How Ofsted saved my school

This week I have been thinking a lot about Ofsted, especially after reading a TES article written by governors who were shocked that their school had gone into special measures. They were understandably upset, emotional and angry.

I know all about special measures, as someone who has witnessed it first hand, and I totally empathize with their grievances. For a long time teachers, students and governors at my school felt exactly the same emotions. We were hurt and offended, and who wouldn’t be, by an alien invasion who pronounced that, basically, we were a pile of shit?

This blog does not denounce the right to that anguish or fully endorse the systems or findings of Ofsted. I seek only to reassure those in a similar position that being put into special measures can really be the start of something remarkable.

I worked and still work in a school with a high deprivation factor. The surrounding areas are low income, somewhat reliant on state benefit and as a school our cohort has a substantial pupil premium intake. This year alone, my top set Year 9 class was 80% PP.

So what? I hear you say. A good education can overcome all barriers. I absolutely agree but that is not where my school was a few years ago.

When I first joined the school, the Deputy Head, who, apart from assemblies, was never seen or heard around the school, had negotiated a wily deal where he had funded a free bus to pick up all the students from an affluent new build area of town. He was well pleased with this, obviously, and as a consequence decided to go under cover for the next three years until he retired. These students, as offspring of graduates and high fliers would undoubtedly carry the school to greatness (or mediocrity) forever. They weren’t our catchment but they would keep us afloat.

And they were hugely impressive. If you ever taught a top set during these cautionary years you felt spoilt. We were helping those who had already prospered raise those who would automatically be prosperous. For the first time in my life, I was immersed in a traditionalists’ ideal: an elitist system where only the privileged make progress. It even had me questioning class boundaries. Naively, I had always thought that it didn’t matter where you came from or what your social position was – it was all about ability. My school, at that time, had no idea of how to inspire those students who needed to break down the barriers of privilege. We concentrated on those who already had it made and were simply too tired to fight with or for underprivileged students who had huge amounts of untapped potential.

I am ashamed of how we used to operate.

Shortly after I joined the school as an NQT we were inspected and were graded ‘satisfactory’ (as was the grading then). Senior leaders were happy with the outcome although one privately told me that he wished we had failed because “a massive kick up the arse was needed.” We coasted like this for three more years and then we got found out…

There was a lot of anger, the teaching was inconsistent, the leadership was shite, results were on the floor and our governors weren’t holding us to account. But actually it had been a long decline in results that sealed our fate. In fact they must have seen our data on Raise and knew exactly what judgement they were going to give before they got there. Chronic underachievement has a data trail and they had the evidence to support such a judgement.

Once you can get over the turmoil of feeling like everyone is looking at you, the angry parents, the finger pointing, the over excited local press, you look around and see what you are left with. Many parents remove their children immediately – your cohort numbers for the next year and future years dramatically reduce. The financial implications are huge, you can no longer attract exciting new staff and other local schools start circling for your closure.

You are totally in the shit.

But here’s what you will get: an attached inspector who wants to WORK with you, not judge you, to improve your school – they aren’t dangling the threat of being turned into an academy over your head, as our inspector said “Ofsted is no friend of the DfE.”  If you are still part of the LA (and your LA is any good) you will get financial help to tide you over whilst your numbers are down. Ofsted make local authorities look incompetent and do a good job of shaking them up, which means more help for schools.

Our inspector was terrifying, I met with him a few times and I was scared shitless of him but towards the end of his time with us I finally got it: he just didn’t want to hear bollocks – he needed actual numerical data to prove that we were doing what we said we were. I felt that he liked our school, we had got ourselves in a bad way but he could see the potential in us – just like we should have been able to do with our more challenging students

I learnt a hell of a lot too. Our CPD was intense. I worked with outstanding practitioners across the country, the county paid for them to come and work with us directly, every week. We had a succession of ‘Super Heads’ drafted in to shape us up and instill discipline amongst staff, systems and students. Once I sat in a meeting with the HT at the time, the DHT and the monitoring inspector. I sat in stunned admiration at the balls of the HT who fought so passionately for us, quoting Ofsted regulation verbatim back at the poor inspector who felt like he was under attack.

After 18 months we were taken out of special measures. Our experience means we don’t take things for granted anymore. I’m not saying we are now the perfect school, of course not, but things are so much better than they used to be.  We are all very proud of how much our school has improved, including our data.  If we hadn’t had gone into special measures we would still be failing our community and students. Now we try to work at it, all the time; no more sloping shoulders. We all take responsibility and teachers, students and governors are given a proper say in the running of our school.

Being in special measures is painful but you HAVE to accept it and the sooner you do the sooner you can come together, as a community, to fight for your school – because if you don’t, you are just proving Ofsted right.

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