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22 April 2024

Monday Briefing: Can't Stop

Monday Briefing: Cant Stop

I have always liked to use analogies, as far back as I remember. 

Not only does it help with the process of teaching by clarifying explanations of themes or events when students have to use empathy to replicate historical choices, but it fine tunes my thought process when considering how best to embed the learning.

When I left my previous school, some staff clubbed together to get me a range of ‘tongue in cheek’ presents. One of the gifts was a book called ‘Analogies for beginners’ - a sarcastic dig at my approach.

 

Earlier in the year, the College, and myself, personally, went through a fairly substantial challenge. I’ve not been able to discuss it officially up to now, but, as with most things, providing an analogy to explain the process, and how I felt throughout, seems to make sense to me.

I’m speaking about the ISI inspection which took place at the College from the 6th to the 8th February.

Schools and Colleges within the independent sector, according to the new framework, are inspected once every three years on five key areas:

- Leadership, Management and Governance

- Quality of education, training and recreation

- Pupils’ physical and mental health and emotional wellbeing

- Pupils’ social and economic education and contribution to society

- Safeguarding

A team of inspectors visit the institution in question over a two and a half day period, from Tuesday-Thursday, and use a range of data, interviews and observations to triangulate findings to judge whether the standards above are met.

A headteacher receives a call early on a Monday morning - which many allude to as the ‘dreaded call’ to inform them that the inspectors are coming to visit.

In many ways, this call acts as a warning that scrutiny, or in analogous terms, a tidal wave is on the way. I feel it’s important to stress that a tidal wave does not need to be a bad thing. Yes, it is powerful and stressful. Yes, you need to prepare to get a little wet when dealing with it. 

But the resilience developed in dealing with it can be life affirming, confidence enhancing and informative - making clear, or clearer, the areas which need to be addressed.

A tidal wave could bring ruin to an area - but only if that area was poorly built and had flimsy infrastructure. What the tidal wave of an inspection brings to an institution which is well constructed, and, as a community, faces it together - is somewhat of a cleansing, reassuring nature.

The fact of the matter is that everything needs water to grow and develop. I remember watching a completely unrealistic scene in the Ridley Scott film ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ where blacksmith turned knight turned environmental specialist Balion, played by Orlando Bloom, turned his newly inherited land in the Middle East from a desert into something approaching paradise on Earth. 

This, like much of the film, was rather historically inaccurate - but it got across a powerful point. 

He harnessed the positive power of water to make everything on his land better - for the entire community. People could now grow crops, drink when they needed to and ensure that their livestock were hydrated.

When the tidal wave came, I was very keen to act in a similar manner - to use the scrutiny in order to enhance our offering. Our ‘flood defences’ or the daily work of protecting, safeguarding and empowering all of the people connected to the College, would be put to the test - but I was confident that they would hold up well.

As a leader of an institution who faces such a challenge, I believe that there are three potential approaches to employ:

The Lighthouse Keeper: takes the call, reports the incoming emergency, and then says to everyone, from their high, safe tower, that they need to now fend for themselves.

The Mayor: In charge, and directive, he/she tells everyone what the plan is and what they must do to the letter. This can go wrong (Jaws - ‘it’s safe to go in the water’) or right (Ghostbusters - ‘get me the Ghostbusters!’)

The Town Planner: Has planned a long term, collaborative strategy which has been shared with everyone who has helped built the town (or in our case, the staff, students and parents who have made the community what it is)

Of course, with these approaches comes several questions:

- Where are the weaknesses - and where could pools and flooding develop which we are going to need to sort out?

- Is the town community empowered enough to face what is coming?

- Are they all united in their belief in what the institution is trying to do?

- Are they all ‘together’ and supportive of one another?

And, of course, what about me:

- Am I responsive enough?

- Who can I count on to perform under pressure?

- Who will go the extra mile and really ‘muck in’ (who do I want in the trenches with me)?

