I have a real problem with banana boat rides. Going up, that’s no problem – it’s the going down I can’t stand; that swooping feeling in your stomach as you realise that there is nothing tethering you to safety, that you are at the mercy of gravity.
I experienced that very feeling when I found out that I would shortly be going through my first Ofsted inspection as a governor. No matter how well you’ve prepared for HMI – and we had been preparing for quite some time – it still comes as a shock. Much like Godot, we are assured that Ofsted will be turning up, but we’re never quite sure when.
Now the ride is over, however, I thought I’d share some of the things I learned and found helpful during our two-day inspection. So here are my seven tips for governors who want to survive Ofsted.
1. Be a support act
As soon as you hear The Call (and it’s always in title case) has arrived, think about how as a governing body you can support the staff in the school. For link governors, this could be something as little as sending an email to wish your teaching counterpart good luck.
We brought in two days’ worth of snacks to keep everyone going – fruit, vegetables, sweets, chocolate, biscuits, crisps, cake – and popped it in the staffroom along with a note inviting staff to help themselves. Doing the same at your school is likely to be much appreciated – and, in our case, we heard that it encouraged and increased socialising in the staffroom during the time of the inspection, reinforcing the notion that our school is a community.
If you do this in your school, something helpful we learned: nobody will eat the fruit.
2. Raise the roof
The night before your chat with the inspector, go over every piece of data you have available, whether it’s RAISEonline, FFT, in-school data, pupil premium reports – anything you can get your hands on. It’s likely that you’ll already have a good understanding of your school’s data, but it doesn’t hurt to refamiliarise yourself with it.
Write yourself a crib sheet of where your school does well, where it needs to improve – then cross-reference that with meeting minutes to find examples of where you’ve challenged the school on those points, as well as evidence of what senior leaders have put in place, both in terms of best practice and where improvements need to be made.
3. Plan to succeed
Meet up with your fellow governors 15-30 minutes before you're due to see the inspector. Go over any points you’re not sure about, as well as clarifying where expertise lies. This will help make sure that you are presenting a united front and a consistent narrative, as well as ensuring that the right person answers each question.
Have any documents you might need to refer to printed out and in front of you – and make sure that you know the order that they are in and the information they contain.
Also essential to get in advance? Water. You will be nervous and you will be talking a lot. I nearly turned down the offer of water, and I’m rather glad I didn’t; I would have been talking like Marlon Brando in The Godfather at the end of the hour, otherwise.
4. Express your Sef
Have your school evaluation form (Sef) and school improvement plan (Sip) to hand during the meeting, with Post-it notes pointing to relevant points, if possible. Having data and examples learned is fantastic, but – contrary to what I believed – you are not required to recall everything from memory: it is not an exam. Refer to notes if you need to, and make it clear that you know the information you need to answer the question is in your Sef or Sip.
5. Raptor squad
Comparing governors to dinosaurs might not help with their stereotypical depiction, but in this case, it works. As anyone who has seen Jurassic World can tell you, velociraptors hunt in packs, working together to corner their prey in a way that suits them.
Full disclaimer: I am in no way advocating hunting Ofsted inspectors, mainly because I hear that will count against your school in the final judgement. However, your governing body can work as a team to make sure that the information you want to express is imparted to the inspector, and that any stumbles or misses by one governor are picked up rapidly by someone else.
Listen to your fellow governors’ answers, and check your documents for any relevant information that could back them up. If they are struggling, and you can add something to the conversation, jump in. Equally, if you’re the one talking, and you happen to know that one of your fellow governors has particular skills, training or a relevant position on the governing body, invite them to contribute.
6. Practice your poker face
Once you’ve received the judgement from the inspectors, you will not be able to tell anyone what it is immediately – not your school’s staff, not your significant other, not even the playground parent posse (who can become slightly obsessive when they get told you can’t tell them something). We were asked not to tell our fellow governors who could not attend the meeting, but we've since learned that that is not the case for most schools. We were told in no uncertain terms that leaking the result to anyone before being issued the final report would result in an immediate re-inspection. And, regardless of the original result, nobody wants that.
So, by all means, celebrate, commiserate, plan next steps – but do it immediately in the aftermath of the judgement. And then wipe all expression from your face and be prepared to say the phrase, “It was a fair judgement” approximately 637 times a day for the next two weeks.
7. Be seen, be heard
Unfortunately, knowing the result of the inspection doesn’t give you licence to hide for a fortnight. It’s important to thank everyone and let them know that their incredibly hard work is appreciated, as well as being clear about timelines for the publication of the report and explaining why they have to wait to find out.
And after all of that, how did our inspection go? Well, as we’ve still got some time to go before the final report is released…it was a fair judgement. Much like that banana boat ride, I’m glad I did it and that I got through it – but, equally, you’re unlikely to see me queuing up to repeat the experience any time soon.