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Why being a new Head is as easy as ABC

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Much has been written about how crucial the first 100 days are for a leader in a new organisation. The temptation is to assume that if you haven’t made your mark by then, chances are you’ve blown it.

We all know as teachers that the first few weeks with a new class are time-critical in terms of laying down markers and expectations. Boundaries need to be set, rules and routines established so that everyone is clear about how things are going to work around here.

Nailing the climate or culture of learning is essential, and that begins and ends with you.

It’s not quite as simple as this when taking up a new position as headteacher in a school, or in our case, sponsoring a new academy.

Using your brain

You can’t just go in there and expect all the staff to fall into line merely because you are in charge. We’ve thankfully moved away from the days of the ‘hero head’ where authority and being the font of all knowledge were all you needed to get by. IQ has long been replaced by EQ.

But even this might no longer be enough. What we now need is CQ: Cultural Intelligence, or the ability to experience and adapt to new environments in more complex situations without losing sight of our own values and core purpose.

One thing you have to learn within those first 100 days is to live in the world you inherit.

A culturally intelligent leader is able to navigate this and get to grips with a culture that is new and alien to them. This of course takes time and so the very best leaders need all three, EQ, IQ and CQ if they are to lead effectively and focus on the main thing.

Using your gut

The trouble is, it’s not always that easy to know what the main thing is, especially in a school that may have become destabilised by the forces operating on it (of which you are one).

Your gut tells you that the main priorities must be to fix things quickly like marking, feedback, planning, instruction, behaviour, routines, attendance and so on. Pretty much every Ofsted inspection report for an SM school reads the same and all of these are likely to appear in the report in some shape or form.

As we approach the 100th day of sponsoring our newest academy, despite the complexities of IQ, EQ and CQ, over the years I’ve learnt that it all boils down to essentially three things: Aims, Beliefs, and of course, Culture.

Get these right – just like the teacher with a new class – and everything else potentially falls into place. It’s not quite as simple as ABC, but as starting points go, it’s a good one:

Aims: It goes without saying that being absolutely clear about what it is that you intend to do right at the start is essential. Make sure you tell your story so that everyone gets the same consistently clear message, regardless of how it might be received. As we’ll see next, perception is everything, so use every opportunity to re-enforce the fact that you will follow-up and you will follow-through. Wrapping this all up in a clear vision statement is also crucial so that people know the ‘why?’. If they understand your purpose and why it is that things need to change, then levels of engagement will hopefully increase.

Beliefs: Perceptions lead to beliefs and beliefs lead to action. The things that we believe in as adults, rightly or wrongly, are based on our perceptions of reality. The things that we believe to be true determine very much how we choose to act (take religion, love or the football team that you blindly choose to support). So, if as a leader you want to change the way people act and behave, then you may need to change their perceptions and beliefs. This often starts with getting people to ditch their limiting beliefs and instead adopt a more open mindset. Nobody likes change, but if people believe it to be necessary and understand why and how it will be achieved, buy-in is far more likely to follow. Engaging your staff must be your main priority and they will only do this if they believe in you, themselves and the vision.

Culture: No matter how as a leader you try and re-culture an organisation, if the prevailing beliefs are holding you (and others) back, little will change. The development of a leadership culture is essential where everyone steps up and is prepared to embark on a voyage of understanding and discovery. To not change is simply not an option. No matter what we know about genetics, human nature is not fixed. People can choose to change if they wish. Your aim as a leader is to build a culture where staff embrace the need to work hard at developing themselves and becoming more self-aware of how they can improve, regardless of how limiting or enabling their beliefs are. This is where your core values come into play.

Up until now, during our first 100 days we have focused almost entirely on ABC. I’ve still yet to walk into a classroom and spend time watching how well the teachers can translate the curriculum into learning. I’ve flicked through the occasional exercise book but have yet to delve deep into how well the teachers assess pupils’ learning and feed this back to them. We haven’t tried to undertake any sort of data sweep, dump or analysis.

Using your heart

Whether this is the right thing to do or not remains to be seen. Perhaps to some it may appear as if we lack urgency.

But all of this is to come. The first 100 days do not mark the end of the story. Instead, it’s merely the end of the beginning. For those of you new to headship in September, take heed. The first 100 days aren’t about ripping up trees. Instead, use the time wisely to plant seeds.

