When times get tough, come out fighting

17th April 2015 at 01:00
A negative judgement from Ofsted is a heavy blow. But the real test is how a school reacts - and its leaders must guide the way

You can really get the measure of someone from the way they handle adversity. At these times, when a blow has been landed, you gain a true insight into a person's mettle.

It's the same for schools. There is no bigger blow than a bad Ofsted inspection and the fallout from such an event can be incredibly telling; it reveals how senior leadership teams deal with the worst of times. The school is bruised and it takes only a small misstep to make a bad situation even worse.

Unfortunately, the tact needed to galvanise staff to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get back in the saddle is often lacking. Here are a few tips for leaders to remember after the axe of the inspectorate has swung.

Avoid the blame game

Any attempt to single out and shame departments or individuals who have "let the side down" (a phrase that should never, ever be uttered during the post-mortem of an unsuccessful inspection) is merely a diversion from where the real failure has occurred. Ultimately, the buck stops with the senior leadership team. They should be taking responsibility because they are in charge and this is what they get paid for. Anything less than full acceptance of that responsibility is deeply suspect.

Remember that families stick together

If there has been an emphasis on the school as a team or even a "family" before the inspection, don't bring that narrative to a shuddering halt after the judgement has arrived - it will only cause resentment among your former "brothers" and "sisters". A good family doesn't fall apart at the first sign of trouble, and neither should you. If you're going to use the analogy, see it through to the end and support each other through the bad times.

Don't bin good work

Attempts may have been made to improve certain areas in the run-up to the inspection, and some of these may have been effective. The inspection should not be the only indicator of the quality of work taking place, so these interventions should not be ditched purely because they weren't picked up as good practice in the report. What is good for the school is good for the school regardless of whether it is validated by Ofsted. Scrapping something that is having a positive impact immediately after a bad inspection result indicates a lack of vision and consideration for the long-term well-being of your institution.

Allow time to grieve

A negative judgement by Ofsted is a serious thing. It has considerable repercussions for all staff and it is perfectly understandable for them to be downhearted after hearing the news. A certain period of grace should be allowed for people to lick their wounds and process the information before the pep talks and positivity injections begin. When you are at your lowest ebb, there is nothing worse than being told to perk up and put a smile on your face. Allow staff the luxury of being upset; offer them comfort and a chance to bounce back before moving on and talking about the next steps.

Take action

Having said that, you should have a visible plan for improvement fairly shortly after the inspection. This plan must focus on attainable goals in the short, medium and long term. It has to be thoughtful and considered, be workable and explicit, and be communicated in a non-judgemental way. Then at least a semblance of optimism for the future can be salvaged. The plan should be in place in advance of the final judgement, so that swift action can be taken once everyone has had a chance to come to terms with the situation - this can offer the type of focus that a team needs to get back on its feet. Or you could offer a series of platitudes and blank looks and see how far that gets you.

Trevor Milton (a pseudonym) is a teacher in the North East of England

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