Prior to joining Ofsted I’d been in education for nearly 30 years, having taught every primary year group and served as a headteacher for 12 years in three very different settings. I’d also previously worked as a regional leader for the National College and as an LA school improvement partner, and therefore felt I had some relevant experience to offer the organisation.
I’d previously been on the receiving end of five inspections as a headteacher myself, and had always found them to be constructive experiences. I enjoyed establishing a dialogue with professionals who could compare what we were doing in our school with many other schools. More importantly, in almost every case the inspectors I encountered had taken the trouble to recognise the challenges unique to my schools.
In the main, I found that the perceptions of my colleagues towards Ofsted at the time were that they were fair. There would occasionally be instances where I couldn’t quite understand what had happened in a school to warrant the rating they received – but as I now know very well, every inspection is very different. It’s important not to judge things from the outside.
I recall the Ofsted application process as being quite rigorous and consisting of several stages, including a range of tasks carried out at an assessment centre and a timed online component that tested your ability to digest complex information. The process is largely aimed at people who already have well-developed interpersonal skills, because it can be difficult sharing hard messages with school staff.
Every member of HMI is very aware of the impact such messages can have on school leaders, but ultimately we’re in this for the children. Every child is entitled to be safe and have a good education. It’s our job to draw attention to those places that aren’t delivering that.
From my own experiences, I understand that some school leaders are operating in extremely challenging circumstances. What’s important is that we work to attain clarity regarding those issues that leaders need to deal with, rather than make things personal. After all, the vast majority of headteachers are trying their best to do a good job.
Sometimes, however, other things can get in the way, to the point where they’ll need support, possibly from an LA or MAT. I remember the former head of the National College, Steve Munby, once saying that the days of the ‘superhero head’ have gone. That was a surprise to me at the time, but the message I took from his remark was that no one person can lead and improve a school on their own.
It takes an awful lot of people – parents, governors, staff, LAs, MATs – all playing their part to ensure that schools are supporting their pupils to be the best they can be.
Under the skin
The work of an inspector requires intense concentration and involves high stakes. We have to listen carefully, take time to grasp each school’s particular set of issues and get under the skin of what makes the school tick. We have to properly understand each school’s distinct features and ensure we report accurately on their effectiveness in a way that means something to parents and pupils. Taken together, that can be challenging.
We get to work with some very talented school leaders and teachers – for me, this is an uplifting part of the role. The most rewarding moments for HMI are when we see that the leaders of a school we’ve built a relationship with have really worked their socks off to improve the quality of education they deliver and managed to move up a grade. Seeing that is such a joy, because it ultimately means that the pupils are getting a better deal.
We always try to judge a school’s performance over time. There’s plenty of external information and data we can use to help us with that, but it only represents a small part of the picture. When we enter a school, we’re looking at whether the leaders have got a handle on the quality of teaching and learning that’s taking place. It’s those processes that are our concern and the main subject of our discussions.
However, it’s important to note that we don’t grade individual lessons, nor do we expect to see teachers’ planning. Ofsted has gone to considerable lengths to try and bust some of those myths around what we expect from schools. What we actually want is to work alongside school leaders in understanding the nature of a school in the limited time that we have.
What’s surprised me most is how many opportunities there are for professional development within Ofsted. I’ve had the opportunity to inspect nurseries, primary and secondary schools, independent schools and teacher training institutions. I’ve been involved in piloting new arrangements and carrying out survey work. There are lots of avenues for broadening your horizons.
The support you receive from colleagues is phenomenal. Everyone understands the challenges and vulnerabilities you feel, and the sense of teamwork is strong. I feel lucky to have been part of the schools training team, and really enjoyed supporting and mentoring new inspectors. You don’t join Ofsted and then simply inspect; you grow within the organisation.
You quickly learn that one of the things you need to bring to the job is humility. I have friends and family who are teachers and headteachers, and they’ve kept me grounded with regards to what going through a school inspection feels like. For some, it’s very stressful, which is why we must be careful to induce as little anxiety as possible during the process.
Most inspectors are very aware of how difficult inspections can feel, hence we have many discussions and work alongside leaders throughout the process. The building of that relationship starts with the initial phone call, during which the inspector should be trying to put the headteacher’s mind at ease. In subsequent email exchanges I’ll invite questions and try to maintain an open dialogue as much as I can. I’m generally keen to accept any form of information leaders want to give me, and allow them to have their say at each stage so that they feel properly consulted.
Counsellors and magistrates
To any heads out there thinking of applying to Ofsted themselves, I’d say give it a go. We have many enthusiastic and passionate practitioners in our workforce, but we’ll always need inspectors who fully understand the daily pressures and challenges school leaders face.
School leaders perform an awful lot of roles. I remember hearing the educationalist Ted Wragg speak many years ago about the 14 roles of a headteacher, which included things like ‘counsellor’, ‘magistrate’, ‘Butlins red coat’, ‘property designer’ before you even got to their responsibility for raising the quality of teaching and learning. Working as Ofsted Inspectors, serving practitioners are well placed to understand the pressures experienced by other serving heads.
Lesley Butcher is a member of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate in Ofsted’s North East, Yorkshire and Humber region