OFSTED Experiences: Part of her story is mine too

The tragic death of a much beloved headteacher, Ruth Perry, brought it all back. I did not expect to be so triggered by the news of her experience and had thought that I was doing fine after the devastation of my own school’s Ofsted inspection. Little did I know that the trauma buried deep inside came hurtling back, leaving me feeling broken, upset, angry and hugely resentful. As human leaders, we bury our deep emotions as we place the well-being of others over ourselves. However, I cannot be silent through the tears that keep on coming – the dam has been broken, there is no going back. This is my story of how the inspection affected me, and still does today.

My school was inspected the day after October half-term 2021. I remember when half term arrived, I thanked an exhausted and emotional staff force in the staff room for their hard work and commitment to children and colleagues as this was the most difficult term yet, post-lockdown. The magnitude of what we had to do, what we were doing, the high absence rates amongst pupils and staff had placed considerable pressure on a one form entry primary school. And yet, through the seven weeks ofthe first half term of the new academic year, we somehow managed to survive, teach well, and carry on with curriculum development which was halted over the period of lockdown and disruptions. My mantra had always been, we do what is best for the children, never for Ofsted! During this period of pressure and turmoil, I supported several teachers and staff facing huge personal issues and upheavals in their lives, These circumstances are important to note as it gives context to a school trying its best to serve our community.

When I received the call, I remember telling the staff, ‘We’ve got this. Ofsted will see the hard work we have done, and the efforts we have placed to put our children first and foremost in what we do’. There was considerable anxiety and I remember telling staff to go home, there is nothing more to be done. Just teach as you teach every day.

I was naïve. I recall now that trusted members of my leadership team were suspicious of the HMI and the additional inspector as the way they were questioned, led them to believe that we have already been judged – the inspectors were looking for evidence to back the case for the ultimate label.

It is only when I read Caversham Primary’s Ofsted report that I knew our school had been judged through a similar lens. Safeguarding was judged ineffective, and I am unable to say more on this to protect the children I still serve. I will say that the ‘lack of’ evidence is contentious, as these ‘issues’ were rectified immediately. As I repeatedly said to the inspectors, nothing we do as a school was to deliberately make any child unsafe. In fact, it has always been the opposite, and Ofsted confirmed this in its own report – “This means that pupils are potentially at risk ormay not get the help and support they need.” In feedback sessions with me, and members of the governing board, the inspectors confirmed that all children were safe. They confirmed that we had taken the right steps in safeguarding children, it is the paperwork that was not obvious, and the inexperience of some governors in helping to create an effective culture of safeguarding. I wish at this point to ask readers to remember the context and remember the timing of this inspection.

Our school was judged inadequate in early November of 2021 because safeguarding was judged ineffective; the report was not published until February of 2022. There was nothing I could say or do to change this. If you read our initial inspection report, there were many, many things we were doing well as we were judged Good in Behaviour and Attitude, and also Personal Development. These matter, but also did not matter. The great Ofsted conundrum! Prioritising pupil, staff and family mental health did not seem to matter. High absence rates due to Covid or the effect of Covid did not seem to matter. Covid was not taken into consideration at all even though it was less than a year after lockdown was lifted. I could tell you about how our 3 weakest readers were so anxious reading in front of the inspector and could not ‘perform’ so guess what that did to how Reading was judged?

Do not get me wrong. If you used the Ofsted framework, in that inspection, our school was not Outstanding, maybe not even Good. However, we are not, and we never were, inadequate.

I remember breaking down in front of both female inspectors. I remember how devastated and emotional I was. I challenged them to help me understand how I can carry on with leadership, and yes, I do take it personally, being judged inadequate. I asked them to understand how a humane organisation could treat people and communities this way. I asked them to reflect how they would feel, and act, as both inspectors were former headteachers, and had ‘sat’ in my chair. I asked them to help me understand how, when my heart and soul had been given to this role, when I sleep, breathe, and live this job at the expense of my family, and well-being, I could carry on. I remember that although I thought they heard, they did not listen. Both said that ‘I now had the mandate to turn the school around’. It is only now that I can see that I do not require their mandate at all – I have always served my school community, I have always had the best interest of staff and pupils at heart, I have always pursued academic excellence but not at the expense of well-being. Our school priorities are timely and well planned, ensuring that staff are supported to teach, and lead subjects well.

I had to be silent on our outcome for seven weeks, through Christmas and New Year. I had to reassure a staff team who knew something was up, and yet I could not speak of what had happened. I had to reassure parents that all was ok, and that the report would be communicated to them when published. I had to speak to potential parents who wanted to know if we had been inspected recently.

When I read Ruth’s story, it brought it all crashing back. The sleepless nights, the crying endlessly at home with my husband picking me up each time I said I cannot do this anymore. My children trying their best to support an unhappy mother who looked lost. The feeling of being a failure and, of failing. The over thinking of the impact of this outcome – what would our parents say and do? How are we ever going to come out of this as a small school dependent on pupil numbers to survive?

