27 months have passed and the phone is due to ring.
I wasn’t quite waiting by the phone at one o’clock on Wednesday, but I marked the passing of this moment in my mind. When no-one called, I knew we were home and dry for half term. I didn’t want the call, but in another way I did. We’ve all been waiting; it’s been 27 months! There is enough residual anger from their last visit to channel into the fight. I don’t want it to dissipate; I need it in reserve should I require it.
We are branded Requires Improvement. It’s marked in red on our rump. It’s a label you can’t erase, but it does fade over time.
I think we have been affected less by this label than any other RI school in the country. There are many for whom it will have been devastating. That is why I think our perspective is valuable. This is the least bad it can be.
The time to talk about this is now, before it gets worse, or hopefully better. I hope I’ll forget how this felt.
What lessens the effect of an RI judgement are the ‘protective factors’ around our school. We are quite geographically isolated (fewer schools for parents to choose from), we have a high attaining intake (so attainment outcomes are high – parents like some percentages that look good against other schools), our P8 is sound and steady (nothing spectacular, but no-one understands what it means anyway).
Above all, our reputation is strong. People want to send their kids to our school. How can this be when we are not ‘good’?
At our last inspection, the lead inspector commented that our parent survey was ‘the best survey results I have seen in any school of any type for a long time’. He couldn’t make sense of this. It didn’t match his working hypothesis.
Marketing 101: Focus on the quality of the product and the product will sell itself.
Customer service 101: Exceed customers’ expectations.
I don’t want to dwell on the last report. My therapist says it isn’t good for me. But I remember vividly that sense of disbelief and anger. Parents, governors, staff, students. It wasn’t just the RI label, but the report itself. We couldn’t recognise the school being described. Parents contacted me to ask if there had been an administrative mistake. The longest standing staff at the school came to see me to say (all independently) that the school was the best it had ever been. I learnt then that the deepest anger comes from a sense of injustice, but that fortitude comes when united against a common enemy.
Without these protective factors it would have been disastrous for the school. I had inherited falling pupil numbers and we had worked hard to turn this around. We had increased our intake by 50%; a level which would eventually make a financially sustainable school. The government funding cuts were kicking in at the same time. I had overseen three years of significant redundancies. We had no reserves. If the RI judgement meant parents were put off sending their children to the school then all this work would have been undone. I couldn’t face looking someone else in the eye and telling them they no longer had a job.
At the Open Evening which followed our inspection, prospective parents, rightly, had questions to ask. They asked me directly about the RI grade. They asked our staff. They even asked the students who took them on tours of the school. Our answer was: judge for yourself. They did. That year the number of first choices dipped slightly, but we filled all our places.
We held a staff meeting after the report came out. I thought for a long time about what I should say. I talked about the areas for improvement identified by the inspection team – that I agreed that these were things we needed to sort out. I talked about how it felt to be labelled – how we wouldn’t do this to our students. I recognised the anger in the room, and how we should channel this anger. I talked more philosophically about the pressures to conform, to imitate, to tick boxes, to ‘look good’ – the culture in our education system fueled by a high-stakes accountability system. I expressed my belief that we were on the right path; that we should act with integrity and see through what we had started.
One of the hidden effects of an RI grade is the sense that all is not well. The implied threat always lingers in the background, haunting every decision. I wonder if this weight will lift, or stay on in the culture now we have experienced its presence?
RI is the elephant in the room. Just this week, I have had interview candidates ask in slightly embarrassed tones about ‘your last inspection’. Now they have visited the school they can see what a wonderful place it is. ‘It’s so calm’, they say. ‘The students are so friendly and the staff actually talk to each other’, is another common refrain. It makes me proud, but also sad at the state of our education system.
I have lost count of how many applicants and visitors have told me that our inspection almost put them off applying. After a few hours in the school, they really want the job. We have very few people apply for most jobs we advertise. I wonder how many great people – people who would love to work at our school – couldn’t get past the label?
We’re continuing to get better (in the standards sense), and to get better (in the recovery sense). We continue to wait.
We are repeatedly told not to prepare for an inspection. Are you frigging joking? Lower the stakes and I’ll think about it.
I am mindful that my anxiety must not be passed on. I am under pressure not to look under pressure. I’m not a particularly emotional person, but holding this in can’t be good for you in the long term.
I’ve lifted the ‘don’t mention Ofsted’ rule. Instead, I’ve asked that when we talk about Ofsted we talk about Ofsted, and when we talk about improving the school we talk about improving the school, but we mustn’t confuse the two. For instance, when we are reviewing our curriculum this is so that we can improve it. However, when we practice explaining our curriculum so that we feel confident we could do this to an inspector, then this is a separate thing. People want to be prepared. To be unrehearsed takes trust – there is no trust.
We have entered the time period when an inspection could happen. It is not dissimilar to how you approach the death zone on Everest – you know that every minute you spend there you are slowly dying.
The justification for grading schools is that it is a clear signal to parents about the quality of the school. Perhaps. I’m not convinced it tells them anything they don’t already know.
The inspectorate, we are told, is an essential component of the school improvement system. I agree. However, the grades seem to work against this. In our case, the RI grade has affected morale, hung over our daily lives, discouraged job applicants and chipped away at our reputation. Only now are we receiving support from an NLE (three days free consultancy two years after our last inspection).
Has the RI grade given us a kick up the back side? Don’t be absurd. Every one of us has a moral imperative to make the education for our students better.
Has the inspection report pointed us towards what we need to improve? They told us nothing that we didn’t already know.
What a fantastic opportunity it is to get a team of experts (many of them practicing leaders) into your school for two days to recognise the improvement that has taken place and point you towards even greater success. What a waste it is that this opportunity is not fully utilised because there is a label at the end: one which might have an impact somewhere between problematic and disastrous.
Waiting. We’re on a list. The dates have already been calendared. Who knows, perhaps the hotel rooms for the inspectors have already been booked.
I often reflect that I am lucky. If my school were in a MAT, I might have been replaced by now by someone no more effective, but who can create the impression that the trust are ‘doing something’ to improve the school. If my school were in a more disadvantaged area then this would be even more likely. I’d quite like to run a school in a challenging context, but it would be grossly irresponsible of me to risk my livelihood in this way – I’ve got kids! Our system plays fast and loose with peoples’ careers.
When the weather turns bad we joke that we’d rather they didn’t come now – student behaviour is never at its best when its windy. If we had a few more months we could move things on even more… there is so much we want to improve. But then, if we could ‘get it over with’ we will have one less thing to worry about. Time spent on ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
I develop a cough on the last week of term. It isn’t bad enough to keep me off work, but there is no way I’ll be off anyway. What happens if I’m ill when we get inspected? What if I’m out of school when the call comes? I need to be there and at my best.
I’d like to leave you with a pithy sign-off to this blog, but the story doesn’t end until the phone rings. I’m still waiting.