Last week my school underwent a two day review by our local authority with the remit of finding any last minute issues as we await our imminent Ofsted inspection. Part of me felt a tad sceptical about undergoing a review; essentially, my thoughts were ‘Is it worth getting people stressed out to tell us what we already know?’ On the other hand, we have been on a remarkable path since we were inspected at the end of July 2013 and there is so much to celebrate. My head decided the extra stress was worth it but made it clear that SLT were to shoulder most of the stress and to make sure teachers were not affected too badly by our visitors. In reality though, some teachers did begin to stress about their classes, their books, if they were doing the right thing, if they were going to be graded. It’s moments like these where I begin to feel the pressure because I’ve spent so long trying to change the staff culture at my school where staff feel comfortable being observed and recognising that we are all part of a bigger picture when we all want to improve our practice. There has been an exceptional shift in how we do things at school. When Ofsted last visited us, there was no staff Book Club, no coaching, no action research, no Open Classroom fortnight to name but a few of the initiatives we have committed to being part of as a school. Yet all it takes is for a formal, two day visit from external professionals to set the school on edge again. I suppose it’s because we all want to prove so badly that we are better than the ‘requires improvement’ badge we were given last time around. That day hurt us. We were left reeling. Everything we thought we were good at seemed to count for little and everything we thought we had issues with were magnified and exposed left, right and centre. So why put staff through another gruelling test?
The local authority review turned out to be an excellent two days for different reasons. First, the three professionals who arrived for the two days were courteous around site and considered in their questions. Don’t get me wrong: it was a tough two days but at no point did I feel that there was an agenda or the concerns that they raised were unwarranted. They seemed to genuinely be interested in what we’d been doing as a school to improve outcomes for all students and didn’t twist our words. All we can do is hope for a fair shot when the real inspection takes place – fingers crossed!
So what were our takeaways from the review?
Data is important but you need to tell the story.
I found this message really comforting. Although I’ve worked hard over the past year to get better at using data, I still think it is only a snapshot of what’s really going on in a school. Of equal importance is to know what it’s like to be a student at our school – is it a place where teachers want the best for the students and are prepared to put in the hard work to support all of the students to make good progress? In the morning session, our head and deputies went into the Achievement meeting weighed down by enough realms of data to make our large army of photocopiers cry! As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, my head is a Maths whizz so loves data: in his own words ‘Debbie: data is my life’! This time round, we have a lot more greens to point out on Raise Online and internal data also shows we are closing gaps between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students. The school achieved its best results ever last summer, despite the stresses of the English GCSE changes. All of this data had become a comforting blanket which we as an SLT have been wrapping ourselves in: surely we must be better now because the data says so. Yet, it wasn’t enough for these professional reviewing us. They wanted to know the story behind the data and – most importantly – what decisions had leaders made to ensure that our approach was accelerating student outcomes as quickly as possible. And were we confident that this year’s results would be as good or better than what we achieved last summer.
What did we learn from this meeting? You can’t just present the data and keep your fingers crossed. You have to have a story to sell and make sure it’s a convincing one.
It’s not just about SLT; it’s about your middle leaders too.
‘Leadership and management’ isn’t just the bods that sit around the SLT table every Tuesday night; it’s the engine room of the school – the middle leaders. In fact – and I hope my head doesn’t see this! – our middle leaders are more important than us. Why? Because they are the ones who make the change happen. It doesn’t matter how great an idea is, if middle leaders don’t buy into it, then the idea is doomed. In the last inspection, we were heavily criticised for a lack of consistency amongst middle leaders in quality assurance procedures and implementing school policies. Now it would be easy to say ‘bloody middle leaders not doing the right thing’ but that would be missing the point. It’s not that middle leaders don’t want to do a good job – it’s that we as an SLT were not helping them to do so. Too many mixed messages; too many ideas too quickly; too many competing priorities; too many impossible deadlines. Something has to give: and so it did. Consistency. Since the Ofsted inspection, we have worked hard to ensure that our messages are clear so that they can be supported by the middle leaders. We can’t do everything so we have to put our necks out and make a choice about what matters most. In our case, what matters most is how we mark and assess students, how we monitor and intervene with Pupil Premium students (more on this later) and how we challenge all of our students in a mixed ability setting.
What did we learn from the middle leaders meeting? Anything SLT says is happening will be checked in other meetings to see if it is really happening. If what SLT say is mirrored in the middle leaders meeting and then students recognise it is happening in their classes, you’re onto a winner.
