I have a hunch that the principals who sail through Ofsted inspections are the ones who know the difference between an Olympic medal and a Nobel Prize.
Out of the two, you would think an Ofsted inspection more closely resembles the Olympic Games. We all have a pretty shrewd idea of approximately when it’s due and the commonly held view is that you can and should prepare for it as much as you can.
Getting everything in place, all the data sorted out and all the documentation to hand is a bit like an athlete’s training regime.
If it has all gone well, when the phone rings that Friday morning, you can feel like the runner Mo Farah as the starting gun fires. In the words of the world champion himself: “Everything has been leading to this. I’m looking around and telling myself, ‘This is my moment. This is it’.”
Nobel Prizes are very different. You can’t very well prepare for them. You’re busy getting on with whatever it is you’re getting on with, and the prize arrives like a bolt out the blue. As he saw it, Richard Feynman was minding his own business, plugging away at quantum electrodynamics – then one morning he was woken at 4am by a New York journalist, who greeted him with news of his award.
“I was not asked by the Nobel committee whether I wanted to receive it,” he recalled. “It has been a mild annoyance to me ever since.”
Yet it’s the approach of the prize-winner, rather than that of the medal-winner, you need if you’re after Ofsted success. It seems like a counter-intuitive assertion, but I know from experience that it’s right. The key point lies in that throwaway phrase “whatever it is you’re getting on with”.
In the case of a principal, this should be the moral imperative to do the best possible job for every single student in their care.
When Ofsted arrives in a school or college that is genuinely driven by that purpose, it finds data being used to effect improvement; a culture focused on enabling learners to succeed; change programmes that are deep, shared and transformational; and leadership that is distributed and full of initiative at all levels in the organisation.
Focus on your key purpose
Leadership that draws on the fundamental moral purpose of helping people to improve their lives has the huge advantage of tapping into what motivates all good teachers. Of course it does. Isn’t that moral purpose the very thing that they entered the profession for?
Preparation for an Ofsted visit doesn’t tend to inspire anyone. It tends to diminish the leadership in the eyes of staff and, if that weren’t bad enough, it breeds fear and anxiety. This starts at the top, but quickly spreads downwards.
The principal who is concerned about Ofsted deals with their own anxiety by passing it on to others, probably quite inadvertently. They send emails well into the small hours, full of micro-managed instructions for the new day. They decree a formula to which all lessons shall conform – or else. Unannounced lesson observations will be introduced with the aim of impressing the inspectors when they come (“Ofsted may not be grading lessons any longer, but just look at us!”).
They feel a lot better for all of that. But the terrible irony is, of course, that far from taking the organisation in the direction of outstanding, such measures are far more likely to lead in the opposite direction.
Don’t fall victim to anxiety
The anxiety that the thought of Ofsted induces balloons, until it squeezes out any thought of how to lead the people on whom the success of your institution depends.
How are teachers who feel they are going through the motions, who are teaching their lessons to a compelled formula, ever going to produce inspiring teaching or really attend to their students’ learning?
If they feel anxious themselves, if they are working within a coercive and pace-setting culture, when will they ever tap into the springs of creativity or dare to experiment with a new approach?
It would be glib to suggest that shielding one’s staff from anxiety might be the first step towards a successful Ofsted inspection.
But unlikely as it may sound, it could be that – as with Nobel Prizes and the pursuit of happiness – the less we think about it, the more likely it is that we may find it.
Chris Thomson is principal of Brighton Hove and Sussex Sixth-Form College