Of course it’s not as simple as ABC; the management of change is far more complex than that. What it does help us remember though, is that sometimes, if giant leaps of faith are required, going back to the basics is always a good thing.

 

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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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Read. Talk. Write.

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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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Pot and kettle: A letter to HMCI

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This post appeared in the TES here.

Dear Chief Inspector,

I went to visit a new school last week. As I drove in, I could tell from the houses and the front gardens that it was an area starved of prospects. Term hadn’t started yet and the streets were awash with the detritus of a long barren summer holiday; make-shift goal posts, punctured footballs, broken tennis rackets. I’d arrived a few minutes early so decided to park up and check my phone. As I did, I noticed a group of young children tentatively approach the car. They were about six years old, unkempt and in need of something to do.

Emails checked, I was about to leave, the engine still running. The children had lost interest and had moved on so I put the car in gear, checked my rear mirror and was about to pull out when I heard giggling. I looked around but couldn’t work out where it was coming from. My first reaction was that a ball had gone under the car. I noticed movement and saw a small group of children – no more than three or four – crouching behind the vehicle.

I was about to jump out, convinced they were going to pinch my number plate. But then I noticed what it was they were actually doing. They were taking it in turns to crouch down and suck in the fumes from my blowing exhaust. As each child gulped in a lung-full, they’d turn to their mate and giggle hysterically, presumably getting some kind of kick out of the sensation. They were creating quite a stir and so more children were now beginning to come over.

It reminded me of a scene out of the TV series The Walking Dead, me surrounded in a car with a load of walkers outside. Do I turn off the engine and stay put, hoping they’d get bored and leave, or do I drive off? I was worried that if I drove away the surge in exhaust fumes might prove too strong or hot and burn the children. Besides, what if I accidentally had it in reverse and ran over one of them? I decided instead to turn off the engine and go and talk to them in my best teacher voice. I needn’t have bothered. As I opened the door, the children turned and scarpered in all directions in a move clearly well-rehearsed, laughing heartily as they went.

The following day, these very same children turned up at the school for their first day of term. They will continue to do so every day throughout the year, high on fumes, low on food and completely out of aspirations. The class teacher will think nothing of it, for it is what she does. She will welcome them with a smile and give them the love and attention they so crave. The teacher will not think twice about the extra work that goes with the job, for she understands that in choosing to work in such a challenging, demanding and all-consuming school, it goes with the territory. It’s par for the course.

I’m telling you this because I don’t think all of your inspectors will ever really understand or appreciate how much extra work teachers in these schools have to do. It’s not as simple as the headteacher being mean or nasty and abusing his or her authority. It’s far more nuanced than that. What is doubly difficult, is that these teachers who work so tirelessly just to stand still get no credit or acknowledgement for this because it’s likely that the next time an inspector calls he or she won’t think that the children are making enough academic progress compared with other schools.

Not every school is the same. I’m sure you know this, but again, I don’t believe all your inspectors do. Too many of them have never worked in tough schools where deprivation is high (and children pass the day sucking in exhaust fumes). Context is King. Unfortunately, your current framework does not acknowledge this. This is why I’m deeply troubled by any attempt at evaluating workload, because teachers in some schools have to work so much harder and longer than others. This is no-one’s fault. It’s just that some children are more needy than others. They need a lot more attention.

If you want to find a school where workload is off the scale, head for the nearest school that one of your team recently put in special measures. The school I visited above is one of those. The teachers in these schools are working exceptionally hard, and even though they may not always be doing the right things, what they are doing is ensuring that the children stay safe, remain secure and are nurtured. Unfortunately, the existing framework means that your inspectors will never get to see this because the focus is entirely on outcomes and progress, regardless of context.

You see, the teachers in these types of school have so much extra work that needs to be done. Things like running a breakfast club or a walking bus to get their class safely into school before the working day even begins; attending safeguarding meetings and maintaining detailed child protection records for the many children at risk in their care; constantly analysing the progress of each of the many groups in their class because Ofsted or HMI expect and demand it; producing countless reports showing the impact of the many children in their class eligible for sports’ or pupil premium funding, again because the government and yourselves require it; writing personalised risk assessments for trips and visits, especially for those children who never get to go outside their house and are likely to dart across the road to suck in fumes at a moments notice.

