Whispers from the rumour mill won't grind us down

14th November 2008 at 00:00

As I write this, we have just returned from our half-term break. The dreaded "notice to improve" report, which I wrote about in these pages three weeks ago, is now in the public domain, available for anyone to read on the Ofsted website.

Unsurprisingly, its publication created waves. Parents were sent copies during half-term and pupils were told about the contents before they went on holiday. The Monday before last, our first day back, we took about 20 hysterical phone calls to ask if it were true that the school was to be closed in six months - somebody, somewhere, read this on the internet and spread the news.

Rumours abounded. It seems there was a special debate in Parliament about the future of our school, and one of our pupils (who had won a prize of a day at Westminster) was so incensed by the plans to close us that she got quite agitated and had to be forcibly removed. Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, had called a special meeting to discuss our fate. Thankfully, it was not true.

If rumours were GCSE passes, we would be top of the league tables. The sad fact is that so many believe them. So our first task this half-term was to reassure pupils that this was nonsense and that we are here to stay.

My last column, outlining our experience of being issued with a notice to improve resulted in a huge response. I have been inundated with letters, emails and telephone calls - many from people I have never met, or who I have not seen for many years. These are extremely comforting and supportive, and certainly made me feel better. Sadly, I have found I am not the only headteacher to have gone through such a terrible experience, and I don't suppose I'll be the last.

However, I am privileged to be able to offload in The TES. I have decided that writing about my experiences is good therapy and takes less time than going to see a real therapist. A few evenings ago, four of my senior team and I took ourselves off to the seaside to participate in a seminar run by a school that had received such a notice and had successfully come out of it in a short time. They contacted us and invited us to the session because they had heard of our plight and wanted to help. They made us very welcome and shared all their good practice without making us feel like the poor relations. It was an uplifting experience.

There is a long gap between getting a notice and the actual report being published. We were in limbo for nearly six weeks, unable to inform pupils or parents about the result. This was difficult because we are a community school - in every sense of the word - and rumours spread quickly.

In the meantime, we needed to start moving forward with the action plan. Since then, a lot of time and energy has been spent in monitoring meetings with the local authority, the school improvement partner and the chair of governors, to name but a few. We have been revisiting and refining our plans, systems and our interventions in order to reassure all concerned that we are on track to make the necessary improvement.

They need to know that we are in control, and that we know what we are doing. This certainly keeps us focused. But it is hard going and very stressful for everybody. My poor staff have been monitored to within an inch of their lives. Although we know that monitoring in itself does not lead to improvement, it does provide the evidence we need to plan the next step and ensures everyone is doing their bit. Even so, this constant checking leads inevitably to low staff morale; to be damned by Ofsted was a huge and unexpected blow to their professionalism and their confidence. Yet I need to demand even more from them, but without giving any additional time or resources.

Members of the senior team are not immune to feeling down either, but they are unable to show it in public. We must have a permanent smile on our face. In order to achieve this, we provide emotional and practical support for each other while providing essential support for our colleagues. This is not as hard as it seems because schools such as ours that face challenging circumstances every day are used to working closely together. We never worry about standing on each other's toes or about interference. Instead, we share the problems and come up with workable solutions.

Sadly, our model of distributed leadership was not appreciated by Ofsted, but this is a model we will continue to work with because it is all about sustainable communities and building capacity. In fact, there was a lot that Ofsted did not like about the way we did things, but I realise now that if we get the results up, we can do anything we like - in any way we like. And we will. I don't intend changing course because of the findings of an inspection that judged us on a brief snapshot of what we do. After all, what does Ofsted know about running schools?

Kenny Frederick, Headteacher of George Green's Community School in Tower Hamlets, east London.

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