The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

The Optimus blog

The blog that inspires leaders in the UK education sector

Optimus Education

The long and winding road to a very special Ofsted: a view from the chalkface

A secret teacher describes their school’s journey from ‘outstanding’ to ‘special measures’ – and why the last judgement is everything the staff hoped for. 

Being placed in special measures by Ofsted can conjure up a whole host of emotions: frustration, anger, despair, fear and embarrassment to name a few. However, as a teacher working in exactly this situation, I was surprised to find that the main feeling experienced by staff was relief.

This unusual reaction requires explanation. To lighten things up, I've used some songs from John Lennon, Paul McCartney and the Beatles as an accompaniment. 

Head 1: All you need is love

Some years ago, the school where I teach (a large secondary comprehensive) had a wonderful headteacher who would never make a decision without the full agreement of the staff.

The downside of this was that a simple decision could take a frustratingly long time. However, if a teacher or a student failed in a task, the head’s first reaction was to ask if they were ok and what support could make the situation better.

Knowing that your welfare was top priority inspired incredible loyalty. An outstanding inspection result was the perfect way to bow out and no-one begrudged the head an early retirement.

Head 2: Ebony and ivory

The next head was very different. Every issue was seen in black and white and anyone who disagreed, no matter how politely and professionally, was challenging their authority.

The outstanding school ran smoothly for a while, but it became clear to staff that things were beginning to unravel. While hushed conversations were held in the staffroom, everyone had learned not to voice criticism or concern in front of the head as the messenger was likely to be shot.

However, if the head had one talent, it was for timing. Ofsted appeared and rated the school as ‘good’ which was a fair reflection. We weren’t as outstanding as we used to be and though behaviour and other things were in decline, exam results were still reasonable. Then, a week before the summer holidays, the head announced their departure to take up a post in another part of the country. 

Head 3: Help!

After a round of interviews, the chair of governors brought the new head onto the stage to introduce to the staff while ‘The Circle of Life’ played in the background. (On reflection, I might have imagined the last bit, but you get the idea).

The ridiculous pressures placed upon headteachers brought out all the worst characteristics

The new head spoke eloquently, though in retrospect the first warning sign was that afterwards, no one could actually remember what had been said. Unfortunately, this became standard practice, with no one clear as to the school vision. Instead, the priority was whatever issue was pressing that week – which would then be forgotten and abandoned within a fortnight.

The head immediately set about re-modelling the SLT, and here at least there was a clear vision. Unfortunately, it was that SLT would consist of teachers from a favoured subject area, who would support the head in every matter and never challenge any decisions.

I’m sure the head wanted to do well but the ridiculous pressures placed upon headteachers brought out all the worst characteristics. Under the guise of increased scrutiny, staff were loaded up with administrative tasks (and then the recording of everything done) that allowed their line managers to tick boxes but which meant that classroom teachers were spending less time on planning their lessons. The decline that had started under the previous head accelerated and the exam results nose-dived.

The workload quickly grew to unmanageable proportions and with it, staff stress levels

The head introduced initiative after initiative, giving teachers more and more to do. The justification was that while we had a hard road ahead, we owed it to the students to do everything possible to maximise their chances in life.

But as nothing was ever taken away, the workload quickly grew to unmanageable proportions and with it, staff stress levels.

Some got other jobs, some resigned with no job to go to, others crawled on until dismissed or suffered nervous breakdowns. As a result, many classes were left with a succession of supply teachers which didn’t improve their learning or the school’s bank balance.

Ofsted 1: Watching the wheels (go round and round)

Life continued much the same for several more years of declining exam results and redundancy rounds. And then, oh happy days, Ofsted appeared! It was the standard one day inspection and it went about as well as it could. There were positives and negatives and they left us with our ‘good’ rating intact but promised to return for a two day inspection within six months.

The reactions of SLT and the rest of the staff could not have been more different. SLT felt that it was a fair result which vindicated their approach whereas the staff couldn’t believe that life seemed to continue as before. Many staff could remember what an outstanding school felt like and it was very different from our current situation. A failed Ofsted was now the only hope for forcing through real change.

Ofsted 2: Maxwell's silver hammer

Six months later, Ofsted returned as promised and went to town. This time the result was ‘inadequate’. I’ve since learned that there are two types of ‘inadequate’.

  • Serious weaknesses: the school is providing an inadequate education for its pupils but Ofsted believe that the SLT in place have the ability to improve the school.
  • Special measures: the school is providing an inadequate education for its students and Ofsted believe that the SLT in place do not have the ability to improve the school.

Our school was placed in special measures and as stated at the start, the over-riding feeling of the staff was relief. We all knew that a lot needed fixing and at last there was a recognition that what went before wasn’t helping.

The head has already gone and at last, real change can start. It may be a hard road ahead, but as someone once told us, we owe it to the students to do everything possible to maximise their chances in life. And if the staff are shown a little bit of trust, I’ve no doubt that we can work it out.

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