I have always favoured the Town Planner’ approach. Whilst I am the architect of the College vision, and I plot the route we are going and determine the pace, I can’t do it all. There are several committed and strong members of staff who are ‘with me’ and can do a better job than me in certain aspects. To pick out three examples of this:

Laura, the Vice Principal and Senco, has an outstanding approach to not only the support of students with additional needs, but also in carrying out her role as DSL.

Catherine, the Office Manager, is far more meticulous than I when it comes to record keeping, and her management of staff records and our Single Central Register is impeccable, alongside all of the other areas she looks after.

James, the Assistant Principal and Head of GCSE, has a tremendously innovative approach to developing strategy by working on data to compile intervention strategies.

For all three of these staff members, I don’t even need to ask them to do things - they inherently know what to do because they are so good at their jobs.

So my role in all of this is to take care of what I do to a high standard, but also to allow staff to grow, develop and drive forward their areas. A lighthouse keeper couldn’t do that, and only the very best of mayors would do so, in amongst their ceremonial obligations. Speaking to people on a level they’d like to be spoken to - and a town planner is the best example I can think of in these terms, gives the best chance of success. Everyone wants the town to be successful. It is the job of the town planner to facilitate that success.

And so, to the inspection itself.

Well, I must firstly say that the inspection team showed tremendous professionalism throughout, with a keen interest in terms of the mental wellbeing of all key players in the inspection. Whilst questions were probing and the examination was forensic, the scrutiny was carried out carefully and with consideration for the students, staff and governors who were spoken to.

I recall, prior to the inspection, being given a really wonderful piece of advice by Ed Bond, Head at Holmwood House, who imparted a very simple phrase: ‘Let the students shine.’

I grasped onto this advice wholeheartedly.   

Students were front and centre in the inspection - and they were quick to explain just how much the College meant to them, detailing the work they have been proud to complete, as well as the transformation in confidence which has come from being part of the College community, true of so many of them.

I was also immensely keen to express just how proud I am to be Principal of the College. It was remarked upon that the incredibly high levels of care came across abundantly from minute 1 of the inspection - and that made me incredibly pleased.

Whilst the inspectors pointed out some well reasoned guidelines for improvement, in Physical Education and Careers Provision for younger students, they were, on the whole, incredibly impressed with what the College does for the students who come here.

It was extremely gratifying to read the comments made by the inspection team in the report which came to me just before the Easter Holidays. Our high estimations of the College were confirmed when the inspectors agreed that: 

“A supportive atmosphere motivates many pupils to achieve in their chosen courses, surpassing outcomes predicted by standardised baseline data.”

“Pupils interact constructively with both peers and staff, reflecting the pervasive atmosphere of mutual respect. Staff apply sanctions judiciously, taking into account the specific needs of pupils.”

“Leaders and teachers foster a school culture that is accepting and inclusive.”

“Teachers develop expertise which they successfully apply and readily share with each other in order to promote the best outcome for each individual pupil. Teaching engenders a spirit of tolerance and respect.”

“Rigorous academic standards and high expectations are consistent across all subjects. Pupils are encouraged to work to the best of their ability. They are proud of their achievements and take up opportunities to extend their learning.”

“Pupils develop high self-esteem and self-confidence as a result of positive and caring relationships with staff who understand their personal, social and emotional needs.”

“Pupils demonstrate resilience and determination in their work and behaviour. They respond positively to the calm, flexible atmosphere in the school and all make good progress, with some obtaining offers at prestigious universities to study courses such as economics, dentistry, and computer science.”

So whilst the process can indeed be daunting, planning, effort and execution of priorities over a sustained period of time means that one can approach scrutiny with confidence. Having belief and conviction in the vision and processes which the College has adhered to over the last few years has brought us to the position we are in - that of being a crucial, transformative part of the lives of the students who are fortunate enough to come here.

The full report can be read by following this link: https://www.ealingindependentcollege.com/our-college-inspection-reports

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