An inspector called

Last month we had a visit from Ofsted. Here is an extract from the diary entry I wrote the weekend immediately after the inspection which, now that the official inspection report is out, I feel able to share…

Diary entry from March 2016:

Most people get a phased return to work following illness; I got a week-long Ofsted inspection. I returned home late on Friday night after a week spent living out of a suitcase. My five-year-old daughter insisted on waiting up for me. Apparently, she’d sat by the window for three hours as I crawled up the M1 just so she could wave to me as I pulled onto the drive. One day, I’ll take her in my arms and tell her how every one of the 10,800 seconds she spent staring into the darkness was worth its weight in gold just to see her smile after a sleepless, stressful week.

I stayed in a hotel next to one of our campuses. After breakfast (my only meal of the day), I met my inspector and spent the day with him, observing lessons, being interrogated, walking the floor, being interrogated, meeting colleagues, being interrogated, exploring our systems, and ‘negotiating’ the content and tone of the nightly summary feedback. My only respite from this routine came in the form of meetings with other inspectors and briefings with members of my team. Each evening, I retired to my room to prepare the next day’s schedule and compile additional evidence or revise for key meetings. For five days the outside world ceased to exist. I lived and breathed Ofsted.

I’ve written about leadership plenty of times before and I’ve always come to the same conclusion: the secret of great leadership is empowerment – that is to say, the purpose of a leader is to build leadership capacity in his or her team. Call it what you will: delegation, succession planning, sustainable leadership; it’s essentially about making yourself dispensable.

Over the last few months whilst I’ve been in and out of college through illness, my leadership team has been amazing, proving I have made myself quite dispensable. They’ve simply got on and done it without me. In fact, they’re done so well without me, I’m starting to wonder if they need me at all!

The first thing I asked my team when I returned to work was, ‘What do you need me to do? What decisions have been made that you need me to try reverse? What decisions haven’t been made that you now need me to make urgently?’ Their lists were surprisingly short. It’s a testament, I think, to the fact that we have a shared vision – we all agree with our direction of travel, we know what we want to achieve and know how to achieve it, and they have ploughed on with our plan and done me very proud.

To begin with, they’d phone or email me to ask me what I thought or to check I was happy with their proposals. But my answer was always the same: if that’s what you think is the right thing to do, then just do it, I trust your judgment. Eventually, they stopped asking and started doing. My trust in them has been repaid tenfold.

During the week of inspection, my leadership team and their teams (amongst whom I count – though this is by no means an exhaustive list – 4 senior leaders, 7 Learning and Teaching Managers, 18 Teaching and Learning Coaches, 11 Learning Technologists, and 16 Learning Resource Centre staff, all supporting over 250 teachers, 32 Assessors, 17 Personal Coaches and 17 Inclusion and Support Specialists who, in turn, support over 20,000 students) were fantastic. In fact, I’ve run out of superlatives for them. And, of course, it’s not just during the week of inspection that they were so great because for those four days they just continued doing what they’ve been doing for the past two years or so since our last inspection. And that, for me, is the best thing about last week…

Inspectors found us as we really are all day, every day. We didn’t play ‘the inspection game’. We didn’t change the way we worked in order to impress Ofsted. We didn’t start writing lesson plans or teaching in a different way, sounding bells and whistles. We didn’t invent data or send surly students off site. We didn’t have to. We had nothing to hide and everything to show. Indeed, the only data that needed massaging last week were the heart rate and blood pressure readings I have to send to my cardiologist for him to allow me to keep working.

But don’t just take my word for it. Steve, one of our Teaching and Learning Coaches, emailed me earlier this week and said this: “The biggest change in my area was the mental approach to quality delivery every day and not just a showcase lesson when required to appease inspectors. That attitude has driven the quality of teaching, learning and assessment to improve and is a key factor in the outcomes [for students] and value added [scores] rising so dramatically”. He went on to describe some colleagues he has supported through coaching this year and said that during the week of inspection they had “never felt so confident and happy with how they are teaching and it is a new lease of life…exactly the culture [we wanted] to create”… And that culture is one in which we “improve together.”

