. Next came pay/promotion (38%), with the Ofsted report/grade coming last at only 5%. I am concluding from this, that for a whopping 95% of you, Ofsted add nothing of value when choosing a school.

So, if neither parents or teachers care much for Ofsted’s view, why do we need them? In this week’s Guardian, I once again made the claim that Ofsted need to scrap the grades. Given that the majority of schools are all G2 anyway, what’s the point? It tells parents nothing; there is a world of difference between a G2 that is barely RI and a G2 that is knocking on the door of outstanding.

Once again, what is the point? Being good means nothing. As I said in the article, I can live with Ofsted separating the 4s from the rest, based on accountability measures and safeguarding etc. It’s only right and proper that these schools get picked up by HMI.

But as for the rest of the schools, please, please for once, trust those that lead them and give them the credit they deserve. Have faith, that as a profession we can continue to build world-class schools, without the need for a national inspectorate.

If we scrapped inspections tomorrow, would the whole house of cards come crashing down around us? Would standards go into meltdown? Of course not. Who knows, we might just be able to cope without Ofsted. Now wouldn’t that be controversial?

(With thanks to @Mktadvice4schls for signposting the surveys referred to above.)

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Read. Talk. Write.

Francis Bacon in the Library of Congress (2)

I’ve come to the conclusion that Sir Francis Bacon may well have been on to something here. In the late sixteenth century he inadvertently defined what the three key qualities of a really good leader are. I first came across them in the US Library of Congress several years ago, on a bookmark no less in the souvenir shop. Taken from an essay called ‘Of Studies’, the philosopher and former Lord Chancellor said this:

“Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

There is so much to behold in this, a single sentence of only 14 words. Not only does it nail to the mast the importance of reading, talking and writing, but also that if you do them well, you are likely to achieve a greater sense of fullness, readiness and precision (or ‘exactness’, to be exact).

All six of these merit worthy discussion, as they are as relevant in life as they are at work. For the sake of this post though, it boils down to the three: Read. Talk. Write.  It may sound like a nod to Ross McGill’s next book, but as mantras go, it’s up there with the finest.

I wonder how many of these you do on a daily basis? Probably all of them. I suspect you talk an awful lot and I can’t really see how it’s possible to get through a day without doing so. I remember once as a teacher attempting to teach my class for an entire day minus a voice (laryngitis), using only written signs, hand gestures and expressions. It didn’t work, although I’ve never known a class so quiet and well-behaved. As teachers, our voice is often our greatest asset and so it’s something we are skilled and confident at using.

I’m sure also that you read lots, even though you probably never actually sit down and ‘read’. If like me, you spend far too much time hunched over a screen reading through emails or glancing at social media feeds, you probably read a lot more than you give yourself credit for. Then there are the policy documents, reports, evaluations, statutory guidance documents etc. In a single day you probably read thousands of words, equivalent to a chapter or two of a novel. You are of course currently reading this, so that’s just over another 1200 words consumed in one hit.

And what about writing? Again, I bet you write loads. In a single week I must knock out close to an entire novella*, although granted, far too much of it is taken up by emails, reports, blogs, tweets, DMs etc. In his memoir, ‘On Writing’, author Stephen King writes that, as with physical exercise, we should set a daily writing goal. He suggests we aim low to start with and that it should be at least a thousand words a day (about a side-and-a-half of A4, typed).

Now, I know only too well that when I was a teacher I would not have had the time, desire or energy to do this, so I understand that for some of you this is unrealistic. So if you do have a class, don’t worry about this bit too much. However, if you do find yourself with some spare time, use it wisely by reading Mark. Plan. Teach. instead.

For now then, let’s just indulge ourselves with one of the three, the one you use the most: Talk. I know I’m taking liberties here slightly, because strictly speaking Sir Francis refers to it as ‘conference’. But it means the same thing in essence. A quick dash to the dictionary and I’m reminded that ‘to confer’ requires an exchange of ideas resulting in some kind of discussion taking place. The irony of course is that this tends to be the last thing that happens at a conference.

To confer with a colleague therefore means that you need to talk with them as opposed to at them. In Latin, ‘confer’ literally means ‘to bring together’. All the best leaders are highly skilled at doing this, even with those colleagues that are the hardest to reach. In fact, talk is the only meaningful way to engage with such people. Sticking with the US Congress theme, it was Abraham Lincoln who once said, “I don’t like that man. I must get to know him better.” I’m sure he didn’t mean by sending him an email.

