It’s that time of year again. The time that sees trainee teachers fill out application form after application form, cram six school visits into one working week, and crack out their best lessons plans for observation. Thousands will be hoping (and praying and wishing) to be granted a classroom and pupils of their own in September.
And naturally, when it comes to considering a potential school, a good Ofsted rating is an attractive feature.
But how much can an Ofsted rating really tell you? Does an "outstanding" grade guarantee life-long teaching happiness? Does a "requires improvement" mean you’ll leave every day in tears?
Of course not. An Ofsted grade never, ever provides the full picture. A candidate should never dismiss a school because of a lower rating alone. My advice? Read the report, but don’t take it as read.
Ofsted ratings: Requires improvement
This grading immediately conjures up assumptions of bad behaviour, schemes of work out of place, high staff turnover, unruly pupils and anything else one may associate with a "failing" school.
The truth of the matter, however, is that just because a school "requires improvement", it doesn’t mean that it actually requires improvement in the traditional sense.
For example, some schools have gone into "RI" solely due to administrative errors; for example, procedures for visitors signing in and out of the school not being sufficiently stringent. The school could be "good" or better in all other areas but such a mishap is enough to fail a school.
Even if this is not the case, a dip in results may cause the same, despite the reality on the ground suggesting otherwise. A school may be otherwise "good", but be rated "RI" because its GCSE results dropped due to a handful of disengaged Year 11s. In a small school, a handful of students is enough to cause a massive dip. But, actually, the school was the same before and after inspection.
What’s the first thing that catches a trainee’s eye when scanning through an Ofsted report? More often than not, it’s the "good" behaviour rating.
And while we may sigh with relief when we see the word "good" in the behaviour box, it may not actually be the case.
Unfortunately, some schools try every trick in the book to fudge good behaviour when Ofsted comes to town. A previously unseen SLT may be prowling the corridors during lesson changeovers, and disruptive pupils could find themselves spending the day at home. The behaviour on the inspection days may be immaculate, but once the inspectors have left the building, it could be an entirely different story.
The irrational obsession with becoming or being "outstanding" has reached epic levels at some schools. Yes, it looks good – sorry – "outstanding" on their inspection report, but being an "outstanding" school does not negate the possibility of being a toxic school. Workplace bullying may be common practice; form time, break time, lunch time, after school and even Saturday interventions may be the norm; staff turnover may be high and there may not be so much as a whisper about staff wellbeing.
The importance of networking
Of course, some schools are truly "outstanding", and others will really deserve their "good" behaviour rating.
But when applying for jobs, it is best to rely on two human instincts: your gut feeling on your look around the school and good, old-fashioned gossip. Use your networking skills to speak to someone who works at the potential school and get the goods from them.
And remember, rarely will a school's rating determine the happiness of its teachers.
Omar Akbar is a teacher and author of The Unofficial Teacher’s Manual – What they don’t teach you in training