Most of this additional work has been created by the government. Not schools or headteachers. We’ve been telling ministers for years that workload has reached breaking point, mainly as a result of unnecessary bureaucracy and demands. This may well be why there is a recruitment crisis or that nobody wants to be a headteacher anymore. So you can imagine the irony when we learnt that the very body that has perpetuated the situation over the past quarter of a century now has the temerity to ask us what we intend to do about it. The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ come to mind.

Like it or not, it’s the unreasonable demands made on schools due to an unworkable accountability system that gives these teachers loads and loads of additional work to do. This is before they even think about their main workload of marking and planning that takes up all their evenings and weekends. They don’t want paying any more money, they only want a break; an acknowledgment from Ofsted that in these types of school it’s so much harder to achieve a higher Ofsted grading when kids are high on fumes.

These teachers seldom complain, even though they know that several miles away in the leafy middle class school in suburbia (could even be the local grammar), where the children are dropped off by their nanny in the Range Rover clutching a note saying they can’t go to after-school club because of their private tuition lesson, these teachers do not have to do as much extra work.

Throughout my career, I’ve done nothing but work in deprived, inner city, challenging schools up and down the country – Liverpool, London, Birmingham and the West Midlands. It’s incredibly hard and I do get so very frustrated when I know that the teachers in these schools get little credit from Ofsted. More recently, I’ve been involved as a chair of governors and trustee in remote rural schools and I’ve learned how hard these teachers have to work as well. I still don’t understand why a teacher chooses to teach a class of 40 pupils in a portacabin consisting of an entire key stage (no TA mind – have you seen how underfunded village schools are?). This particular teacher may also be the Head as well. And still they have to show the same rates of progress compared with a teacher working in middle-class suburbia with two TAs, shed loads of tech, a PTA listed on the FTSE 100 and a class of only 25.

Please don’t get the impression that the teachers that work in more affluent schools work any less hard. Of course they don’t. This is not an attack on them. In fact in many ways, teachers in these schools face all sorts of different pressures such as over-demanding parents, expectations to continually top league tables, the 11+ and grammar school applications, the performance of higher attainers. I know all this because my first headship was in one of these schools in a very well-to-do area in London. I wouldn’t begin to think how you are going to get your inspectors to reconcile these workload pressures alongside those mentioned above.

I’ve seen it also as an Ofsted inspector. I no longer have the heart to do it any more and so I gave up several years ago. I become entirely disillusioned even though I thought I was making a difference. You can read why Ofsted forced my hand here. But what used to frustrate me more than anything was having to be party to a decision to judge a ‘wealthy’ school ‘outstanding’ when I knew that some of the teachers in the school would never be able to cope in mine, as good as they might have been.

These teachers were fortunate. Their children turned up fed, watered, motivated, loved, cared for, with a head full of cultural experiences and a heart full of hope. On the whole, these teachers didn’t really have to worry about rates of progress for a dozen different ethnic groups, non-English speakers, SEND pupils, traveller families, 60%-plus free school meals, low attainers, CP and Prevent referrals, persistent absence or a revolving door of new admissions due to high rates of pupil mobility. For them, it’s pretty much a case of boy/girl and that’s it. I can think of several ‘outstanding’ schools I inspected where children did well not as a result of good teaching, but despite it.

I know your intentions to tackle workload are entirely honourable and for that you deserve much credit. I’ve worked under every single HMCI since Ofsted began, and it’s really rather refreshing to hear such compassion from the person at the top. The problem you have is that your workforce – as best intentioned as they are – simply are not, and never will be sufficiently skilled enough to be able to assess workload.

Let’s face it, some of them can barely go about their core business of judging accurately teaching, learning, leadership etc. in a way that is both consistent and fair. Take annual inspector training days. There’d be a room full of over a hundred inspectors, we’d all watch a lesson and there’d be a four-way split on the judgement. I got more right by tossing a coin. So why throw something else in the mix? I bet you’ve got more than enough on your plate at the moment, like introducing yet another framework and sorting out the illegal complaints procedure. (Which you really want to get fixed if you go ahead with the workload proposals as it’s certainly going to be put to lots of use.)

So please stick to your remit and don’t get side-tracked. Instead, make an effort to ensure that the next framework really is the last one we’ll ever have because at long last Ofsted will finally agree on what it is you are looking for. And if you really are serious about helping us reduce workload, don’t talk to us. Instead, go and talk to the Department and tell them.

Please don’t get bogged down with focussing on workload. Besides, I always thought it was for schools to decide what they did and how they went about it, not Ofsted.