If of course, as a leader, when talking with someone you intend to engage with the person then the ability to listen with intent is as equally important. It also requires plenty of integrity and openness and the willingness to genuinely understand. Steve Radcliffe, in his brilliant book Leadership Plain and Simple, unpacks this perfectly in his Future-Engage-Deliver model:

“Engagement is central to a leader’s ability to build alignment, involvement,  ownership, unity and team. Crucially, it is absolutely distinct from              ‘communicating to’, ‘presenting at’, or ‘telling.”

To assume that because you’ve told someone something, or sent them an email, or sat them down in front of a PowerPoint, that they will immediately jump up with glee and merrily go about their business implementing it, is a mistake that many of us I’m sure have made in the past. I’ve certainly done this – and quite possibly still do – especially when bringing new sponsored schools into the trust where one assumes engagement is taken as read.

I am always very mindful that it’s less about what you say and everything to do with how you say it. If you get this bit right – day-in, day-out – the results can be spectacular. Or as Radcliffe puts it: ‘What’s possible for a group or organisation when people are really engaged can be immense.’

In Radcliffe’s book he defines a leader as being someone ‘who is up to something‘. There are few definitions of leadership better than this, for if you are not up to something then you cannot possibly be in a position to engage meaningfully with someone.

The next time you really want to talk to someone in a meaningful way try asking them what they’re up to. If you are in the presence of a true leader, you will invariably see their eyes light up, as if to say, ‘Sit down. I thought you’d never ask‘. So you find yourself sitting down with them and sharing what you’ve both been up to and before you know it, the engagement leaves an indelible mark on you both and something happens. The best leaders know that it is the artful synergy and alignment of these ‘things that happen’ that create deep-rooted systemic change. All from a single conference.

Read, talk, write. As tempted as I am to call these my new year resolutions, I’m going to resist. This is because it would be wrong of me to revisit them only once a year for the first few weeks of January, only to have forgotten about them entirely by time the clocks change. These three simple behaviours need to remain my mantra at all times, something that I try to work hard at developing every day, providing of course they are rooted in quality. Having it emblazoned on my bookmark helps me no end, so long as I remember to read.

*’A short and well-structured narrative, often realistic and satiric in tone’, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. A novella can consist of as few as 7,000 words.

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Bloggers of the world, unite and take over

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As critical as I am of the inspection process in England, I am entirely at ease with the fact that inspection is here to stay. Indeed, I’d be concerned if it were ever abolished. An independent inspectorate is essential if we are to continue to have faith in our education system. I think all schools should be inspected regularly, outstanding or not, and that outcomes should be publically reported.

I just don’t agree that schools need to be graded. It should be black or white: Either they are ‘good’ schools or not. They either meet minimum standards or they don’t. Children are safe or they are not. Your car is either roadworthy or it’s not. Leave the rest to the experts – practising headteachers – to provide the shades of grey. This way, we all have a say – HMI included – and the whole thing comes in millions of pounds cheaper.

But of course, this will never happen for one simple reason: As a profession, we are not trusted.

If we had control of the remote we’d simply seek to change channels if we didn’t like what we saw or delete things that we’d previously recorded because it was rubbish. It is such a shame that this may be the perception, given the vast amount of expertise out there in the system that currently exists.

That said, I remain eternally optimistic for the future. I am encouraged by what I read and hear from Sean Harford and Amanda Spielman. As HMCI, she seems to be doing a fine job building bridges and being open, honest and actually listening.

There appears to be a wind of change in the air, albeit a slight breeze. Take for example a recent inspection report, as tweeted by @johntomsett: ‘This is one of the most important paragraphs in our new Ofsted report… (and) for the system as a whole’:

The curriculum reflects the leaders’ integrity because it is designed to match pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance measures.

How refreshing and encouraging is this? It sets the bar at a whole new level and should give all school leaders the confidence to at least take risks. However, and it’s a huge ‘however’ indeed, because this is very much at the heart of the whole problem and why it needs fixing:

Not all inspectors are as good as the one that wrote that report. Not all inspectors get it. Not all inspectors are as willing to leave their baggage at the gate. 

This is precisely why the system is flawed, for it’s possible that another inspector is just as likely to visit John’s school and take a different view. If the stakes weren’t so high, then ordinarily this wouldn’t be such a big deal. We could live with it. But they are not. The stakes have never been higher.

As pleasing as it is to see such a comment in a report, the question we must all ask is ‘why has it taken Ofsted over a quarter of a century to realise this?’ Surely schools have been building values-led curricular for years that we’ve desperately been trying to get inspectors to acknowledge, but to no avail.

