Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition

I spend a fair amount of time reading education blogs and interacting with teachers on Twitter.  It is very clear that outside my sector the spectre of Ofsted looms large and the fear is genuine.  Ofsted’s directives of ‘progress every 15 minutes’ and preferred styles of teaching are used as sticks with which to beat teachers by those in power in Schools.  Teachers cower before their SLT and the members of the SLT are beholden to do the will of Ofsted.  Ofsted knows what outstanding teaching looks like, and woe betide any teacher who does not fall in to line with the wishes of Wilshaw.  The difference between ‘outstanding’ and ‘requires improvement’ often seems to be whether one is willing to play the game and show Ofsted what they want to see.  This week’s #SLTchat is an Ofsted special and @learningspy ‘s blog on his visit to Ofsted has broken viewing records.  It seems that the whole teaching fraternity in the maintained sector has an unhealthy obsession with the ‘O’ word.  

But I feel very much like an outsider on this one and the sensations I have described come only from the written experiences of others.  I don’t know of any member of the teaching staff at my School who feels compelled to teach in a certain style nor any member who lives in constant fear of having their lessons graded.  We had a trainer in recently to deliver a PD session on ‘outstanding teaching’; he spent a fair amount of time talking about what Ofsted like to see, and after a while people switched off, considering this to be less than relevant.  Gimmicks were high up on the agenda – all techniques designed to engage the reluctant learner – starting from the principle that no pupil is interested in working hard or learning about stuff.  They would all appreciate an easy way to memorise the names of all 20 teams in the Premier League, however.  

I felt more part of the gang when we received notification 23 days ago that our School was to be inspected (by ISI) 7 days later.  The inspection lasted for around 80 hours; it involved 15 inspectors, 154 teachers, support staff and 1100 pupils.  Here are a few things I learned from the experience:

1.  The inspection process is very stressful.  It’s been a while since I felt the need to justify (over an extended period) what I do and how I do it to anyone, but inspection week felt like nothing else.  We were last inspected in 2008 and it felt as though 6 years of progress was being put to the test.  Would the inspectors see where progress had been made?  Would they understand our vision and ambitions for the School?  

I had four separate meetings (though they felt like interviews) and by the end my preferred approach was limit the talking (Ofsted would have liked this) and to simply feed each inspector a diet of paperwork comprising exam analysis, value added data, pupil voice mechanism and appraisal process.  Clearly the documentation could explain things better than I could.

2.  An Inspection brings people together.  Pupils are proud of the School.  Teachers are proud of the School.  Both groups take a pride in the role they play in making the School successful.  A deep sense of ‘caring’ was palpable during inspection week and this had the effect of knitting the community just a little more tightly together.  

3.  It doesn’t take long to go out of touch.  I took up my current position in 2009 and when I think about how I (and my surroundings) have changed, it’s by a factor of plenty.  Changes in the educational landscape take place quickly, with change dictated both by the Government and by technology.  Some of our inspectors had been retired from the front-line from around 2009 and have been retired from the classroom for even longer.  The excitement with which one of them greeted a ceiling-mounted projector suggested that the impact of Moore’s Law had rather passed him by.

4.  Common ground is important to inspection success.  It seemed that often the things picked out for being examples of particularly good educational practice were related to things being done in the Inspectors’ Schools, or things that they were looking to embed soon.  If an initiative is to be embraced, it requires teachers to be on-side.  Little is different for the Inspectors.

5.  Inspection is a good time to reassess your own priorities.  All I really wanted to do when I entered the profession was to teach really well (actually, I think moderately competently was the ambition in the early days but I can pretend that I set my sights higher).  I am proud of all the paperwork, policies, tracking, reporting etc but it isn’t the reason I became a teacher.  I still teach a 60% timetable and I think I will find it hard to reduce this any time soon.

6.  After it’s over, does anything change?  I don’t know any School that is perfect.  There are always things to work on and to improve.  If a team of inspectors could unearth significant and systematic weaknesses that you were hitherto unaware of during the 3 days they spend with you, it suggests that your School management is highly deficient.  It’s good when no far-reaching recommendations are found, but this is accompanied by a slight sense of anti-climax. 

And following on from point 5, what happened during my lessons in inspection week?  I thought they were pretty good, as it happened, but the inspectors wouldn’t know that; no-one came to see me.

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A few thoughts on passion, motivation and inspiration

Passion: possibly the most overused word.  From personal statements to the Great British Bake-off, it seems that everyone is has a passion, whether it be for the works of Sartre or the contents of a muffin tray.  I don’t consider myself to be passionate about anything.  I am simply interested in lots of things and I suspect that most people substitute the word interest for passion simply because it sounds more impressive (in the same way that inn sounds more spooky and foreboding than pub).

Inspiration is another word misused on a regular basis, because admiration and inspiration are two different things.  I was recently asked for some advice from a friend who is a consultant to an ‘inspirational speaker’.  This speaker was keen to expand his repertoire to include Schools.  He has only recently become an inspirational speaker and the catalyst for his new career was having his leg blown off below the knee whilst serving with the British Army in Afghanistan.  I have great admiration for the British Army and I admire him as a person, after all it can’t be easy having your leg blown off.  Putting admiration to one side, I was unsure how such a background would be ideal preparation for a career in inspirational speaking?  He’s got a good story, but surely we could tell how it began and ended even before he got up on stage?  A comment from one School was that “previously pupils had complained that their History coursework was hard; now they know that it’s nothing compared to losing a limb in a roadside explosion”.  They are right of course, but simply being presented with a worse thing than the task with which you are currently struggling shouldn’t count as inspirational.  It could be argued that one’s own struggles have been put into perspective, but we’re generally aware of the natural order of things (losing a limb > troubles with coursework) without having it spelled out.

People who have been successful in one career can generally rely on a ready-made second career as an inspirational speaker.  Former Olympic athletes are a good example.  The general message seems to be that if you have a good amount of natural talent (at running or swimming, for example) and you nurture that talent for many years, often to the total exclusion of other pursuits, you have a chance at becoming good enough to challenge the people who are the best in the world in that field.  It’s difficult to disagree with the logic, but I’m not sure how inspiring I find it.  Essentially I’m being told that natural talent plus hard work plus single-minded determination gives good results.  It is logical but is it inspiring?

Would we not be better advised to take inspiration from people closer to home?  To quote a simple example, every year sees wild fluctuations in the academic performance of the Houses, despite similar exposure to all the external inspiration that the School can muster.  We are inspired (either in a positive or negative way) far more by our peers than by former Olympic middle-distance runners, war-hero amputees and even our teachers.  Our peers don’t tend to have the catchy back-story, but their attitude to work and life impacts upon us on a day by day basis.  No man is an island; the effect of those around us on our performance is significant.

We can take inspiration from a variety of people, but I much prefer the idea of self-motivation to motivation from an external source.  It is our duty to be self-motivated.  We should take a pride in being motivated to be the best we can be in all that we do.  I often hear that grade predictions act to motivate or demotivate pupils.  But motivation comes from within.  If you are demotivated you should look inwards to find out why rather than blaming external factors.  If your predictions are high, you’ve got high targets to aim for.  If your predictions are low, you’ve got something to beat to prove the doubters wrong. 

So, to summarise: be inspired by those close to you; have admiration for those who are successful; be self-motivated; be passionate (if that’s really what you mean) and be interested (because that’s what you probably mean).  No-one should really be passionate about bakery products, unless you’re Marcel Proust.