I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while since there has been extensive discussion online and widespread celebration about a new dawn with Ofsted. Much of this has been prompted by an open dialogue between some key groups of Heads and school leaders, as represented by HeadsRoundtable, with Ofsted. I believe that it is fantastic that there is a debate and dialogue to be had and the profession is engaged in this. If we are serious about “systems leadership” this is what we need to be willing to invest time in. A few key thoughts have struck me…
1. We need to move away from pantomime politics and leadership
It is easy to fall into a trap where we focus on pantomime politics and over-simplify the issues by being distracted by key public figures and individuals. I have been in too many meetings where people are drawn into wasting energy on talking about personalities and petty politics. We have an obligation to be “deflective practitioners” and protect the schools we lead from external pressures and free people up to simply do what’s best for our students.
2. We need to be be committed to getting the basics right
Sometimes we can see that schools are drawn into making everything complex and complicated. This can be a distraction and actually a way to avoid addressing the key issues. We had a Catholic Section 48 inspection last week which described the presentation on data as the simplest and most succinct they had experienced. I suggested that sometimes when we make things too complicated it is solely a smoke screen to hide the reality of what’s going on. In essence get the basics right and get everyone to do them consistently. It does not help us to make things over-complicated or bureaucratic.
3. Observation matters and can make a real difference
This is the crunch of my reflection… I think observation matters and is an essential part of our professional development. I even believe that the Ofsted definitions are useful to inform this conversation. You will find a really engaging discussion on this by Tom Sherrington, a well respected Headteacher and prominent blogger, on the changing goalposts of Ofsted.
I believe that the Ofsted definitions and gradings for learning and teaching actually work. They give us a benchmark and common language which can help us progress with raising achievement and the standard of learning and teaching… so why do I believe this?
4. Some people may have “taken advantage” of observation
Observation at times may have received a bad press… I heard one school speak proudly of how they observed all staff 12-15 times each year and published a league table with the average results in the staff room (Miss. Jones was Champions League with a 1.2 whereas Mr. Smith risked relegation with a 3.9!) This solely uses observation to expose, judge and measure people in a summative way. It fails to see this as an opportunity for genuine dialogue and professional development.
In the same school I mentioned they also got every member of staff to come in after the mocks to ask “What are you going to do about the results?” Nothing like getting the balance between support and challenge right! I hope we ask what we are going to do together to achieve every students’ potential each year. People need to feel fully supported if you want to offer the right challenge.
It is also clear that Ofsted themselves have abused the system. We have all heard of inspectors swooping in and proclaiming a grade for a lesson without entering into any meaningful dialogue. I think this is what Ofsted has recognised is worth moving away from. There is a recognition that outstanding schools need to show evidence of progress over time but at the heart of this will be the “rich diet” the students receive every day. This is what matters most and will make the underlying difference to their happiness, confidence, success and progress.
5. We want to have a goal to aim for…
I have very limited footballing skills but know the satisfaction of achievement… you only need to see how many people structure their summer holidays around results day to see this. It is rewarding to feel progress, achievement and success collectively or individually.
More than ever in interviews this year people talk about their aspiration to become “outstanding” teachers and this is something I really respect. The “craft of the classroom” matters and gives people the integrity and credibility to take on leadership responsibilities in the future if this is a direction they are keen to go in.
We have a GO programme at our school which is committed to supporting and developing people from “good to outstanding”. It is popular, life-giving and successful and each year we have more people applying to be part of it than we can support at any one time. It is committed to a cycle of coaching, collaborative planning, observation and departmental improvement. It is not about one person developing but ensuring that all that we do can have a positive impact on others. It is a great joy when people achieve an “outstanding” lesson and many people I have worked with value and respect this accolade and we celebrate their success and share what has worked and why.
We are at risk of rejoicing in the fact that the idea of grading individual lessons has gone but replacing it with a system which is more complicated or arduous. It also may take away from the common language we have developed between schools about what makes outstanding learning, if we all devise our “in-house” alternatives then we may lose out on this.
So what next? I would hope that the success of the debate and the dialogue is to push Ofsted teams away from making simplistic judgements on individual lessons and suggesting that x % of good or outstanding lessons defines the overall outcome of an inspection. However, I would be confident that anyone spending time in our school would see a high level of good and outstanding lessons and this is what has led to the consistently strong results.
We have an opportunity to engage with Ofsted in an honest and professional dialogue about the full picture of what our schools are all about. If we can do this maybe we can still keep all that is best about being outstanding in the classroom after all this is a goal worth aiming for.