I hope this has now trickled down to the entire Ofsted workforce and it becomes the rule rather than the exception. It’s all well and good Ofsted tweeting about debunking myths, but unless this filters through to every single inspector out there, the flaws will remain.

We as school leaders would not be allowed to get away with this. Consistency is King, so say Ofsted. It doesn’t matter how many times you tweet it, say it, email it, shout it from the rooftops. Unless every single member of your staff are on point, you are only as good as your weakest link.

It’s such a shame that this rule does not apply to Ofsted. It’s simply not good enough that only some of the links are strong, because chances are one of the weak ones will walk through your door and you are doomed. And there’s nothing you can do about it. (Am I causing your anxiety levels to rise? Am I creating a culture of fear? If I am, then I apologise. Simply don’t read on.)

However, as I said, I remain encouraged, especially as Ofsted continue to reach out via twitter. Not all of you would agree. There are many of you out there that find it refreshing and appealing – endearing almost – that Ofsted are doing all they can to break down barriers on social media in order to become more accessible. Others, less so. You like your regulators to stay detached and out of sight, only to come out when duty calls (a bit like HMRC). At least you know where you stand.

Perhaps though there’s room for both. In my opinion, the efforts of Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford to engage on Twitter can only be a good thing, surely. It’s certainly something I never imagined I’d see under previous regimes. They deserve much credit for attempting to break down the barriers and to use social media to their advantage. Besides, what can be wrong with using such a populist platform to convey your views?

The answer of course, if you believe what was reported last week, is when you are a blogging headteacher. Now look, I like to think that Spielman never spoke the words she was reported to have said. Even if she did, she is probably right to say that a ‘culture of fear’ has built up over the years as a result of headteacher blogs.

But we all know where that’s come from. Not us. Abolish Ofsted in it’s current form, reform inspection, and the problem goes away. It’s really very simple.

Passionate headteacher blogs may well have led to increased levels of anxieties. But so what? We can all read between the lines. We know that emotions run high and that sometimes when we write it might make for uncomfortable reading. But I’m okay with that. Ofsted need to take the rough with the smooth.

Perhaps blogging is the only way that colleagues feel that their voice can be heard. We all know that the complaints procedure is a complete dead end. Consultations have counted for nothing over the years and it’s par for the course that Ofsted continually chose to ignore international research on the negative effects of a punitive inspection regime.

So can you really blame headteachers when they turn to a blog, given that it’s the only way of them telling their story to anyone prepared to listen?

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If you do blog, don’t give up. For me, blogging doesn’t come easy but I know it makes for fabulous professional learning and development so I stick at it. As Picasso once said, ‘inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.’ For me, blogging is a selfless, personal act, and not something I necessarily set out to do to please you, dear reader.

I think it’s that vulnerability when posting a blog that makes our profession so open and accessible; the fact that teachers are willing to expose themselves to criticism from others and write freely without fear or favour. I can’t imagine lawyers or librarians blogging in the same way, uploading tortured pieces on the frustrating idiosyncrasies of penal reform or the Dewey system.

As a profession we must continue to tell our stories. In fact, I urge you to go out there and write something now, this minute. If it causes people to feel uncomfortable, then fear not. Providing it is truthful, considerate and kind you’ll be fine.

Personally, I’d love to know how you feel about a burning issue, even if it may cause mild hysteria. At least it gets the attention of certain people. So please encourage as many of your staff to do the same and be sociable by sharing it with others on social media.

I did this once as an inspector. I wrote a blog post almost two years ago to the day about the process of inspection. It was actually a supportive piece, once again reflecting how positive I felt for the future. (It was called ‘Doing good as you go’.) It was a balanced post I felt, although Ofsted clearly didn’t like it because I dared to be critical. I suggested that the process of inspection was flawed. Not Ofsted per se as an organisation, but inspection itself.

Despite Ofsted’s repeated requests, I refused to take it down and so was left with no choice but to resign as an inspector. I was gutted. I’d like to think that under Amanda Spielman’s watch, that won’t happen now. Or at least if it did, she’d have had the decency to reply to my letters.

I no longer inspect but I continue to blog, although from September as a MAT CEO. I’m technically no longer  a ‘headteacher blogger’, so I guess I’m free to carry on writing as hysterically as I want about our deeply flawed and troubled inspection regime.

 

(Thanks to @PrimaryPercival and last year’s brilliant ‘The Ladybird Book of Edu-Twitter’, pictured above.)