After the inspection...

Written by: Anthony David | Published:

In the final part of his before, during and after series on school inspection, Anthony David reflects on how school leaders can often find themselves facing a low or feeling depressed after the inspectors have left...

There is quite an untold story about life after inspection and the purpose of this article is to help us reflect on this. It is an area that is not often discussed in education.

Timing is, as they say, everything. Sometimes things conspire to work for you and sometimes against you. I run two schools and during the academic year of 2016/17, I was Ofsted-inspected twice and Section 48 inspected twice (as both of my schools are church schools). Three days after my last inspection, my wife rang me from work – she was being inspected the next day. You couldn’t make it up.

So all-in-all, the David household’s schools were inspected five times over 10 months.

The timing, in some ways, was good as it meant that I could metaphorically line-up all my ducks at both schools, but it was exhausting as I am sure you can imagine.

During this process, I experienced one-day inspections, one-day inspections that converted to two-day inspections and a two-day inspection for a new school. I can clearly state that all of the inspectors that I met (seven in total across all four inspections) were professional and courteous. Certainly the impression I got was that Ofsted was trying to really improve its image.

So, from a personal point of view what did I learn? The first full inspection was the hardest. We had been waiting for more than a year. Since the previous inspection, five years earlier, the school had undergone a dramatic change.

It was just after the last inspection (by a matter of weeks) that I had joined so this was important from an “ego” point of view. Like most heads, I had thrown my heart and soul into the school (one that I feel passionately about) and I wasn’t ready to accept that the school was still “good” when I had lead such a dramatic set of changes.

The HMI who led the inspection did not come with a reputation for giving anything higher than good as a judgement, but fortunately she saw beneath the skin of the school and was looking for better than good from the start. It was a tremendously successful inspection.

So – why was I so down afterwards? I had achieved in my first inspection the type of outcome most heads dream off.

Another colleague who had been recently inspected and had achieved a similar outcome admitted to me that she too was quite rudderless. Fortunately for both of us we had the Christmas break to “get over ourselves” and prepare for the start of term.

What we both found, however, was that the following term proved to be quite challenging. I still had another school due inspection and yet I was spent. There was a great deal of “pretending to be all right” as I led the school towards inspection, praying that it would not be until I was able to recharge (amazingly this was the case).

What happened with my colleague was far worse. In a one-form entry school she lost five teachers. It was for a wide range of reasons, but most were related in some way to the inspection. They no longer had life on hold. For myself, it took until Easter to get enough energy to be ready for the next set of inspections and since then it has only been by reflecting in the summer holiday that I have been able to fully recharge and find a way forward.

I wondered whether this was common. I started asking other heads what life had been like after inspection. Now, like yourselves, we all interrogate headteachers who have just been inspected to find out what lines of inquiry or golden threads are most common, but we never go back to them three months later and find out how they are.

Once you have been inspected (and particularly if you are good or better) you are left alone. The more heads I spoke to, the greater the number of similarities seemed to be. Typically these may be:

  • Deflation (sometimes expectations of a higher grade not achieved).
  • Loss of leadership direction.
  • Fatigue.
  • Staff turnover (not always but certainly not uncommon).
  • Change of direction for school.
  • Rarely did I come across “happy emotions” like elation, giant egos, or relief.

Among the heads I spoke to, one north London head was quite candid about his experience. Following a successful inspection, where the school was graded as outstanding, he was quite clear about how long it took to recover. He told me: “There is a sort of anti-climax (but) there are still the jobs to do. You carry on. Eighteen months on we are now at that point to relaunch what we’re doing and look at how we assess.”

His story was not uncommon. A friend who achieved a solid good grading, but was aiming for higher, now considers that he has just three years left in education before changing careers. He’ll be 45.

The problem with the way that schools are inspected is that there are such high stakes involved that however you land, it is still a cliff edge way to assess and the landing is not comfortable.

The north London head observed that the lull brought around by such a high-stake regime is unhealthy. I would go beyond that to say that it has a dramatic impact on whole cohorts of children and colleagues. I have witnessed a head’s depression first-hand when she thought she was going to achieve something better than good in an inspection.

As I ended my conversation with the north London head, he was keen to state his position and what he had to say will probably make most sense to the pragmatic head:

“What I want to lead is a great school; whether Ofsted thinks we should have outstanding is down to the person who rocks up on the day and leads the inspection.”

Life carries on after inspection but be prepared to be winded by the experience. While you are paid to carry the can, it is at this point you will need to dig deep into your own emotional intelligence to drag yourself up, see into the blue-sky and plan for the coming years.

Whatever your school’s judgement, we all want to lead great schools and you will know your school better than any inspection team ever can. As a result, you are best placed to gently lift it up and carry on.

  • Anthony David is executive headteacher of St Paul’s CE Primary School and Millbrook Park CE Primary School in north London.

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