‘If this is Ofsted’s new reality, I might join them’

It was great to go from ‘requires improvement’ to ‘good’, says the headteacher from Educating the East End, but even better to know the inspectors were finally listening

Jenny Smith

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A strange thing has happened recently: in a surreal turn of events, I have ended up singing the praises of Ofsted. No one is more shocked by this than I am.

My staff and I are walking taller, and what had begun to feel like unrelenting pressure has abated. As a long-serving member of the “requires improvement” club, I had not fully prepared myself psychologically for the reality of being judged good.

As a headteacher and long-serving deputy, I’d never had a single positive Ofsted experience (to put it mildly) and had heard enough rhetoric in my career to be deeply cynical of the new regime.

Inspections are always ridiculously high-stakes affairs (does this happen in any other profession?), but after two previous “requires improvement” ratings, and with recent government pronouncements, we knew it was even more so than usual. A judgement of any less than “good” would precipitate major changes to the school – and the end of my career.

Ofsted were due in September, but it was not until December that the inspectors decided to pay us a visit. By then, we were exhausted and highly stressed. For almost a term, I would have a minor coronary every time the phone rang in the morning. By Wednesday afternoon, a palpable relief would spread through the school when we knew we would have a few more days. Our self-evaluation form was written and rewritten endless times, as we unpicked the mystery of the new framework and confusions of national benchmarking.

Shifting sands

Sands were constantly shifting. No one had a clue about what was happening and how data would be interpreted. Very few schools had been inspected yet. One Ofsted expert would tell us one thing (“Forget RAISEonline: it’s all about current data”) and a week later another self-appointed expert would tell us something else (“RAISEonline will be the key indicator”). Then there was the marking…

I was exhausted, the pressure unbearable and staff were cracking under the weight of it all.

So when the call finally came, 10 long weeks after it was due, we drew breath and held on to our moral principles. We knew we were a good school – so did our parents and pupils. We knew our school inside out and back to front, and we had clear plans in place to address our remaining weaknesses.

From the second the inspection team walked into the school, we could sense the difference. The team, with the exception of the lead inspector, were all serving heads and deputies in London schools. They understood the context that we were working in, and were interested in our journey as a school. For the first time ever, I found myself engaging in an honest discussion about school improvement with an Ofsted inspector – and they listened. There was no tick list to go over, no head-shaking or lecturing. There was no argument over dots on a graph, or a lack of appreciation that these dots represented real, and often complex, young lives.

This was a quantifiably different experience: “Your pupils are so exciting and ambitious,” the lead inspector told me. “What are you going to do to help them achieve their dreams?” I was momentarily stunned. We were in a relevant educational debate – not about English Baccalaureate targets, but building cultural capital and lifelong skills.

However, the inspectors spent comparatively little time talking to me; I’d said my bit on the self-evaluation form. They spent their time in lessons, as well as talking to pupils, staff (including the kitchen staff), parents and governors, triangulating everyone’s views and experiences. I couldn’t have “spun” the inspection even if I had wanted to. It was thorough, authentic and all-encompassing.

A full part of the process

There was no talk of the Ofsted framework until the end of the second day: the inspectors focused on the strengths observed and any emerging themes. For the first time, I and my team felt a full part of the process. The inspection was not about ticking boxes or a deficit model (“Let’s start with the criteria for ‘requires improvement’”). I did not have to argue, challenge or complain at any point (all firsts for me). The inspectors left with smiles on their faces, and left us with tears of joy in our eyes.

The delight of informing the staff and pupils that we had finally been recognised as a “good” school was unforgettable. We were all so committed and passionate about the outcome. We had been labelled for so long that our belief had been eroded. Doubts had crept in and energies sapped. This punitive wait is as much a psychological battle as a strategic one. Under the current agenda, we began to doubt whether schools like ours could ever be recognised for anything positive.

One judgement should not matter so much, but it does. I cannot describe the difference it makes. Our school is no different to the one back in September, but something has tangibly shifted. We are more confident. Our self-belief is back and, for the first time in a long time, I am sleeping.

No system should have such a high-stakes, punitive, accountability process with schools waiting endlessly for a visit. The impact this has on schools is detrimental – it is hugely damaging to the wellbeing of staff, and, as a consequence, the wellbeing of our pupils. However, if we must suffer through this process, I hope it continues to operate with such levels of integrity, professionalism and moral purpose. It would be transformational to have a system with trust, integrity and pupils’ life chances at its core. We have worked in fear for far too long.

And if this is the new reality, who knows: I might even train to be an inspector myself.

Jenny Smith is headteacher of Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow, which featured in Educating the East End She tweets @FrederickBremer

This is an article from the 6 May edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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