I remember Bonfire Night 2021, a school event attended by hundreds of parents, children, and members of the community where I had to make a speech, knowing the judgement, but unable to say anything. I remember feeling devastated and proud at the same time as I peered at a lit-up playground at what we had truly achieved during, and after the pandemic. Our school kept a community safe, cared for, and alive. Our ethos of inclusion, courage, service, and collaboration saw us through a time like no other. I have been told that my words that night were inspirational and hopeful. This is the one thing I do not remember. I just remember feeling totally exhausted, drained and broken and thinking, there is no way back. I felt alone.

Of course, writing this today means that I did ok. I am still here, just! Six working months later, Ofsted came back and turned a monitoring inspection into a full inspection. Oh, we are now an RI school don’t you know? I suppose I should be grateful, and yet I am actually resentful. Nothing much has changed since the last, devastating grading. I had to work harder to ensure the staff were supported mentally, emotionally, and physically. I had to work harder at pre-empting difficult conversations with parents and consider carefully how we can increase pupil numbers after the inspection. I had to work harder when some parents use the judgement to unfairly (in my opinion) criticise the school for any perceived errors or complain about things.

What has changed is how cynical I have become. My heart has been broken, and I am unsure how to mend it. I have had thoughts of leaving headship, in fact, leaving the sector as I observe injustice in the way education serves all our children, and our staff who work tirelessly every single day. There is too much politics, division, and unhealthy competition, with inspections being part of the battleground. I have battled and argued and reached out to people in rather high places to be listened to. Some listened, some helped in ways they will never know, and to these people, who are still here for me today, my deep gratitude for their ongoing support. I do not have to imagine Ruth’s experience of Ofsted as I believe it was also mine. However, I can only imagine what the impact of the inspection did to her, on top of all the other pressures that life, the job, and work can bring.

Part of her story is mine too. This cannot be the legacy we leave behind. The way schools are inspected and ‘labelled’ must change immediately. If Ofsted is about improving schools, then truly help leaders improve their schools by highlighting to the school, the results of their audit, and allowing schools to rapidly improve. Do not leave broken leaders behind when you leave on the second day, without turning back. Do not deny us a voice to raise our concerns appropriately. Be the humane organisation that education requires, so that schools, leaders, and communities can continually improve together, rather than leaving a trail of devastation without ever looking back. There must never be another tragedy like the life and death of RuthPerry, and countless others. Be the tool for successful school leadership, and not the sword that maims, injure, or worse, destroys.

Does the end justify the means? (Part 1)

“It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it” Fun Boy Three & Bananarama

(NB – any reference in this post to OFSTED is at an organisational, cultural and leadership level.  There are 1000s of OFSTED inspectors and thankfully the greater majority of them work with passion, dedication, kindness and compassion).

It has been a challenging period for the education system in England.  The incredibly sad news that Ruth Perry, headteacher of Caversham Primary school, took her own life in January whilst waiting for the publication of the school’s OFTSED report has sent shockwaves through the system and created a lot of media interest.

There is much for the policymakers, system leaders and staff in schools across the country to reflect on.

Interestingly in all the media attention and commentary the voice of OFSTED has been largely quiet, save a pre-prepared statement, distributed to all of the media outlets.  

Since my own experience with OFSTED, as a Headteacher in 2017, I have been periodically utilised as a commentator on issues of accountability in the education system… the gist of the questioning is always the same, assuming that as someone whose Headteacher career was essentially ended by a negative OFSTED outcome I must surely think that OFSTED is bad and that I would like it to be scrapped.  Yet more evidence of the simplistic and positional debate that we seem to love in this country… of course it is much more nuanced than that.

Whilst my views on OFSTED are my own they are informed by the thousands of Headteachers in the @HeadsUp4HTs network… a network that I initially founded to provided support to Headteachers who have been treated badly by the system that they have devoted their life to but which has since evolved into a network that CELEBRATES the great work of our leaders, their schools and the wonderful staff and children who work in them, SUPPORTS Headteachers with their well-being, helping them to stay in the system and find joy in the job that they have devoted their life to and CAMPAIGNS to change the negative culture that pervades the system that they have dedicated their life to. 

The reality is that much of that negative culture is generated by and perpetuated by OFSTED.  Their annual reports focus on what isn’t working, data and insights gained from their school inspection regime where the reports for schools in the most challenging of contexts and circumstance also focus mostly on what isn’t working and seek to reduce it to the most simplistic and reductive of one/two-word summary judgement.  

Every few years this data and ‘research’ is then utilised to build a new framework which focuses on the next thing that they have identified needs to be ‘fixed’ in our education system and off we go again… into the next negative cycle.

This week, I presume due to OFSTED’s silence, the media outlets have reached out to Sir Michael Wilshaw to offer comment and defence of OFSTED.  I was unexpectedly pitted against Michael on Jeremy Vine’s radio show on Tuesday 21st March, and I found his justification wholeheartedly reinforcing what I have felt for a long time.  His defence essentially boiled down to two things:

  1. OFSTED is necessary because in the 80s and early 90s (his reference frame seemingly) education was a mess.
  2. Yes, it is sad what has happened to Ruth Perry but look at all the good that has been done.

So, does the end justify the means?

