It’s been long enough now that I can look back at my experience working somewhere "inadequate" and see it as a valuable learning experience. But some of the battle scars are still visible: I can recognise habits and behaviours in myself that are hangovers from those days.
This is my rundown of the top five signs that, like me, you used to work in a school or college judged "inadequate" by Ofsted:
You pile exercise books in order from best to worst
Just last week, I realised I was still doing this. “Ah, Jamie, excellent work today.” That’s one for the top.
“Hm, Kelly, couldn’t you have told me you didn’t have a pen ninety minutes ago?” Bottom.
“Wow, Toby, you’ve written so much!” Top.
This habit stems from the persistent fear of a clandestine work scrutiny, or a learning walk where a detached observer is more comfortable loitering at the back, nosing through another class’s pile of books, than speaking with the learners in the room. In the most extreme cases, you might find yourself planting a good book at the bottom of the pile, too, in case the snooper knows the strategy.
Your seating plan is impenetrable
Generally, a lazy observer will sit in the most obvious space available, so when you enter the classroom of someone with the strategic-seating-plan habit, the desk nearest the door will usually be occupied by a temptingly-empty seat and one improbably articulate and enthusiastic student.
The students most likely to go rogue and to describe their quality of learning in colourfully guttural terms will be far away, against a wall, on the opposite side of the room. If the teacher really knows how to use classroom topography in their favour, whole rows can be made inaccessible.
You write down the same feedback you’re saying out loud
This one looks particularly absurd when I do it, because I struggle to do two things at once. So I take a student’s book to look at, read their work, and then tell them how to improve it. I then take five times as long writing the exact same thing in their margin. I do this because, if I don’t, nobody will know I’ve given that feedback; right?
Fortunately, it goes down quite well with learners in "grade-4" contexts because they’ve often absorbed through institutional osmosis the misconception that something being written in their books somehow equates with it being learned.
You are unduly cynical of new initiatives
You probably saw a brand-new, non-negotiable, whole-school initiative introduced every half term. Nothing ever had a chance to be tested properly, never mind bedded into normal practice. Senior leaders repeatedly binned whatever the last idea was that didn’t turn the place around in six weeks and spent tens of thousands of pounds more on the next shiny consultant who turned up with an alliterative or easily-acronymed gimmick.
Therefore, you really have seen it all. And none of it worked.
Your data is completely fictional
"Inadequate" schools and colleges are usually so in thrall to spreadsheets of data and pleasingly-colourful graphs, that they forget to check whether anything they’re looking at is actually meaningful. Checking the appropriateness and accuracy of assessment takes much more work than browsing the ‘recommended charts’ pane in Microsoft Excel.
This is the most shameful habit of them all, so if you ever find yourself about to cut and paste the entire ‘target’ column over into the column for assessment results, please dig out the first application letter you ever wrote for a teaching post and remind yourself why you got into teaching in the first place!
Although that won’t help if, as once happened to me, you’re directed to do it by your head of department: “I know they are not there yet but the system needs to track them,” she explained, opaquely.
So those are the top five symptoms of someone who hasn’t quite recovered from working in a "grade-4" context. It’s important to be aware of them in order to combat them; they are unhealthy habits. Just as importantly though, we need to acknowledge that while this all follows an Ofsted judgment of "inadequate", there isn’t actually a causal link. These things aren’t Ofsted’s fault.
My early mentor in teaching, who had a significant formative effect on my own approaches, is a senior HMI these days. I am absolutely certain that he has never gone rifling through piles of books at the backs of classrooms or assumed that book-marking would be the limit of any teacher’s feedback to their students.
Ofsted has continually emphasised that schools and colleges don’t need to pay out from our dwindling budgets to get advice from dodgy 'mocksted' consultants. Most recently, they have even said outright that they will not consider in-year data because it’s so unreliable and creates too many workload issues.
Ultimately, Ofsted exists to protect students from underperforming professionals. If you recognise the habits above, it’s likely that those underperforming professionals were your senior leaders and it’s right that systems exist to hold them accountable.
Andrew Otty leads 16-19 English in an FE college. He is an ambassador for education charity SHINE