For the sake of all those thousands of teachers working in challenging schools (and indeed for those that aren’t), please don’t do it.

Yours etc.

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Reflections on #ILConf17

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I think this must be my ninth or tenth Inspiring Leadership conference at the ICC in Birmingham. Previously known as Seizing Success (and run by the National College), the three-day annual event has always been eagerly anticipated by leaders across the country.

This year was no different, and the range of speakers was as eclectic as ever. Particular highlights for me included Margaret Heffernan who skilfully weaved a narrative around horse manure, super-chickens and Adele, Pasi Sahlberg and his dad-dancing and air guitar, Alistair Smith blatantly sniffing drugs on stage in front of a hall of headteachers, and the wonderfully esoteric BBC arts editor Will Gompertz. Oh, and Roy Hodgson, who was basically, well, Roy Hodgson.

But perhaps the stand-out session for me, and the one I was looking forward to the most was one of the masterclasses. It was called ‘What do inspectors think they are looking for and what can they really see in schools?’ It was set up as a debate chaired by Ed Dorrell from the TES and featured Sean Harford and Becky Allen. Both sides were given ten minutes to put forward their case, for and against, and then thrown open to the floor for discussion. Even though I’d worked as an inspector for a number of years, I’d never heard Sean Harford speak before in the flesh and so was looking forward to it.

Harford was up first. You could immediately see why he has such a following on Twitter and that many of us are keen to #HelpSean. Amenable, down to earth and above all, human, he immediately sought to reframe the question stating that the focus needs to be more about what inspectors are looking ‘at’ than ‘for’. He then went on to remind us of the difference between sections 5 and 8 and how inspectors come to make their judgements.

One aspect though that caught my attention was the notion of ‘unconscious bias’. The National Director of Education was keen to distance himself from the fact that inspectors won’t ever get it wrong. ‘I’m never going to stand on a public platform and say that inspectors always get it right, no more than you as Headteachers can guarantee that what goes on in classrooms will always be of the highest quality. This’, he concluded, ‘is the human side of the process.’ In other words, according to Harford, the system understandably has it flaws and is a necessary trade-off if we are to avoid judging schools simply by banding them into four quartiles based entirely on test results and a laptop.

Those of you who follow my blog will know that I got in a spot of bother once as a serving inspector for daring to allude that the process of inspection was flawed. But it was, still is and always will be flawed all the while unconscious bias exists. In a low stake system, I can live with this (such as SATs moderation), but when schools are closed down and people lose their jobs on the back of such bias there simply must be a better way. The paradox of course, is that all the while humans are making subjective decisions – not driven by measurable and quantifiable data – human bias will always exist and so the system will continue to be flawed.

The stakes are as high as they’ve ever been, a point not lost on Harford. When questioned on this, he quite rightly reminded us that it’s not Ofsted’s job to set the bar (it’s the sectors). Ofsted’s job is to judge how a school is doing, not to decree what should happen as a result. Subsequently converting a school into an academy is a matter for the RSC and should not be taken into account by Ofsted when making an inspection judgement (the ‘fear or favour’ effect).

Dr Becky Allen, Director of Education at Datalab and an expert at large scale analysis and research was up next and did a fine job of trying to make a case for this ‘better way’. She quoted a number of studies and research that suggested inspection was unreliable and flawed. We need to lower the stakes, she said, associated with a volatile and unreliable human-error-led system. In short, inspections are based on opinion and divergent data and not on facts or certainty. The weakness in her discourse was the fact that – just like the rest of us – she knew the system was broken, but didn’t have an alternative solution.

We then had a brief bout of sparring where the chair, the two protagonists and members of the jury could cross-examine each other. Both Allen and Harford were compelling, gracious and convincing in their arguments and there were no clear winners. For example, on the question of whether or not it’s harder to be judged outstanding in deprived areas, both sides conceded that it probably was. Certainly statistically it’s a lot harder, but that’s most likely a result of other factors such as the difficulty in recruiting teachers and a whole host of other situational variables.

The point was well-made though that leaders in these schools are often recognised as doing a good job in challenging circumstances. And even in schools that were less than good, Harford reiterated that in the case of RI, more than a third have good leadership.