  1. Let’s presume that his observation of the education system at that time is correct… and then state the blindingly obvious point that he is referring to a time that is 30-40 years ago.  It may have been deemed necessary to create a ‘hard-hitting’ regulator with teeth in the early 90s to address the perceived failings of the education system and its schools… the OFSTED culture at that time appears to have been something along the lines of “we think schools are not very good and populated by lazy and ineffective staff, we are here to find you out and address these issues for the benefit of young people” essentially seizing the moral high ground and at the same time starting the negative narrative that persists to this day.

The problem with this defence is of course that he is referring to another time.  where there may have been little or no accountability, we now have an overwhelming amount of it.  Not to mention the investment in CPDL for all staff, the development of curricula, policy/practice/systems development, technology.  I could go on and on…

The school system has evolved and transformed itself since then both culturally and in practice, whereas OFSTED may have evolved it’s practice but the culture remains as it was… for many Headteachers the lead up to an inspection, the behaviour of some inspectors during an inspection and the way in which OFSTED choose to categorise the school and write the report leaves them with a sense of “they think we are rubbish, they are here to find out that we are rubbish, I must spend the next two days proving that we are not rubbish” and of course if you are successful the relief is palpable, if you are not, the shame begins.  

(I am not delving here into the associated points 1) The context - that the framework ignores context and the complexity of society and individual humans when drawing its conclusions and therefore always will always be flawed 2) Inconsistency of application - the tighter OFSTED makes its frameworks the more obvious it becomes that they have a problem with the consistency with which it is applied… leaving Leaders and schools with a feeling of ‘unfairness’ 3) The politics - that sense that darker forces are at play, especially relevant in the past decade where the DFE’s desire for schools to join MATS seems to lead them to pull on a variety of levers to force this through, one such lever being OFSTED and those schools they have deemed ‘Require Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’.  All three of these issues contribute to the culture but stand alone as issues for the system).

  1. Let’s once again presume that this conclusion is correct (niftily setting aside the point that this is questionable - see here)… it’s unnecessary to state at what cost.  We have seen the devastation for Ruth Perry’s family and her school community… but there are hundreds if not thousands of others who have seen their careers ruined, their well-being damaged (with many of those we support in the HeadsUp4Hts community, severely so) a mostly untold human impact.  

Thankfully, many find different ways to work in education (ahem!) which reveals the dedication and passion these people have for the collective endeavour that education is… but at a time of recruitment and retention crisis in education and in this case specifically with Headteachers, can we really afford for this to be the case?  At an individual and system level the approach is devastating.  

The ‘end justifies the means’ argument has always been cleverly defended by OFSTED seizing the moral high ground and playing the moral imperative card… “we do it for the children” but again in playing this card they demonstrate their lack of respect for the profession… why do they think the staff in 24000 plus schools got out of bed this morning? For the glory? The money? NO, because they care deeply about their work and the children and families that they serve.

Do they always get it right? no, are they always striving to be better? yes, are they capable of holding themselves to account? yes (see the first lockdown period in education, no OFSTED… school staff worked as hard as ever to look after their communities).  If that argument doesn’t work for OFSTED…? Well, they can always duck their responsibility by looking into the darkness whispering ‘unintended consequences’.

In his defence Sir Michael reveals the heart of OFSTED… 

Being a Headteacher is the best job in the world, however the way in with which OFSTED goes about its business and the system wide culture this creates, means that many of our amazing Headteachers lose their connection with their purpose and the sheer joy and privilege of being a Headteacher.  At HeadsUp4HTs we work with HTs to rediscover that connection, positively impacting on their well-being as a result but we also campaign to change the culture of negativity recognising that it shouldn’t be like that in the first place.  

It isn’t the early ‘90s anymore, the world has evolved, and we don’t need fear as the driving force to develop our schools for the benefit of current and future generations of children – we have many thousands of dedicated and passionate staff and they are accepting of the accountability that comes with their job.  They are more than capable of holding themselves and each other to account and want a regulator who works in partnership with them to make this happen.

OFSTED - “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it”… change your culture and as a step in that direction get rid of the simplistic, reductive and pejorative judgement categories that do more harm than they do good.  Then we would welcome you with open arms.

Think Piece: Political Impartiality

I have recently realised I begin many of my articles and weekly school newsletters with, ‘As I sit here’. It is easy to understand the reason for this is as writing is an instrument that helps you to contemplate, reflect and then communicate within the written word these contemplations and reflections. I do not claim wisdom such as that of Marcus Aurelius (b AD121) or indeed the craft of the storyteller such as Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall,2009) What I do bring to the table or in this case this blog, are my personal musings and anecdotes, peppered with reports of our wonderful community. So, do indulge me by letting me begin again.

As I sit here, on the afternoon of 12th April during the school Easter break, reading an excellent book by Robin Alexander entitled ‘Education in spite of policy’, with The Archers on Radio 4 in the background, the notifications on my Twitter feed goes wild with tweets that both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have been found guilty of breaking the law and will be fined the sum of £50 eachfor attending parties during strict lockdown. This is not really news as many of us knew that, even with weak attempts at deflection and ‘fudging’ the truth, many of our leaders acted with contempt when they broke lawstin which they held the public to account for. Why is this news important to someone who leads a school? How does this impact on education and educational outcomes? How is this important to the international response to the global crisis let alone the war in Ukraine? Again, indulge me as I explain.

