Within the climate of fear that Ofsted has given rise to in schools, it is too easy, as a headteacher, to threaten teachers in response to being threatened yourself. What school leaders should be doing is the opposite: banishing the fear factor is crucial to getting a good report from Ofsted.
The best thing we can all do to help secure a positive Ofsted report is to teach brilliantly. When the inspectors turn up, they know the examination data; what they want to do is get into classrooms and see what is going on.
School leaders need to accept that, in order for the inspectors to find brilliant teaching, the fear factor has to be eliminated: fear and good teaching are incompatible. We have to develop our colleagues in a safe environment that allows them to thrive professionally and personally. Headteachers have to realise that this is the only way they will keep the top job.
Here are some simple actions that school leaders can take to help colleagues feel safe to improve their teaching. They will also ensure that the right support is provided for staff during the inspection process.
Two things to do before inspection
- We found the decision to stop grading lesson observations utterly transformational. It is the single most important step we have taken to create a culture in which teachers feel safe to take risks with their pedagogy.
Instead of making judgements, we ask teachers, "How can I observe you in a way that will best help you to improve your teaching?" This allows staff to deliberately work on elements of their practice without fear of failure, rather than waiting with trepidation to be labelled with an Ofsted grade.
Since we have stopped grading lessons, I have had more honest, developmental conversations about teaching with my colleagues than ever before. And I know that teaching is improving overall because our results are getting better and better.
- Knowing who is in front of you in the classroom is a key ingredient to successful teaching. To help staff, we provide class lists that are data-light and information-heavy.
We have removed from class lists any data that teachers don't need. When it comes to numbers, they get a minimum expected grade, the students' reading ages when they joined the school, a code relating to their special educational needs and disabilities, and a pupil premium code. This is the basic information needed by teachers to plan lessons to enable the pupils in front of them to learn.
But we think the data is just a starting point. The most important information that teachers need to plan good lessons is gained by getting to know children over time; I still believe that truly great teaching depends upon good relationships between teachers and students.
Two things to do during inspection
- Smile. A lot. The cultural tone is set by the headteacher. The one time I let my mask slip when I was briefing staff, allowing an impending inspection to induce a panicked rant, it took months to re-establish our composure as a school. As headteacher, you have to be relentlessly positive. Your colleagues do not want their own worries compounded by yours.
- Be seen around the place. You cannot spread the reassuring warmth of your smile if you are rooted in your office.
Two things to do after inspection
- It is important to bring the school community together once the inspectors have departed. If you have managed the inspection effectively, it can be a bonding process. Taking a moment at the end of the experience to give thanks to everyone is important. I know of schools that hold a formal dinner for all staff at the end of inspection week. At my school, I once paid for some bubbly and nibbles and gave a tired and emotional speech that made people laugh.
- Ofsted inspectors will get some things wrong, so be sure to meet with the casualties as soon as you can. Headteachers always need to soften the impact of negative inspection experiences on their colleagues. When we were inspected, several truly great teachers could have been damaged by their interactions with inspectors; it was up to senior colleagues to reassure them that we knew better and that they should not worry.
Finally, remember that the ultimate goal for headteachers is to create a secure culture in school where an Ofsted inspection is a moment, not an event. We are not preparing for Ofsted, we are striving hard to be better for the sake of our students; that's what really matters and we have to remind ourselves of it on a daily basis.
John Tomsett is the headteacher of Huntington School in York