'No one utters the word "Ofsted" in my school'

The secret to a school that makes a difference is finding a meaningful, common purpose rather than striving to fulfil an imposed set of ideals in order to be great

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THE ONE word I’ve never heard at my school is… “Ofsted”.

John Kay, author of Obliquity, has a simple point to make: sometimes our goals are best achieved obliquely.

What he means is that if you want to make a fat profit, don’t worry about making a fat profit. Instead, figure out what you care about: what is your contribution? What is it you actually do? Then do that, the very best that you can; profit will follow.

Author Simon Sinek argues a similar point in what is now one of the most watched TED talks of all time: “Very, very few people or organisations know why they do what they do. And by why I don’t mean to make a profit. That’s a result. It’s always a result. By why, I mean, what’s your purpose? What’s your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your organisation exist? Why do you get out of bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?”

Indeed, what is your cause? What’s your belief? Why does your school exist? Why do you get out of the bed in the morning? And why should anyone care?

The non-negotiable criteria

I’m struggling to picture the teacher who responds to that with the words “to be rated ‘outstanding’ by an Ofsted inspector following a two-day visit.” Yet, I used to live in a world where every day someone would have something to say about what Ofsted wants.

The school leadership team (SLT) would gather in the lead up to the visit to discuss what the Ofsted inspector might want to see. More group work? More independent work? Three layers of data-tracking? Streamlined data systems? Fully written lesson plans? No lesson plans? Less teacher talk? Better teacher exposition? What Ofsted wanted was what we felt we had to do – we lived to serve.

So a list of items became non-negotiable. SLT trooped around corridors ensuring that the non-negotiables were kept non-negotiable, and entered into non-negotiations wherever the tenets were not adhered to.

They were non-negotiable for about a week, when we thought that Ofsted were coming. After that, the corridors emptied, the winds whistled through them; suddenly, no one cared. I jest, but sadly, they were a solid set of non-negotiables: no bags on tables; no drinks in the classroom; no electronics in sight.

If only those things were non-negotiable because we believed that it would make a difference to our pupils, and not for Ofsted.

What a difference a word makes

I moved schools. A few months ago, we learned that we were the top non-selective school in the country. My previous school served a community in the highest quintile of pupils on free school meals, and second highest with special educational needs.

My current school, King Solomon Academy, serves a community in the highest quintile of pupils on free school meals, and also the highest with special educational needs.

The difference is not in our intake. I could point to many things that make our school different, but in many ways, there’s one to rule them all: the word Ofsted has never been mentioned in my three years here. Not once. Not once by any SLT member, not once by any teacher. Not once. Well maybe once, when I recently asked other teachers: “Have you ever heard anyone here mention Ofsted?” to which they all replied, “No, not once.”

The spell is not in what we don’t say – “Don’t say ‘Ofsted’, results guaranteed!” – it’s in why we don’t say it. More group work? Less group work? More independence? More reading? More teacher talk? Less teacher talk? Written lesson plans? Only if, whether right or wrong, it is believed that those actions will improve the education of our children.

Doing everything you do because you are driven by your purpose is profoundly enlivening, and from that, so much else follows. Every conversation, every action, is spoken and taken with a focus on what we all care about: the individual lives that we shape. Not Ofsted.

It’s easy for us, right? After all, we’re rated “outstanding”, maybe we don’t have to obsess over Ofsted, but other schools aren’t so lucky. This reasoning falls into two traps.

First, by that logic, Ofsted won’t be mentioned in outstanding schools. Not so, my experience and a quick straw poll reveals. Perhaps your own experience already tells you that as well.

The second trap is the belief that worrying about what Ofsted wants is necessary for schools to improve their rating. Kay and Sinek would argue the opposite: worrying about what Ofsted wants, rather than why you do what you do, is what keeps you down.

What drives you

If you’re a teacher, stop worrying about Ofsted grades. The work of Durham University’s Professor Robert Coe has already shown them to be meaningless.

If you were rated badly but you and your school know that your pupils learn loads, and you have the evidence to back that up, why care what Ofsted thinks? If you were rated “outstanding”, be honest with yourself, does that really mean anything? Or does the impact you have on your pupils’ lives matter more? Whatever that impact is, keep that with you, let that be your prestige.

If you’re a headteacher and your vision for your staff and school is to become Ofsted “outstanding”, then shame on you. No one is inspired by that. Galvanise your teachers to do as best by the children as they know how. Then find people who know more, learn from them and grow. Let your teachers be great; “outstanding” will follow.

What if I’m wrong? There’s a troop of heads out there making their way in the world by meticulously engineering schools in the direction of what they know that Ofsted wants – it seems to work.

Maybe it does work sometimes and maybe that’s enough, if “outstanding” is all you care about, if it’s what you believe in, if it’s your cause, why you exist, why you get out of bed in the morning. Is it?

Kris Boulton is head of KS4 maths at King Solomon Academy and a trustee of education charity Team Up

This is an article from the 8 April edition of TESThis week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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