On 17th February of this year, the Department for Education issued all schools with guidance on political impartiality and the requirement to remain apolitical in their stance and in delivering the curriculum. The Education Secretary went out of his way to advise schools that they must not criticise government or government policies especially in the classroom. In the whole, I agree that schools must be balanced in their approach to politics both national and international, as should be the case for all subjects in the curriculum, a good example being History. It is just, and right, that facts are researched and tested fairly for accuracy. It is also fair that as many perspectives, and sides are listened to as history is the narrative of many, and not just one group of people or community. I also agree that schools must not seek to indoctrinate pupils, and work towards developing pupils’ critical thinking and the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

The flaw in such guidance, and in our response to it, is that the news of today will be the history of tomorrow. How will history thus narrate the politics of Britain today? How will the leadership of a group of men and women be judged through the lens of time, and most importantly, what will be said about the choices we make today and the choices we make for our children. This is not about influencing our children, but it is about giving our children examples of leadership so that may base their own future leadership on. I believe this trumps party politics, and this not ‘woke’ or any such derogatory descriptions that at times education and educators have been labelled with. This is about the pursuit of what the UN mission’s pursuit of ‘inclusive and equitable quality education’ for all children and this can only happen when we are not distracted by leaders who damage the trust they hold in their public office.

No man is an island, and no leader is invincible. Mistakes and human errors are made to enable us to learn and grow. This is part of the evolutionary process, and this is what we teach our children at school. Learn from your mistakes, and do better next time, every time. However, the news that Boris Johnson and members of his cabinet, and party, flaunted rules, are no mistake. These acts cannot be forgiven or forgotten, and thus the fines that have been meted out as these acts have been judged to have broken the law. In PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) and Citizenship, schools (including ours) seek to teach our children social and democratic values, and the need to be part of a social justice system that is enshrined in equality and the rule of law. Schools do not make the law, but we abide by the law, and will be educating the law makers and politicians of the future. We seek to equip them with knowledge, skills but above all, the values that will guide them to improve a future, not just for themselves, but also for all.

I have no answer to the global and national political, and indeed economic crises that face us now. I watch in horror at more news about the war in Ukraine, the conflicts across the globe and the irreversible impact of climate change. I shudder to think of what the next major crisis could be; whatever it is, it will not be far off our doorstep. However, I live in hope as Desmond Tutu, in his stance for justice said, ‘Hope is being able to see there is light despite all of the darkness.’

Hope is in the hands of every child we lead into the classroom and school hall. Hope exists in the laughter and tears of a playground scene. Hope lies at the start and end of each school day when we wave our children goodbye at classroom doors and school gates. Even when our current politicians let us down, we must continue to believe that our children will carry on upholding the values we all hold dear.

We are hiring! Executive Assistant post

We are looking for a values driven individual to work with us to support our incredible HeadsUp4HTs community!

The HeadsUp4HTs community is led by James Pope and Kate Smith, two former Headteachers, with a mission to ensure ALL Headteachers are given the support to be the leaders they set out to be!

HeadsUp4HTs is part of InspirEducate, and is a network of Headteachers and school leaders supporting and lifting each other up. We champion the profession and provide several layers of support to our community, including coaching packages, Local Authority support and peer support spaces, all with an intentional wellbeing focus.

As the network grows, we are looking for a values aligned individual to support us with;

Managing our busy diaries

Community communication

Network engagement

The role is ideal for someone with executive administration or personal administration experience. Ideally, this is someone who already works in the education sector. You’ll need to be Google Drive and social media savvy and a working knowledge of MailChimp and Canva would be desirable, but not essential.

The role will be virtual, flexible and for a fixed term, whilst we navigate our community in a new direction.

Initially, we anticipate the role to be between 10-20 hours per week on an hourly rate to be negotiated.

We aim to nurture a working relationship that values and respects each other’s differences, that promotes authenticity, equality, diversity, and that supports individuals to develop bring their best selves to their role.

If you are interested in working with us, then please email support@headsup4hts.co.uk and book in a chat with Kate. In the meantime, take a look around our website to get a feel for who we are and what we do.


Think Piece: Peer Coaching Support

Our Peer Coaching sessions are an integral way that we support our network. 

In essence, these are safe spaces, or coaching circles, which are completely confidential and judgement free. We carve out time to come together with other like minded and values based leaders to share our authentic selves, our challenges and our triumphs.

‘We all had a chance to speak. As usual, I felt nervous about sharing a part of myself with others, but James and the other Heads had put my mind at ease with their reassuring nods, smiles and championing chatter in the chat function. Within the first session I felt part of an extraordinary community.’

The support sessions recognise that Headship and school leadership can often be isolating. We aim to bring people together, to help them to make connections and allow them to share their own experiences of leadership. In doing so, we resonate, lift each other up and grow stronger knowing that it’s safe to share and that there’s always someone who has been through a similar experience or someone who can offer advice and support.

