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How an Ofsted inspection brought teachers to tears...of joy

Oriana Dalton, headteacher of Lakenham Primary School in Norwich, talks about a positive experience with Her Majesty's Inspectors

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I often find that I can’t start the Christmas preparations at home until I have exorcised the ghosts of the term past. This Christmas, I am coming to terms with the fact that, for the first time in my life, I work in what has been defined by Ofsted as a good school.

Our last Ofsted report in September 2013 said we required improvement. Under the new inspection framework, that should have meant we would be inspected again within 24 months of our last inspection. Twenty-seven months passed and in the first week of December we finally got the call. Some of my colleagues are still waiting, despite having passed the 24-month mark as they approach the eighth term since their last inspection.

The stress and pressure of awaiting an overdue inspection is immense. I have now been released from that pressure.

I work in a school with “challenging circumstances”. More than half of our cohort are entitled to pupil premium, we have high numbers of looked-after children, as well as pupils and families receiving additional interventions through social care. High levels of turbulence means that less than half the children in Year 6 started with us in Reception. The record for schools such as mine achieving a good outcome in Ofsted speaks for itself and our last inspection underlined how unlikely it was. Our results in 2013 had placed us in the top 7 per cent of schools for value added, we were one of the top 30 most improved schools in the country – but Ofsted still said we required improvement.

By this time – our fourth inspection since the school opened in 2007-2008 – I had decided that this was a game we couldn’t win. Three other local schools in my cluster had been deemed as inadequate or as having serious weaknesses and been forced down the academy route, and the headteachers had been removed or had left within a year. It is quite liberating to imagine you are running a race you have no chance of winning. We stopped trying to meet an Ofsted target and began to focus on the needs of the children in our school.

Over the past two terms, I have attended various briefings in school about the new common inspection framework. Since our last inspection we had managed the implementation of the new national curriculum, introduced assessment without levels and continued to focus on ensuring our children make good progress. I started to hear from Ofsted about a broad and balanced curriculum, with schools designing systems that work for them and their children, and I started to develop a sense of hope.

All too often I hear of schools that have become exam factories, with children being moulded to pass a test, following a limited curriculum focusing on the three Rs, while the broader curriculum provision is sidelined to after-school extra activities. The outcomes of key-stage tests being so high stakes for schools, that children are no longer independent learners and are simply pushed through the exam mincer.

In deciding we were in a race we couldn’t win, we stopped trying to tick boxes and started to focus on the needs of our children and the community we serve. We developed a broad and balanced curriculum, with speaking and listening a key focus. We designed our school around three core rights for all members of our community: the right to learn, the right to be safe physically and emotionally, and the right to be treated with respect.  

Children were given a voice and allowed to make decisions and contribute to the school self-evaluation. Teachers engaged in high-quality training, action research and evidenced-based practice. We learned from best practice and took risks. We stopped collecting stuff for Ofsted and started doing things because they were useful and because they had an impact on learning.

We had high expectations of ourselves, and the children and families we work with. There was a clear focus on consistency and developing policy based on good practice reviews. A significant proportion of teachers began their careers at the school and have been provided with opportunities to develop professionally and take on new challenges.

So we got the call in the first week in December 2015. I answered with a sense of relief, because the wait at least was over. The fate of our school would be decided before Christmas. I hoped that what I had heard various inspectors say would be true. That children’s progress in books and the quality of teaching and learning at the school now would be used to inform inspection judgements alongside data held externally and internally. I have never worked with a better, more highly skilled and dedicated team of people, and I have worked with some fantastic teams.

The whole process of this inspection was completely different to any other I have experienced. Having been inspected every two years for the past eight, I have now been inspected under four different schedules. The inspection was not something that was "done to us", but rather something we participated in. Staff were given feedback on the teaching observed, and were encouraged to share their success and things they were proud of. Children’s books were an important source of evidence about progress supported by the school's own assessments and in school data. Our children were amazing. They spoke positively about their learning and the progress they had made. They showed off their work and their school with pride. Staff didn’t try to be extraordinary. They did what they do every day, and that is incredible.

The school leadership team was involved throughout the inspection process; we were involved in lesson observations asked to evaluate what we saw and explain processes and systems. There were no surprises. There was a professional dialogue about our school.

When it came to the end of day two, the leadership team had been involved in working with the team in completing aspects of the report and reviewing the evidence. We knew that we had achieved the impossible. The team arrived to meet with the governing body and share their findings, nearly every governor was present. By the end of the feedback everyone was in tears. Ours was a good school!

When Ofsted leaves, the school must go on. Two school productions and a carol concert later, we received the final report. We are one of only 585 schools to have had a full inspection this term, and perhaps it is early days. Given our “good” outcome, our judgement is somewhat positively influenced, but this new process was for us supportive and developmental – enabling rather than disabling. As for the rest of the school year, we have children to teach and things we want to achieve.

Oriana Dalton is a headteacher at Lakenham Primary School in Norwich, who can be found blogging here.

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