Pupil Premium students are not a homogeneous group.
During the two days, I observed lessons with one of the visitors who is an ex-head, had my own A Level lesson observed, and was interviewed on teaching and learning as well as Pupil Premium. In 10 years of teaching, nothing has come close to the pressure I felt in the Pupil Premium interview. It is our worst performing area as a school and there’s no point trying to hide it. We have a history of these students not doing as well as they should. This year, at my request, I have taken over Pupil Premium and nothing has given me more sleepless nights. It is such a huge area and there are no easy answers. Previously, we have been guilty of focusing too much of our attention and funding on pastoral initiatives which have had limited impact on the outcomes of Pupil Premium students. I knew we needed to focus more on curriculum and what we can do in the classroom but where to start?! The first step was to employ a Pupil Premium coordinator to work alongside me in getting into classrooms and see what is going on for these students. Why are they not making the same progress as their peers despite sitting in the same classrooms? Yes, there are environmental and social factors to take into consideration but we can’t do much about that so we can only focus on things we have the capacity to change.
After appointing a Pupil Premium coordinator, both of us spent a long time getting our heads around current research and the EEF toolkit to decide what we should do as a school. Now, everything we do for Pupil Premium students are based upon our four key drivers: improving literacy; increasing resilience; developing metacognition and increasing cultural capital. By the end of the first month back after the summer holidays, we decided on a few important changes. First of all, we needed a system that would enable us to easily track all of the interventions that were taking place for Pupil Premium students. So much was going on but did we have any idea if they were having an impact? Secondly, we needed to create time for Year Leaders to speak to heads of departments about the lack of progress some of our Pupil Premium students were making and work together and use everyone’s expertise to decide the best way forward. So was born our Progress Review Meetings. Thirdly, we needed to look at crossovers with Pupil Premium; who is PP and SEND or PP and an accelerated learner (our version of G&T)? Data shows students who are Pupil Premium and enter our school at a level 4c have the least chance of making good progress – why is that? Well, this is the crossroads point for many students. If they were a level 3, they would have a different pathway to access but at 4c, you might just miss out. You’ve got your level 4 so you’re fine but, in truth, many of these students learnt how to get a 4c in a particular format in a narrow range of core subjects but that doesn’t mean they’re accessing the content of History and Geography lessons without it being a real struggle for them. Finally, we introduced a combination of learning walks and academic mentoring for all PP students who are at risk of underachieving to get to know these students and begin to form a relationship with parents.
What did we learn from the Pupil Premium interview? If you’re in an interview about a weak are of your school, get your key headlines out nice and early into the meeting and always keep referring back to the impact of everything you do. Even if some initiatives haven’t worked, own up to it and discuss why they didn’t work and what you’ve done to put it right.
Your ethos and beliefs about teaching are highlighted by how you run your CPD programme.
One of the best moments of the two days was hearing that our approach to CPD is having an impact on teacher quality. I thought this was the case but it’s good to hear that view echoed by external visitors. Our professional development package of coaching, joining NTEN and carrying out Lesson Study, introducing departmental Lead Learners and running a staff Book Club demonstrated clearly our intentions towards developing every single member of our teaching and non-teaching staff. The visitors were impressed by our commitment to research and using internal expertise to improve teaching standards. In addition to this, we have an ‘Elthorne Way’ of teaching; this is not a strait-jacket or a step by step guide of how to teach –far from it! Plus, we’d never get away with it on a school where nearly 2/3 of our teachers are on the upper pay scale! Rather, it is a series of statements about what Elthorne teachers agree constitutes great teaching and the impact this has on the experience students have in the classroom. This ‘Elthorne Way’, combined with our use of The Teachers’ Standards, are what we use to evaluate teacher quality. There is not an Ofsted framework in sight – a bold step for a school that ‘Requires Improvement’.
What did we learn from the teaching and learning interview? Forget about Ofsted documentation and decide amongst yourselves what you want to see and hear happening in your classrooms. Once you’ve decided on this, spend as much time supporting teachers to collaborate with each other to develop their practice.
So what was the verdict? Our review believes that we are in a strong position to move from Requires Improvement to Good at our next inspection as long as we continue to work towards the goals and milestones we’ve set ourselves. After a year and a half working in the shadow of a brutal inspection, their visit can’t come soon enough.