Ofsted watch - Waiting for `the call'

17th October 2014 at 01:00
Don't fret about a visit from the inspectors - seize the upper hand

I have only ever posted one vaguely wise comment on Twitter. One midweek evening last autumn, I wrote: "Is it just me, or is Wednesday night the new Friday night?"

Anyone not working in a school on Ofsted standby must have been baffled. But watching the frenzied retweets, I could tell that lots of people out there were thinking exactly what I was thinking: once the 2pm deadline to be informed of an inspection the following week has passed, the release of pressure is akin to the start of the weekend.

It's a reminder of how apprehension over a visit from Ofsted can infiltrate our bodily cycles, sometimes literally; one headteacher friend of mine told me starkly how the nagging rhythms of another week on Ofsted standby would affect his bowel movements.

For me, apprehension about impending inspection would start on a Saturday morning with a feeling I bitterly resented: that my weekends were merely a prelude to receiving a call from the inspectorate. By Sunday I would be in the grip of paralysing panic. My nights would be disrupted by bad dreams or insomnia, and sometimes I would sleep for no more than two hours.

People rarely believed this. They assumed that my veneer of showy dismissiveness meant Ofsted was as inconsequential to me as a tickbird on the buttock of a hippo. But, in reality, I knew how much the reputation of our school and my own credibility rested on this inspection. It would be impossible not to take it as an assessment of our professional and personal skills and qualities.

But I've also learned that worrying about things that are out of your control can become debilitating and corrosive. Doing so means that we allow our own agenda - values that underpin what matters to us in our schools - to become sidetracked by something that often matters to parents and the community a little less than we might have supposed. So, after three Ofsted visits and a headship career of 12 years, here's my advice on managing what you can manage - in particular, the expectations of staff and the collective outbreak of nerves between the call and the arrival of the inspectors.

Control the controllable

Do everything you can before the call comes. Get the documentation in place. This includes the school development plan and self-evaluation form, plus the required online information about the curriculum and the pupil premium.

Then stop talking to staff about Ofsted. No one is helped by sentences that begin, "If Ofsted comes, they'll be looking for." Let's mark books more consistently because students deserve better feedback, not because of the threat of what an inspector might choose to comment on.

Count down to inspection

Get a countdown document ready. This is an outline of what you will do and when once the phone call is received - the idea comes from John Tomsett, headteacher of Huntington School in York. Set out a sequence of things to do and people to contact, such as "2.05pm: inform chair of governors" and "6.10pm: walk the school with the caretakers".

Put plans into action

Once you receive the call, get the leadership team together and inform them of the news. Put the countdown document in front of everyone. They should all slip into their roles and a new urgent routine will kick in.

Hold an end-of-school meeting where you go calmly through what you know about the inspection team and the flavour of the conversation you had with the lead inspector. Remind staff that it's no longer about 20-minute cabaret performances; it's about consistency and expectations.

Ensure staff know their responsibilities

Teachers must make sure their rooms are right: that marking guidelines are visible, books are up to date and displays represent high expectations. Order pizza for staff intending to stay late. Set a deadline for when everyone must go home and stop fretting.

Welcome the inspectors

Write a brief letter to the lead inspector and team welcoming them to your school, setting out in a sentence or two what kind of school it is, what it stands for and what you hope the inspection team will take time to notice and celebrate.

Leave this in the inspection room, with a small file of the key documents they expect to see - for example, the school development plan, any specific action plans and the selfevaluation form.

On a noticeboard, ensure there are plenty of leaflets and pictures showcasing everything you're proud of, such as impending concerts, newspaper articles and celebrations of student achievements. In other words, cling on to the things that matter about your school.

Be visible

Hold tight, smile a lot and be the most visible presence in your school that you have ever been, supporting staff and talking to students. This, at the very least, will remind you what the job of school leader is really about: leading the team and modelling your values.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk

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