One member share their experience of joining the support session here

‘Each week my cup is refilled as I meet with people like me. Heads who sometimes struggle, Heads who are finding it tough, Heads who are courageous in their pursuit of a better education, for their own communities and beyond. Within this group, I have a voice. I am valued and listened to. I am supported and I don’t have to wear a mask.’

There are Headteachers and school leaders from all different backgrounds, schools and all with various levels of experience. Everyone is welcome.

We frame each session by reminding ourselves why we are there, and reassuring everyone that they are in safe hands. We often focus on a a question and sometimes it’s as simple as ‘How are you? No really, how are you?’ This gets everyone thinking and gives us an opportunity to truly reflect, without the fear of judgement or of a toxic accountability system looming over. We keep the sessions in a light and celebratory space, often championing, celebrating and cheering on those in the group. That said, we also rally round when someone is experiencing a difficult time.

The sessions are really fun and informal, some Headteachers pop in from time to time and others attend every week, keeping their own wellbeing bucket full. We always say ‘come when it serves you to do so’. We are here, each week, ready to hold you in that space.

In each session, our members' voices are all welcome; you can contribute, listen, drink coffee, and share your stories. Guaranteed, you will leave feeling part of a dedicated and values-based network.

Think Piece: Boundaries

Boundaries are personal limits that we set around ourselves, the responsibility of enforcing that boundary will fall on us. Boundaries keep us aligned with our core values and our own personal choices around the way we choose to live our lives and conduct ourselves both personally and professionally.

Boundaries help to keep you safe, in control and can empower you to make healthy choices and take personal responsibility.

Consciously appreciating your own personal and professional boundaries can help to support your wellbeing, physically and mentally, from day one. Setting boundaries requires a deep understanding of your personal and professional needs and expectations; knowing what serves you well in order that you can thrive in the role.

Ask yourself:

What are your boundaries when it comes to professional relationships?

To workload?

In responding to the expectations of the professionals that you work with?

In ensuring that your personal life has value equal to (minimum!) or above that of your professional life?

Essentially, setting yourself boundaries is a way of actively respecting your own wellbeing and keeping you safe, so get familiar with them and bring them to life. Consider how you will articulate these to those you work with, and your family and friends too and how you’ll hold yourself accountable.

It’s important to remember that boundaries can change too, so it’s important to revisit them and make adjustments to ensure they serve you. You can never ‘over’ communicate your boundaries to others either, clear and consistent communication is key.

OFSTED Experiences: Impact upon SLT can’t be underestimated

Ofsted, an acronym that will strike fear into even the most hardened of staff. We knew the call was coming, like so many other schools, it had been coming for over two years and casting our eyes towards the impending visit was the focus of many, many SLT discussions. We gathered as much information as we could about what the visit would look like and what would happen over the two days. We prepared and then prepared some more. Then one of our schools within our small trust received the call within the first few weeks of the Autumn term. We listened and reflected upon their experience and threw in a touch more preparation for good measure. The visit crept ever closer. A month or so later and another school in our trust received the call. Closer still it came. Then, at the beginning of November, it was our turn. This is our experience.

I count myself very lucky to be the deputy headteacher of a large, two form entry primary school in the North-West of England. Our school is a diverse community school with provision from 3-11. We serve a disadvantaged area and have 50% pupil premium. Our EAL numbers are similar, with over 30 languages spoken by our school population. I have been at the school for 4 years and was successfully promoted to DHT from AHT in February 2021. It had been a while since I experienced an Ofsted inspection and I had certainly never taken in part in one as a member of SLT. Unchartered territory indeed.

When the initial call came, our HT was not on site. Completely normal, as he works across two schools but afterwards, I was told the colour completely drained out of my face when the call was put through! Nerves kicked in but so did all the preparation we had done. I knew what this call would entail as well as the following one. I wrote down everything we needed to know and arranged the time for the longer call. An hour or so later the call from the inspector came and we had composed ourselves as an SLT to begin the process of painting the picture of our school. The phone call, which we were worried about, turned out to not be the experience we expected. The Ofsted inspector gave us snippets of information about himself and we were quick to identify that he had garnered a lot of information about us already from the website. We were very happy that the recent hard work we had put into the school website had paid off! Heallowed us to select the subjects we wanted deep dives into and allowed the conversation to move in the way we wanted it to. We were able to begin showcasing all the things that make our school the amazing place that it is but also acknowledge that we knew exactly where we were heading and what we continued to work on.

The rest of that grey Monday passed uneventfully as we rallied round our staff, tidied up, perfected the Ofsted folderand of course got the fancy biscuits out! The school displays were refined by our committed staff, planning was polished off and at 8pm we exited the school building nerves janglingbut the shared determination to make the most of our moment ran through our veins. The morning of the first day staff were in school early but the importance of supporting everyone was high on my agenda. Conversations to check in, guide and reassure took place and at 8am we were ready.

The experience over the two days was a positive one. There were, of course, moments where the nerves surfaced. Our history lead, being new to the role, was nervous about the deep dive into their subject. Our curriculum lead AHT successfully supported them through it and they came out of the afternoon positive and fired up for where they would take their subject next. Our Maths lead was much the same, new to role and nervous about the deep dive. However, once again, it was a positive and successful experience which showcased all their hard work with our Maths curriculum.

