Up until a few years ago, I didn’t much care what Ofsted said. When I was teaching full time, I deliberately stayed in the classroom, rather than moving into a promoted, management position. I wanted to be with the kids, having fun and doing crazy learning related things, rather than with the boring managers worrying about whole school development plans. In my books I always insisted that Ofsted didn’t matter – that we should feel sorry for inspectors, rather than dreading them. After all, they only get to see a ‘snapshot’ of what a school is like, and most likely miss seeing those random moments of brilliance that happen in most classrooms at some point.
But then the day came when I was part of ‘the management’, albeit on a very small-scale basis (helping to manage my local preschool). Suddenly, all around me people were ‘dreading’ Ofsted and desperately trying to second guess ‘what Ofsted want us to do’. The staff were keen to move from ‘satisfactory’ to at least ‘good’, and preferably ‘outstanding’. Suddenly I found myself sucked into the world of worrying when Ofsted would turn up, and whether they would understand all the hard work and dedication that the staff put into our setting.
I wrote our SEF, embarrassingly giving it pretty much the same amount of effort and attention that I put into my published books. Given that I do this as a volunteer, the stakes were a lot lower for me than for the typical head teacher (after all, it’s pretty hard to sack someone from a voluntary position). Even so, I suddenly understood the anguish and anxiety that the fear of an inspection can bring to a setting. I repeated my mantra to the staff as often as possible: ‘You don’t do it for Ofsted, you do it for the children, each and every day. The children are what matters.’ I’m not sure they quite believed me, though.
And then the day arrived. Of course, the inspector inevitably arrived at the worst possible moment. (Just in case you’re not aware of this, in early years settings, they do literally turn up unannounced.) Our preschool leader was out for the day, and the hall where we run our preschool had been stripped bare the night before for a function (we’re a pack away setting, so we have to ‘pack away’ all our stuff when this happens). It was raining, so the ‘deconstructed role play’ that staff had set up outside (that’s a load of cardboard boxes to the uninitiated) was rapidly going soggy. A couple of the kids were having a tantrum, the usual kind of stuff that happens in the real world.
About three hours later the inspector had finished. She gave her verdict (‘good’ as it happens), and very kindly said that my SEF was the best written one she had ever read. (Too detailed, I suspect, because it was my ‘targets for future improvement’ that made up the handful of recommendations in her report). We argued the case on a couple of points, but the lady wasn’t for turning, she had to stick to the Ofsted rule book. And then she was gone.
When I was asked to appear in front of the Education Select Committee a couple of years ago, to talk about behaviour, we were asked what we thought about how Ofsted could be improved. My suggestion (please read the whole of this before you gasp in horror) was that they should turn up unannounced at all settings, not just early years ones, but primary and secondary schools as well. But I had a proviso: that inspectors must accept that not every lesson can be outstanding, that not every child can make progress in every single lesson (let’s face it, there were literally years of my own schooling where I learnt little or nothing). I also told them that sometimes teachers are knackered and show a DVD or get the kids to do some private reading. That if they truly want to know what schools look like then they must accept them ‘warts and all’ and not focus solely on catching us out and punishing us. I suggested that the old style local authority inspection model worked well, where the inspectors actually knew the school and its context. Teachers, I told them, just like any other workers, cannot be brilliant all the time. We are human was basically what I was saying.
When I look around at the world of education, at the websites aimed at schools, at the books that are being written, at the training that is being offered, I see the word ‘Ofsted’ crop up far too many times. I can see why this is, and I have some sense of how terrifying it must be to know that you might fail and be ‘academised’ against your will. But we have got so hooked on the approval of Ofsted, that we have started to see an Ofsted grade as being the be-all and end-all of a good education.
But it’s not, and it should never be. As a profession, we must stop letting the piper call the tune, and start calling the tune for ourselves. To be frank, our preschool’s ‘Good’ rating is good enough for me. Yes, it’d be lovely if someone told me we were ‘outstanding’ (not least for our setting leader, who is truly inspirational), but that honestly isn’t what matters to me. I honestly still don’t really care.
Because (a) I know that Ofsted do only get to see a ‘snapshot’, and not the truth of what a place is like, that (b) we do our very best in the circumstances we face to give the children the best possible experience they can get, that (c) giving a setting ‘outstanding’ means they have nowhere left to go, nothing left to aim for, only a slippery downwards slope to fear and finally (d) I know as a parent that I don’t choose a school because of its Ofsted rating, I choose it because of local word of mouth, because of what I judge about it for myself, and because it is my local school.
So this blog entry is a plea to everyone to please remember why you do what you do, each and every day. And if your answer is not ‘for the kids’ but ‘to get a better inspection result’ then you need to have a serious re-think of your priorities.