It took my inspector a day or so to believe me when I said: we’ve nothing to hide – go where you want, see what you want. Without going into details, we argued about whether it would have been helpful to have insisted on all our teachers having lesson plans to help inspectors on their ‘walk-throughs’ and I gave a – shall we say – “very robust” response. We’re not in it for Ofsted, we’re in it for our learners. I’m not interested in making inspectors’ lives easy especially if that makes our teachers’ lives harder. Inspection is stressful enough without adding a burden of bureaucracy. My message to our teachers was clear: the week of inspection is like any other week. Do what you always do. And you’ll do us proud. And they did.

The fact our inspection went so well because inspectors saw us as we really are (not because we played the game) gives me great comfort and confidence. What we do day in day out is clearly working. We’ve now had an external verification (whatever you might think of the validity of the source) of what we already knew – that we have achieved our mission: to achieve excellence for every learner every day.

And so now the next leg of the journey can start…

Some highlights from the inspection report:

The inspection report said “Leaders have rapidly improved the provision [and] teaching and learning are good [whilst] provision for high-needs learners is outstanding. The college provides high-quality facilities for teaching and learning. Learners enjoy their time at the college and more of them are choosing to study here and [are] succeeding.” Inspectors said that leadership and management was good and that leaders’ “actions for improvement rapidly improved outcomes, quality systems, and teaching, learning and assessment, which are all now good”. They went on to say that “Teaching staff are well qualified and benefit from good quality training and development. Managers closely monitor performance and rapidly implement actions to improve teaching, learning and assessment where necessary, [and as a result they] have eradicated the most significant achievement gaps. Teachers promote equality and diversity well. Provision for learners with high needs is outstanding.”

Inspectors said that the quality of teaching, learning and assessment is good. “Managers have successfully implemented a range of measures since the last inspection to improve the quality of provision. Teachers are well qualified and passionate about their work. They set high expectations for themselves and for their learners [and] are positive role models. Teachers’ support for learners is individualised and challenges learners to achieve their qualification. They ensure that learners remain fully engaged and enjoy their learning. Teachers integrate English and mathematics well [and] many teachers use technology well to promote learning. Learning outside the classroom is good…and learners participate in a wide range of enrichment activities which contribute to learners’ progress and their personal development. Assessment is accurate and teachers make good use of learners’ self-reflection and peer assessment to drive improvement and prepare learners for success in higher education or future work. Progress monitoring and tracking of learners’ progress is good. Teachers have a wide repertoire of teaching methods and many are confident to adapt tasks and activities to better engage and motivate learners.”

Inspectors said that personal development, behaviour and welfare are good and that the college “provides a positive learning environment that supports and nurtures learners. Learners across all provision types and age groups behave very well. They show respect for each other and for their teachers in class and during practical activities. Teachers use a very effective range of strategies to help learners with high needs manage their emotions and behaviour. As a result, these learners feel well supported and more able to contribute to the life of the college. Overall attendance and punctuality are good. Managers monitor attendance rigorously and, as a consequence, attendance has improved over the last two years. College managers have established a very extensive and well-attended enrichment curriculum for learners, which helps them to develop valuable personal, social and employability skills.”