Our notoriously hard to engage parents reflected us positively (well, mostly positively!) on the parent view survey and we were overjoyed to hear that all staff had reported back that they were proud to be members of our school community. Our children shone throughout the two days, with honesty, enthusiasm, and positivity for our school. They acknowledged that bullying does happen as our school but also that staff deal with it well. They talked about their love of reading and happily shared books with the inspector. In every sense of the word, they were wonderful.

The inspection was a hard two days, but it was also hugely positive. The check ins with the HT reassured us we were on a strong path but the nagging doubt never really left us until we received the final feedback. Leaders at all levels were identified as outward facing with a focus on learning from evidence and research. Our hard work to celebrate the diversity and individuality of our school was recognised and our staff training and development offer was praised. It is important to note that the inspector gave us time to showcase the areas we wanted to and it was clear he had taken time to read the documents we had left out for him to look through. It very much felt like a very fair process- he listened to everything we had to say.

The impact upon our SLT cannot be underestimated. To have our hard work on, what had been key areas for us,acknowledged was hugely gratifying and a sense of success was most definitely felt. We were very honest with the inspector and made it clear from the very beginning what our strengths and weaknesses were. We acknowledged that we knew our curriculum was not embedded completely and when this was our area for improvement, it was no shock. In fact, we were keen to take his feedback and run with it. When the final report came through and the success shared with the school community it was clear that the nerves had been worth it.

Our Ofsted our experience was not the fearsome event that others have endured. Understandably, this does raise concerns over the consistency of inspections, but I also do not want to play down the challenge of the two days. They were hard and upon reflection our collective SLT synopsis is that we are glad we won’t have another visit on our hands anytime soon! They were long, very busy days with a certain level of worry regarding the outcome hanging over our heads. Our school was well prepared for the inspection but so was our mindset. We were open to the experience, open to feedback and open to the inspector coming into our school to judge us. This helped the experience to be a success. The culture of our school is one of openness and community. We work together to drive our school forward, for the better, for every staff member inour school and ultimately the children we serve.



Debbie Christiansen


OFSTED Experiences: Approachable but thorough

I am writing this to support any other headteachers who may be waiting for the OFSTED call!

I have been headteacher at my school for 7 years and joined initially as acting head. We had our first inspection a couple of months after joining and were put into Requires Improvement. We worked hard, and 2 years later were OFSTEDed again and regained our Good judgement. That was 5 years ago and we were expecting OFSTED anytime from last April, so had a long wait! Obviously lockdown slowed down their progress in catching up with inspections.

We had been expecting “The Call” in Summer term, but they didn’t call until September. I had Covid and was in my last 2 days of isolation when the call came. I asked if they could call me at home, which they did. I tried to defer until I was back in school, but they said that a headteacher being ill was not a reason for deferral, as the school is open, so they were coming in. I therefore called my leadership team and let them know that OFSTED were coming in. We then did a Teams meeting call with the lead inspector, myself and my assistant heads. The lead inspector was sympathetic that I would not be there and was flexible to allow me to join meetings from home. We agreed a timetable for the first day, with times for online meetings and also what they were going to be doing in school. We talked about deep dives and agreed on reading, maths, geography and history. These would all take place on day one with the format being meeting with curriculum leader, seeing the subject in class being taught, looking in books and speaking with the children. These all needed to tie together -  what the subject leader said, relating to how this was taught in class, speaking with the classteacher about their subject knowledge, then seeing outcomes in books and then speaking to the children about what they could remember about the subject, what they had done before and what they liked/disliked.

The inspector had a brief outline and we then made sure that the timetable was more detailed – including where each of the inspectors would be, where they were based, who they were seeing, with timings. This meant that we knew where they would all be at any time. They were pleased to have this on their arrival on the first day as it was clear. They offered to introduce themselves to the staff first thing, which they did, and the staff were very welcoming and smiley! This made a good first impression.

The inspectors kept asking about staff well-being during the inspection and each meeting they had with a member of the senior team, they asked again. They were approachable but also very thorough!

It soon became clear that our Year 3 children and reading were a focus for them and phonics. The children coming into Year 3 had missed a large amount of their phonics due to lockdowns and we did not have a synthetic phonics programme in place. We agreed that this was something that we needed to improve on and so they decided to do some more deep dives in the curriculum – PE, art, science and ICT were then looked into. As the curriculum was all sound and my staff could all speak about their subjects with enthusiasm – intent of their curriculum, how it was implemented across the school and also what impact they had – this was all key!

SEN was another focus and this was a strength here, with my SENCo completing a learning walk around schoo and being able to discuss children and their needs and show how children were being supported within class.

I carried out Teams meetings regarding safeguarding, the curriculum, single central register, SIP, SEF and PP strategy. We also discussed attendance and what we were doing to ensure good attendance at school. We met about behaviour and well-being.

The second day, I came into school and I was able to go round school with them, be on the playground etc.. They talked to parents before and after school and also children to discuss SMSC, behaviour, well-being…

The governors were invited in and could also discuss leadership of the school, how we had developed the curriculum, how they questioned me and asked about school improvement. They spoke with a representative from the local authority.

