I was around when Ofsted was invented. As part of the training, we had a presentation from a head who had undergone a trial Ofsted. ‘Trial’ was an accurate description of his experience. It sounded terrible. ‘Do I really want to be part of this?’ I asked myself. In the end, I decided perhaps I might manage it with some humanity and compassion – which seemed to be missing from the account we heard. In those days schools got months of notice, which led to considerable energy being expended to get all their paperwork in order – and led to a wonderful comment by a headteacher prepared to take control of the situation: ‘We will put on our best coat for Ofsted; we are not buying a new one’. It may sound like a cliche, but it really was a huge privilege to be allowed into schools and celebrate the good work that was going on – and highlight where it wasn’t. I worked with some dedicated colleagues who were determined to do their best for the school. I truly believe we were advocates for the pupils. That meant on occasions we had to give very hard messages and – not surprisingly – things became adversarial. We were no more welcome in schools than the Ofsted teams of today.
I gave up Ofsted inspections in 2000 to focus on something where I felt I could make a difference in the longer term. Now I support headteachers through coaching and helping them to develop resilience to deal with the stresses of the job. We’re told that ‘good leaders will allow teachers to identify and celebrate what their strengths are’. In my experience, too many good leaders forget to celebrate their own. It’s as though there’s a silent conspiracy amongst school leaders: it’s not okay to take care of yourself as a leader, you have to be looking after everyone else. Leaders absorb all the projections and insecurities of those around them – including a government and press who want to blame schools for all society’s ills. Resilient leaders know it’s important to take care of themselves – to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs. When you’ve spent months climbing the mountain, are near the top, and the oxygen supply is thin, it’s easy to hallucinate and imagine you can manage by simply holding your breath.
Correspondence in the TES (8th March, 2013) suggests that the only organisation to be surprised that Ofsted inspections are data led is Ofsted. As a school governor, Mr Wilshaw, I know that data is important; I also know that the latest dashboard doesn’t tell the whole story. There can be no excuse for a school which fails its students – but there can be lots of reasons – many of them outside the school’s immediate control. A system is only as compassionate as those who implement it. Staff in good schools understand the reasons for students’ under-achievement and consistently support them to improve. We know that the climate created by the leader has a significant impact on the way staff perform. Should we be surprised that compassion is largely missing from the inspection system?