The day Ofsted made my school's world fall apart

Below-par exam results, then a notice to improve – but this is no time for a mortified head to quit
31st October 2008, 12:00am
Kenny Frederick


The day Ofsted made my school's world fall apart

Following our very recent Ofsted inspection on the back of some very disappointing exam results, we are now the not-so-proud owners of a notice to improve. I need to remember that nobody has died. It just feels like it.

You never think it will happen to you. It's a bit like cancer - it happens to other people. The experience was brutal, but my purpose here is not to criticise the Ofsted process - if it had gone well, we would have said it was wonderful. My purpose is to share the experience with others because it might help someone, somewhere get through a similar ordeal.

We had been told all along that the judgment was leaning towards satisfactory right up until 10am on the second day. Then the lead inspector came to see me at 12.30pm, as arranged. He asked if I wanted anybody else to be present. I asked if I needed someone there. The silence was deafening, but I knew that my team were all engaged elsewhere in the school and nobody was around.

I was told the school was to receive a notice to improve, and my whole world fell apart. I remember sitting in my office alone for about an hour trying to make sense of it all. What would I do? How could I tell people? I called my husband to tell him, and to say I was probably going to resign. He told me to do whatever I felt was necessary, and that he loved me, and what did Ofsted know anyway?

The rest is a bit of a blur, or perhaps I have just blocked it out because it is too painful to recall. Telling the staff and seeing the shock on their faces was hard, but it had to be done.

Facing my own failure was the most painful feeling, and that remains. I had considered myself to be a good leader and one who knew myself well. How could I get it all so wrong? I don't know the answer yet but will be trying to work it out over the next year or so. I certainly feel mortified by the whole experience.

But I need to get over myself, put my ego aside and remind myself that this is not all about me. It's about my school, my staff, my pupils, and I need to put them before my own pain and distress.

During the following few days I had to make the biggest decision of my life - to go or to stay. I decided to stay because I felt I had a duty to see it through and to take us out of the mess we were in. So here I am, licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself.

The qualities that made me take on the role of head in the first place are difficult to put aside and to walk away from. The bloody-mindedness and determination are still there, as is the vision of a high-achieving, inclusive school where every child is welcomed.

Our downfall was based on the slow rate of progress made by our pupils, and our biggest problem is that they are not independent learners. The teachers work very hard in teaching them, but this is not having the impact on learning that it should.

This week, I received a book in the post which I have been asked to review. The title caught my attention immediately: Leadership with a Moral Purpose by Will Ryan. It was just what I needed to lift my spirits. Ryan asserts that schools need "lazy teachers" because they realise their job isn't to teach but to get pupils to learn. He describes the man who said "I taught my dog to listen" and the one who asks: "Why can't it whistle, then?"

This is exactly the problem we face. My teachers work too hard teaching without making the expected impact on learning. We have to change the emphasis on teaching and move it to a focus on learning. This is a big but necessary change that we are going to have to make very quickly. Watch this space to track our progress.

We are not wasting time complaining about the process or the judgment. Instead, we are putting all our energies into putting things right very quickly. We are being closely monitored by the local authority, but this is helping us to stay focused on our task.

Being a happy and optimistic person by nature has pulled me through this ordeal. I can visualise the way things will be a year from now. I keep trying to hang on to the positive aspects of having a notice to improve - and that's not easy. But there are some. For instance, we have had several invaluable offers of practical help from colleagues in the borough and beyond.

I have found others who believe, as I do, that all schools should be successful, but not at the expense of the one down the road.

As Ian Gilbert, the editor of Will Ryan's book, says: "Be bold, be brave, be true to your vision and use it well." I think I will take his advice. We will survive, and we will thrive.

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher of George Green's Community School in Tower Hamlets, east London.

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