They continued to ask probing questions throughout the second day to ensure they had evidence for all of the hand book. We then sat down and went through the handbook and they discussed each point and whether they had evidence to say we were a good school for each point.

At the end of the second day, we invited governors in for feedback and I was allowed to have the leadership team there too. The feedback was all positive apart from phonics, but we got a good judgement. We were not allowed to tell staff anything until the report was published.

After 2 days of inspection the report that came out was a summary and very short, which upset some members of staff who felt that their hard work was not reported on.

That was our experience, hope it helps someone else!

Think Piece: Winging it and Flying!

Winging it and Flying!


When I recently reached three years of headship and received a ‘Linked In - Congratulations on your Work Anniversary’ message, I couldn’t help but reflect on whether I’m celebrating or just plain holding it together. What on earth have the last three years been all about?


Despite previous leadership experience, I was totally and completely naive to the realities of headship. Throw in a pandemic and I can truly say much of the last three years have been spent winging it!


I’m not one to hold on to negative experiences in life and like to look for the positive and opportunities in everything, so whilst I admit to winging it a lot of the time, I have learnt so much and prefer to see that the times of ‘winging it’ have actually given me wings to fly.


I summarise here my three greatest challenges, the opportunities they created and the key to successfully flying!


Challenge 1 - People

All of them: governors, staff, parents and pupils - relationships matter to me and because they matter, they have been one of my greatest challenges. How can you possibly get it right for everyone all the time? The demands on a headteacher to show up, be caring, interested and supportive for everyone feels nearly impossible. How do you learn to fly when everyone needs you for something different? You work with a trusted professional coach. Coaching has helped me develop a self-awareness and increased emotional intelligence to work effectively with others, taking into account their needs and balancing the needs of different groups and individuals.


Challenge 2 - Crisis management

Yes I do mean the pandemic and all the challenges it still continues to throw at us. How do you learn to fly in a crisis? You reach out. I have various networks of amazing headteachers and leaders in my local cluster of schools, across the local authority and across the nation through HeadsUp4Headteachers. They are like gold dust and offer the greatest medicine of all, connection, understanding and laughter.


Challenge 3 - My own resilience

I have had to dig deep many times, to the very bottom of who I am and who I want to be, to find the grit, determination and resilience to fight my way through the stress and tears of frustration to get up, again and again to face another uncertain day with a smile of my face and put others needs before my own needs. This takes its toll. So how do you learn to fly when the world is in chaos and you want to crawl back into bed and hide? You invest in self care and prioritise your own wellbeing. It is not an indulgence; it is a necessary skill of being an effective leader. You truly cannot give to others if your own reserves are depleted. Dance, run, sing, read, cook, knit… something different for everyone, but do it and do it for you!


When I write that I am ‘flying’, please don’t take this to mean that I have it all sussed and am doing a great job. I am doing the best job that I can. My direction of flight is often off track from the right pathway, I get it wrong, that’s for sure! Like I say and it is worth saying again; I am doing the best job that I can. Some may call that winging it, for me, I am flying!

Case Study: Was it something I didn’t say?

Was it something I didn’t say?

As an experienced Head with two schools under my belt, one of which I took from special measures to Good in a relatively short period of time, I was ready for a change. I was approaching 50 and reassessing my working future and felt I either had to stay where I was until I was ready to be put outto pasture or have one more move. So, I took the plunge and applied for a new position. The school I applied for was inner city with all the challenges that come with that. The previous inspection report led me to believe that there was a good team in place and despite the rock bottom outcomes for children, it looked like it just needed some fresh eyes and some tweaking to improve. I thoroughly enjoyed the interview process and honestly felt for the first time in my career that I genuinely had the answers, no blagging, no flannel. Leaving my previous position wasn’t easy, I had built up a great team and a good reputation, but I was excited by the challenge ahead and keen to bring what I had learned to a new post.

Within days in my new role, I knew that the challenge ahead was considerably more than just a tweak. With little infrastructure in place, few policies, a crumbling building and a staff who really didn’t want a new Head, it was always going to be tough. The results from the summer were the worst in the authority and by October, we had a letter from the RSC telling us we were a ‘Coasting School’ and I needed to tell them why we were and what we were going to do about it. This came as a massive shock to the senior leaders and Governors -  the inspection just 18 months before had told them they were a good school with outstanding leadership. The evidence was that the school was far from this judgement. With little to no admin support, a senior leadership team in shock and a staff that didn’t want any change, I set about trying to win hearts and minds, after all, we all wanted the same thing, the very best for the children in our care.

It was in this context that I was then faced with trying to build a leadership team who had the confidence to tackle underperformance. I joined forces with other local schools inan alliance where we agreed to be each other’s critical friend. It was good to have feedback from another very experienced local Head who said that she could see the big changes and improvements that we/I had made. However, the report from afull Teaching and Learning Review with the senior school improvement advisor and an Inspector stated that we had a long way to go to ensure the school was no longer deemed to be ‘at risk’.