Finally, inspectors said that outcomes for learners are good. “Learners enjoy their time at the college and more of them are choosing to study at Derby College and succeeding. Leaders’ analysis of destination data for learners on study programmes shows that the large majority progress into employment, further education or training and that apprentices remain in work and often benefit from promotion and enhanced responsibilities. Apprenticeship staff regularly monitor the progress of learners to ensure that they do not fall behind with their studies. The tracking and monitoring of learners’ progress on study programmes and on part-time adult learning programmes is very good. An electronic individual learning plan very accurately monitors progress for each learner, and managers scrutinise this to identify learners at risk of not achieving and to arrange prompt intervention. The monitoring of the progress and achievement of high-needs learners is outstanding. College managers regularly scrutinise retention and achievement data to identify and eradicate differences in achievement between groups of learners. As a result, differences in performance among the majority of groups of learners on most programmes have disappeared. Overall success rates for learners aged 16 to 19 on study programmes rose markedly in 2014/15 and are now good. Achievement of GCSE English and mathematics at grades A* to C also improved significantly and is now above the sector average. Current learners make good progress on all aspects of their study programme. Learners on full-time level 3 vocational courses achieve well in relation to their starting points. Overall outcomes for adult learners have improved significantly over the last two years and are now good. Learners with high needs on mainstream programmes make excellent progress. Outcomes for learners on the college’s substantial AS- and A-level programmes improved in 2014/15 and are now in line with those of similar colleges. Overall outcomes for apprentices in 2014/15 were slightly above national rates, including in subcontracted provision. The proportion who completed within the planned timescales was very good, especially for apprentices aged 19 and over.”

The next leg:

I’ve already written a newsletter for our community of Teaching and Learning Coaches which sets out where we go from here and outlines our priorities, based in part on the areas for improvement in the Ofsted report.  Here is the introduction to that newsletter…

Dear Colleagues

Thank you for all your hard work over the last two years as we’ve improved the quality of our provision, outcomes for our learners, and our Ofsted grade. Last month’s inspection was a really positive experience and the outcome – “good” with outstanding features – was what we had hoped it would be.

Inspectors praised our staff throughout and were impressed by the speed with which we had turned our college around. At the end of this newsletter I have summarised the actions we took to get us to ‘good’ and have listed our current strengths as I see them. I’ve no doubt that without your continued commitment to improving teaching, learning and assessment we wouldn’t have achieved this excellent outcome – so well done and, again, thank you.  I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of you all and how lucky I am to call you my team.

The best part of the inspection ‘afterglow’ is the excitement I now feel as we embark on the next leg of the journey. This inspection result – long-awaited though it was – has finally given us the time and freedom we need to experiment and take risks in the classroom. My promise to our teachers now, therefore, is that we will focus on pedagogy not paperwork. The journey to ‘good’, as you know, was about systems and structures, policies and procedures; it was, necessarily I think, about consistency and compliance. But the journey to ‘outstanding’ must now be about greater autonomy. Allow me to explain further…

I think colleges need to tighten up to be ‘good’ but loosen to be ‘outstanding’…

The journey to ‘good’ is about building, often from the foundations up, a culture of high expectations, aspirations, and motivation. Only once a college has created this culture and is therefore ‘good’ can it begin to empower its staff to take risks and to become more autonomous and independent. In short, over the last two years we have had to create systems of collaboration and compliance, we have had to establish a set of common working practices and then make sure every teacher follows it. To quote Roy Blatchford in The Restless School, “the best [colleges]…recognise the importance of high levels of quality control to secure good provision, evolving into higher levels of quality assurance. Thus a whole-[college] culture of excellence is created, within which teachers and students feel empowered to take measured risks.”

We did this and it worked. So now…

The journey to ‘outstanding’ is about empowerment. It is about giving our high-performing teachers – working within the culture of high expectations, aspirations, and motivation we’ve created – the freedom and authority they need in order to be willing to take risks, to try new things in the classroom, and to ‘go their own way’. In short, we now need to empower our staff with autonomy. We need, in the words of Roy Blatchford again, to liberate our teachers to be mavericks because the “accomplished, freed teacher, comfortable in her own knowledge of subject matter, who is able to master and manage high quality digression, without fear of criticism of being off syllabus” leads to fine learning. And I, for one, am excited by the thought of the journey ahead and look forward to working more closely with you all on it.

You can read the full newsletter by clicking on the image below:



Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley



3 responses to “An inspector called

  1. Pingback: The end is also the beginning… | Bromley Education | be inspired·

  2. Pingback: A leap of faith: my year of self-employment | Bromley Education | be inspired·

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