He then went on to remind us that in the 25 years of inspection, we’ve come a long way. Those of us around in the mid-90s will remember that a typical secondary school inspection consisted of 17 inspectors spending five days in school and then writing a 60-page report published about three months later. A similar inspection today will consist of just two inspectors and one day. At last, suggests Harford, we seem to have have a system fit-for-purpose at a cost per school per year equivalent to that of a fifth of TA. (At which point Ed Dorrell asked the audience of heads what would they rather have, Ofsted or a fifth of a TA. I’m sure you can guess the answer.)

So there we have it, a system that has improved over the years, is much slimmer, but awash with human error and understandably so. It is flawed and will continue to be so, hence the continued conveyor belt of new inspection frameworks, each one ‘much-improved’. At one point we will hopefully finally get it right to the point that we won’t need to keep changing it. (The next framework will be published in summer 2019.)

By now, every school in the country has probably been inspected during Ofsted’s lifetime at least five or six times and we have a system in which 90% of heads are good or better in terms of their leadership. Never before have we had so much expertise and experience within our profession. We spend hours, days, weeks and months in our schools trying to work out exactly what it is that we are good and not so good at. And still we don’t always know because what we are looking ‘at’ and what we are looking ‘for’ are both so damned illusive.

Relying on a system therefore that requires one person popping in to a school every few years for a couple of hours in an attempt at telling us the answer simply won’t wash. I just hope that we don’t waste another 25 years trying to find the answer.

 

(Postscript: The painting at the top of this page is The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David, 1781. Its significance is that it appeared in two unrelated slide decks on days one and three respectively: Steve Munby’s when comparing headteachers as Philosophers, Architects and Surgeons, and then by Will Gompertz on thinking like an artist).

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Hoops, hoops and more hoops

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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.

 

An education worth having

 

 

IMG_2218The chances are you may not have heard of the Whole Education Network. It’s been going strong for several years now and grew out of the RSA in 2010. If you haven’t come across them yet, then you really should have, so read on (3 minutes reading time).

Consisting of over 200 members (and 21,000 Twitter followers), the network is a dynamic partnership of schools all with a shared passion: That all children deserve an engaging and rounded education that supports academic achievement, but also develops the skills, knowledge and qualities needed to thrive.

Anyone can join. So long as you buy-in to the key principles and are committed to collaborating with like-minded schools who embrace innovation and world-class thinking, then you’re in. You also need to sign up to the concept of – as the name suggests  – a ‘whole education’. In other words, you ensure that your pupils take complete ownership of their learning through a relevant, engaging and worthwhile curriculum. Only then can we truly guarantee an ‘education worth having’. (Those of you who have read my book will know what I mean.)

You can find out more about the Whole Education Network on their website, such as leadership impact initiatives, research and focus groups, webinars, conferences and peer review. As a member you can connect with schools at the cutting edge of best-practice up and down the country. For example, there are currently school-led interest groups exploring flipped learning, spirals of enquiry, project-based learning, digital fluency and so on. What’s perhaps most exciting is the ability to influence change on a national and international scale. Chaired by Sir John Dunford, the board and executive are well-placed to open doors and bend ears of ministers, influencers and international movers and shakers.

As the executive headteacher of a Whole Education Network Partner School, and all-round advocate for a whole education, I’m looking to establish a regional primary hub in the Midlands. Hubs are already well-established in some parts of England, such as the one in the North-West led by Sharon Bruton, CEO at The Keys Federation in Wigan. I hope to galvanise enough support to create a Midlands powerhouse where schools are able to create synergies and collaborate and share best-practice. Never before in our schools has this been more relevant, with the growing pressures on the arts, creativity, culture and the importance of a rounded and balanced curriculum, both implicit and explicit.

If you want to find out more then we are holding a Whole Education launch event at Rowley Park Academy (Stafford) on 15th May from 11.00am to 1.00pm. Look out for more details next week. You are all invited, regardless of whether or not you are an existing Whole Ed member. There’ll be an opportunity to learn more about what we do, meet key staff from the Network and agree a way forward as a regional hub. Rowley Park is a classic example of a school that has benefited from a whole education. In 2014 it was in special measures and is now a school bursting with innovation and creativity. Feel free to stay on for a tour of the school and have a look round.

If you can’t make the 15th, but are still interested then do contact me either through LinkedIn or Twitter @AndrewDMorrish. You can always contact Natasa Pantelic at Whole Education (Natasa@wholeeducation.org or on 0207 2585130).

Finally, if you know of any schools or colleagues that might be interested in joining the network, please pass this on.

 

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