In November 2013, a mixed state school in Eastbourne, East Sussex, had its fourth Ofsted inspection in nine years. The inspection was carried out under the latest rigorous criteria, within an educational climate that critics were describing as restrictive and Victorian.
West Rise Junior School, where I am headteacher, is unconventional to say the least. You might imagine, therefore, that the inspectors would not have had a high opinion of it.
For starters, we have water buffalo, sheep, pigs, chickens, ducks and cows roaming a 120-acre area of wetland that is opposite the school. On this land, we teach the children to fire shotguns, practise archery, hunt with gun dogs and ferrets and master fly fishing. Our pupils are taught to light fires and use knives. Some have even skinned rabbits and plucked pigeons, and most know how to cook over an open fire.
And that is not all. The site is also home to 1 million honey bees, which the children help to look after. We have a creative arts studio called Room 13, where students can direct their own learning. Then there is a darkroom for photography, a radio studio and a Mongolian yurt for circle time. And the children have been helping to construct a Bronze Age village on our marshland. They have thatched the roof of our latest roundhouse and erected a raised wooden walkway stretching 70m across the land.
Business as (un)usual
So, having seen all this, did Ofsted disapprove? Far from it.
As well as conducting a number of lesson observations, examining work and interviewing staff and children, the lead inspector spent an afternoon on the marsh, meeting the water buffalo and watching the children learn outside. Meanwhile, the additional inspector sat in our Mongolian yurt as the children shared their feelings. The inspectors' analysis of each aspect of provision was coupled with interviews and scrutiny of the work produced. No stone was left unturned.
The outcome? A creative approach to teaching and learning is something that Ofsted loves. The school received an outstanding rating for behaviour and safety, based in part on our exciting curriculum opportunities. We were judged to be good in the three other areas and the inspection report made many references to our innovative projects and the impact they have on children's learning and progress.
Our positive experience of Ofsted was not a one-off. Another full inspection in 2008 was equally encouraging. The inspectors were able to see how our unusual approach to teaching and learning benefited the school and praised Room 13 in particular. An inspection of assessment in 2010 also highlighted the success of our creative curriculum.
This just goes to show the inaccuracy of many schools' perceptions of Ofsted. You can be creative and still meet the requirements.
The key for us, every time, has been to present the inspectors with evidence that what we do benefits the children. This is achieved through careful and accurate data analysis. We are able to demonstrate that our provision, from the arts through to the animals and Bronze Age activities, has a direct impact on standards across the curriculum. Our Sats results improve every year and our internal data reveals the same trend. This information is shared and understood by the teaching staff, governors and other relevant people. Crucially, the children themselves are able to articulate the impact our school and activities have on their learning.
Be open and honest
We also make it easy for inspectors to see what they need to see. I always prepare a document summarising our provision and its benefits, which is handed to each inspector on their arrival. This highlights our strengths and weaknesses in reading, writing and maths. It also shows our areas for development, as identified by me and other senior leaders.
Finally, the school evaluation form is published on the website, along with our development plan, for Ofsted to see in advance of an inspection. This saves inspectors time and demonstrates that the school is open and honest about its strengths and weaknesses. I also ensure that my senior leaders and governors have read and understood this information and can articulate it well.
If you believe that a creative approach to teaching and learning helps children to access the curriculum and make progress, there is no reason not to forge ahead. It is essential, however, to back this up with data and careful monitoring. If you can show accurate evidence, inspectors will be delighted to see fresh approaches and the positive impact they have on learning.
Mike Fairclough is headteacher of West Rise Junior School in Eastbourne, East Sussex