Ofsted came to my school again in October 2021. As an Outstanding school we were not expecting it. It had been five years since the previous inspection. In fact, there were many local schools which hadn’t had inspections for well over a decade that we expected to get the call before us.
It was a section 8. Supposedly a light touch but it didn’t feel that way. It wasn’t the pressure to retain our Outstanding judgement that caused the stress. It was the whole process.
As an experienced head, I’ve come to realise that it’s more important to provide every child with what I truly believe to be a great education that motivates me and the staff at my school. The Outstanding badge is nice but doesn’t make the job any easier or any more rewarding. In many ways Outstanding is an albatross because prospective parents can often take it to mean what they want it to.
I have only ever wanted my school to be great. I know it is and if Ofsted agrees then that’s nice, but it has never been my aim to achieve Outstanding. I think being ‘great’ in the eyes of children and families is the thing to aim for.
The pressure came from the process. It felt brutal and demoralising; at times, my staff felt like it was all going wrong. The stress was as overwhelming as it was unnecessary, and I never want that to happen again.
The real pressure of getting through the pandemic, of losing staff because of budget cuts, of meeting the complex needs of increasing numbers of children with SEND; these are the things that keep me awake. Ofsted is a moment in time. It shouldn’t be the thing that pushes, staff, heads and senior leaders over the edge. But increasingly it is.
The framework is a killer.
Ofsted could and should be better. It’s right that as public servants spending public money, we are held to account for what we do. We owe it to the children, their families, and our communities to give them the best. We must be held accountable for that. But not in a threatening way. It should be supportive, developmental, and constructive. The one-word Ofsted judgement should be a thing of the past. It’s misleading to categorise a school with one word or two. Schools and children are too important for that. Just like the safeguarding judgement, schools should be effective or ineffective. If they are effective the report should describe what the school does well; what it can offer to other schools and what it could do better. The report should be a celebration, not a snapshot. If it’s ineffective it should get the support it needs to improve, not criticism and vilification.
Ofsted could be a force for good, for reflection and improvement. It shouldn't be a scary intimidating thing. There is no need. It’s time to trust the professionals who lead and teach in our schools. It’s time to reform Ofsted and make it work for children.
John Hayes is an NEU Leadership member and headteacher of a primary school in London.