Playing someone else’s game

For all of the time I have been involved in education, the dark cloud that is school inspection has loomed over us. So much at stake – a poor school reputation can lead to falling rolls which can lead to stretched budgets which can lead to restructure which can lead to … you get the picture.

Add to this the ‘support’ that schools are offered to be ‘Ofsted Ready’ or ‘Match Fit’ or any other phrase that might entice someone in to pay the exorbitant amount of money for external support. I must get at least 10 emails a day offering me these sorts of things.

The one thing they all have in common is the distance approach. If you are a good school, you will see Ofsted for 2 days every 1400 or so. Just think about that for a moment. For other methods of support, you tend to get left alone until you are in ‘the window’ and suddenly you are a prime candidate for ‘Mocksted’ or ‘Dive readiness’.

This is not improvement, no matter which way we dress it up. Schools do not work 2 out of 1400 days. Staff work hard, doing the best for the children every day. We need to be reducing the anxiety around Ofsted (all the time they exist) for our staff rather than increasing it through a series of mini inspections. This won’t improve schools just like getting on the scales more often won’t help you lose weight.

That’s why I’m tired of playing someone else’s game. I know Ofsted are there, and I know, in all reality, that the stakes are still high for the school and for my job. I just don’t feel like doing things for Ofsted is the way forward.

Seeing so many inspirational leaders, particularly Jeremy Hannay and Kulvarn Atwal, who don’t do things for Ofsted opened the door to thinking that #thereisanotherway. Reading about their approaches, particularly the way the teachers are empowered and have autonomy, prompted a change in me. I no longer wanted to react to the ‘advice’ from external agencies or follow the interpretations from whichever Ofsted framework is in place.

That doesn’t mean that we aren’t improving – I would say quite the opposite. We have made more strides forward this year in terms of pedagogy and curriculum than in any of my previous ones as head. With the removal of formal monitoring and long book looks, so much more time has been created to look at ways to improve the school offer and to support teachers.

We are aware of Ofsted and what the expectations are. Instead of spending our time with mock deep dives and the like, we are trying to spend our time working with our subject leaders and teachers to make them feel comfortable and confident about their subject and teaching. Teachers, without fear of scrutiny can hopefully try things out, experiment and improve based on the context that they know best, their own classroom.

The game should be changing. The rules should be made by schools with their own contexts taking priority. Courage and bravery needs to be shown by school leaders to stand up and focus on their own needs and not these suggested to us.

So what is ‘our game’? What are the rules and how can we make them work? When writing it down it sounds pretty obvious, but I think in reality it is less commonplace than we think.

1. Do what is right for your children.

Surely this is what everyone does. A google search for non negotiables will tell you otherwise! Teachers know their children and where they are in the curriculum best. They need to be trusted to do the right thing. If it means that classes are running at slightly different paces, that’s ok. If it means doing a long maths session and miss English occasionally, then do it. I know that things will balance out and trust the teachers to make those judgements. People aren’t robots – and children definitely aren’t! Expecting them to all do things at decided times on long term plans is unlikely at best. You can’t tell me in any certainty what the weather will be like in 3 weeks time, so you won’t be able to tell what your children need to learn in 3 weeks time!

2. Do what’s right for you

Marking. Who’s it for? If you can’t answer that and really believe your answer, then don’t do it. We moved to a feedback policy this year and taking inspiration from a policy on @teachertoolkit ours is simple. It is a page long, but in summary it says ‘do what’s right for you and the children – focus on what has the most impact’. The same can be said for work in books, learning objectives, planning and probably many more. A random photo of a group of children carrying out a task but stopping to smile at the camera, printed and replicated for every child in the group. What’s the benefit? If there is one, do it, if not don’t. LOs, LIs, WALTs and all the other acronyms. We need to think about what we want children to learn and think about (as Daniel Willingham tells us) but if you think children writing it down is important, then do it. If not don’t.

3. Do what’s right for us

Schools are amazing places. But they are unique. My setting is different to yours. My staff and my children are different to yours. Lifting something that works in one setting and applying it in exactly the same way is likely to not have the same impact as doing things specifically because they serve your environment. It doesn’t mean that we are too proud to look around for great ideas and practice in other schools. It just means that we look at what and how we can make it work for us.

And that’s about it really. I started writing this blog before the concerns over Coronavirus escalated, but I think it is as relevant now as ever. It’s been brilliant to see how schools and settings have been pulling together. Having a range of ideas to look at is key. Choosing what works for your children, your staff and your school is even more important.

What’s also interesting is that this blog started as ‘don’t do things for Ofsted’. The ‘we’ll carry on as normal’ line and even the ‘favourable deferral’ line shows that there is a disconnect between schools and Ofsted. Now, more than ever, I think it’s important that you play by your rules. If you do, Ofsted, and everything that comes with it, should take care of itself.

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