Tragically, at the beginning of the summer term, a parent was murdered and subsequently two other parents were arrested and then convicted of the murder. Dealing with the fallout of this tragic event was all consuming from managing the grief of the children, staff and community to protecting the school from the media to safeguarding the children in the families of the victim and the perpetrator. Looking back, I now see that I underestimated the impact this had on me. I made sure staff had access to the crisis team and got emotional support, but I didn’t access any myself. Even when I then had to go through a domestic homicide review, I didn’t access the support, I was too busy making sure everyone else did.

Throughout this time, I had several periods of significant illness, enough to end up in hospital twice that year. This should have been a warning. My family certainly took it as one, but I just felt that giving the job my all was what had to be done to get the school where I hoped and prayed it could be.

Over the next year, we took on some interesting projects. What followed was what felt like a good year, one of team building in my own school and learning from another school.

We started the next academic year with some new staff and some changes in approach and it was at this point that we reached what would be described by Tuckman in the phases of team development as the ‘Storming stage’. I wouldn’t expect anything else in the stages of managing change, other than it had taken a bit longer for us to get to this point than I would have expected.

However, I began to feel weighed down by the increasing pressure of the many day to day occurrences; parental complaints to Ofsted, staff complaints about each other, staff complaints about decisions made by the senior team, and a small group of very challenging pupils who were having a big impact on the day to day running of the school. The building was crumbling around us, the roof was leaking in many places (including my office) and the hall regularly flooded. Not forgetting that we had to demonstrate significant improvements in outcomes for children.

I knew at this point that I really needed help. The HR team that I had been working with were really supportive but there were so many issues that I started to feel utterly swamped. It was like a relentless wave of daily challenges, on top of the day job of running a fairly large organisation.

I did start talking to people. I was very open and honest with my new school improvement advisor (who had been appointed for a term). I was very honest with my SLT. And their response was that I was doing a good job. I responded to an email abut booking a free session with a coach for Head Teachers but missed the appointment because I was dealing with something.

And then we were inspected. A new framework was about to be implemented and we seemed to be being inspected with a hybrid of the old and new. One of the inspectors even said to me, “what a shame, we’ve come a year too early”. I had been the Head for two years and two terms. I was experienced enough to know that the school still had a lot to do but there were green shoots of improvement – which the inspectors agreed that they could see. But apparently it wasn’t enough and not quickly enough. This was the point that I reflected on many times after the judgement. Was there something I didn’t say that I should have? Would it have made any difference?

What followed were the hardest few months of my professional life. I had support from my MP and entered into correspondence with the Minister of State at the DfE. I prepared pages and pages of information for Governors, parents, staff and the local authority. This was cold comfort when the judgement remained the same. It was soul destroying to repeatedly have to acknowledge that the report said my leadership was inadequate. The stress of this is immense. I ended up physically ill again, shingles, heart palpitations and severe anxiety.

By the end of October, I knew the fight was pretty much over. An academy order had been issued and the RSC were discussing what was going to happen next.

One lunchtime, I went into my school business managers office, and she made a kind remark about what a good personI was to work for and I started crying and didn’t stop for many hours. Such was the level of my distress, I frightened myself and my family.

This is when my timeline gets a bit muddled. I now know I was weeks, if not days away from total burn out and break down. I was fortunate to have amazing support from my GPand I was signed off the next few months. I researched schools who had been in similar situations to see what action they had taken and then stumbled upon James Pope and the HeadsUp organisation. There were so many parts of his narrative that resonated with me. I wish I had contacted him then, but I didn’t.

I went back to work far too early, but I really wanted to be in school for the due diligence meetings with the incoming academy group.

And then there was Covid. I spent the next two terms managing the crisis that unfolded with staff bubbles, school open for the vulnerable children throughout the holidays and days and days of delivering food to our families in need of support.

As we started to get children back into school, involvement from outside started to increase. I found myself feeling like I was taking part in a very long interview. Every meeting I went to, every document I prepared, I felt I was being assessed as to how well I could perform. I have read other people’s accounts of how it feels to be gaslighted and I recognise those feelings. The daily questioning of yourself and in response to suggestions and instructions for school improvement, I just wanted to say, “Don’t you think I’ve tried that” or “Don’t’ you think I’m doing that”.

The next part of my journey can’t be shared other than to say, by the beginning of the next academic year, I was no longer the Head.

It was then that I contacted James through the form on the website. I had a rapid response offering me a confidential conversation. I poured my heart out to him, and between sobbing and trying to put words together that made sense, I had the opportunity to share my story and for him to share his… there is always someone else who’s had it worse!Through his empathy and coaching I began to see that there was nothing I could have done or said differently at the timethat would have changed what happened. It was a set of circumstances that came together that led to a result over which I had no control. He also helped me to realise that it wasn’t my personal failings or ‘inadequacy’ that led to the judgement. Sadly, it also appears that my story is not uncommon. All of this helped me to get on the road to recovery.

I often wonder what would have happened if I had been able to access support from people like James and the HeadsUpteam when things first started to unravel. On reflection, it might not have changed the series of events but I am in no doubt it would have helped me to respond to the situations differently and also help to prevent me from becoming so personally scarred.

There is a happy ending to all this. Despite the immense sadness of making the decision not to return to being a Head, I’m glad to say that again, through coaching, I haverecognised that there are many transferable skills that lead to a life after Headship, but perhaps more about that another time.