Ofsted watch - What we learned from a hostage negotiator

3rd April 2015 at 01:00
An unlikely collaboration helped a primary school and its young headteacher to secure an outstanding inspection verdict

When I became headteacher of St Thomas of Canterbury School in Sheffield in 2009, I was a 28-year-old with a lot to prove and even more to learn about being a leader.

Little did I know then that when I finally managed to lead the school to an outstanding Ofsted rating in 2014, I would owe a great deal to a leading psychologist with a background in hostage negotiation.

Of course, the achievement belongs to all the staff, students and parents, and I should stress that no hostages were taken as part of the school's programme of improvement. But Dr Maria Collins-Donelley, the psychologist in question, was a key part of the team - she helped us to find a way of bridging the gap between my vision and the reality.

The first thing Collins-Donelley did was to use Socratic questioning to challenge the thinking of my staff. The aim was to move them towards effective critical thinking and to create and ensure buy-in for a unified school vision. The questions posed included "What do you believe a vision for your school should look like?", "How does this differ from the school's current vision?", "In what ways can the school's vision be improved?", "How does your role contribute to this vision?" and "How can you improve your contribution to the vision?"

Collins-Donelley tackled emotional intelligence, too. She shared techniques that enabled staff to be aware of and regulate their emotions and to acknowledge the emotions of others. She explained how emotions can affect relationships, engagement and love of learning within classes and across a school.

Finally, staff were taught to communicate more effectively, interact with each other more professionally, not take things personally, deal with difficult situations and cope with the emotions and pressures that are part of working within today's education system.

There was scepticism, of course, but as we tackled each area, staff came on board. It was immediately obvious that the energy in the school was different: we were so calm and so positive. The self-esteem of many teachers increased and they became visibly more confident.

Breaking the chains of low expectation

But what about the impact on learning? We tend to be very fixed in our thoughts about what can or cannot be achieved. In education, we are too quick to decide on a child's potential and so we put a false ceiling on what they can achieve.

At my school, as the mindset of the staff body improved, individuals became more effective in their roles and began to challenge themselves and others. The leadership team was able to drive up the quality of teaching with a belief that every single member of staff had the potential to be outstanding. This quickly translated into a true - rather than just stated - understanding that every child could achieve if we believed in them.

So when Ofsted visited in May 2014, we were extremely confident about our values as a school, about our approach to teaching and learning, about the incredibly high standards that I insisted upon as headteacher and about what sort of education we guaranteed to those who chose us as a school.

In their report, the inspectors drew attention to our ambition for all children to succeed, highlighting our "relentless pursuit of high achievement", which "goes alongside fostering a love of learning and the development of well-rounded children".

I am extremely proud of how far we have come and excited about where we are going next. Clearly impressed by the school, the lead inspector asked several members of staff what the catch was. The staff responded by saying that it was incredibly hard work and there were a lot of personal sacrifices. But although working hard for something you don't believe in can be deeply stressful, working hard for something you do believe in is called passion.

We learned a lot from Collins-Donelley's input. Here are the main points:

  • Make sure your vision is crystal clear and reflects the highest possible standards.
  • Articulate the vision clearly and frequently so others can see themselves in it.
  • Learn how to inspire your team to find passion in their work.
  • Learn about emotional intelligence and practise it.
  • Model the professional culture that you want and get everyone to commit to it.
  • Challenge anything that is not contributing to the vision.
  • Live in every moment, fully embracing and enjoying it.
  • Keep everything in the school as simple as it can be, but ensure everything is done to a really high standard.
  • Believe fully that the performance of your staff is linked to their happiness.
  • Promote the message that every child can and will achieve at your school.
    • Andrew Truby is headteacher of St Thomas of Canterbury School in Sheffield

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