11 May 2021

The Monday Briefing: All Together Now

The Monday Briefing: All Together Now

Earlier this year, I put myself forward for a voluntary post as Vice Chair within the London North Committee of the Independent Schools Association. Expecting a creditable loss in the vote for the role, I was pleasantly surprised when I was successfully awarded the position.

This occurrence may, of course, beg the following questions: 

What is the Independent Schools Association? 

What, for that matter, is an independent school?

And why would I want to be involved in such an undertaking, when I’m already very busy?

In effect, the independent school equivalent of Ofsted, ISA, a constituent part of the Independent Schools Council, is a body which supports and, through another arm of the organisation, the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI), monitors the quality of provision across schools independent of the state sector, which are overseen by a board of governors rather than a private benefactor.

Although I’m in my first year as Principal, and new to many aspects of leadership within an education setting, I feel that I’ve got a huge amount to give to colleagues within the profession who may be experiencing the same stage in their career, or are about to take on the leadership of a school or college. I’m very much of the opinion too, that the education sector needs to work together, in a spirit of give and take, in order to improve the life chances of those most important within it - the students.

The first committee meeting, which took place last week, set the ball rolling on doing just that and I immediately felt that the newly appointed cohesive group can bring progressive change.

In preparation for the meeting, my mind was cast back to past experiences with such bodies, of which I’ve had many in my career.

Joining a school in Milton Keynes in my first year of teaching, it had been put into ‘Special Measures’. This meant that Ofsted, in the course of a recent inspection, deemed that the school was not fulfilling the necessary requirements to enable the expected levels of progress within the students. I recall staff morale being at rock bottom, and a pervading sense of fear throughout the corridors linked to when the next ‘Monitoring’ visit would come by specialised inspectors. This would trigger a run of sleepless nights, marking furiously and putting together extensive lesson plans set out to impress the visitors. It wasn’t what one would call the perfect introduction to the profession, but I’m grateful for my four years there. It embedded within me a work ethic to ensure that high standards are in place as my norm. Through a great deal of hard work, the school managed to achieve a ‘Good’ grading, and everything seemed right with the world in the days following that judgement.

My next post was as a Head of Department in a rural setting. The school had been awarded ‘Outstanding’ status, and the award was clearly merited. My four years spent there saw consistently excellent behaviour and high student standards in terms of results. Ofsted did not visit in my time there, but I recall that the framework for inspections changed. In an effort to get the staff ready for this, they arranged a ‘mock’ inspection, and again, despite the overwhelmingly pleasant learning culture which had been set in place for a very long time, negative emotions were triggered by prospect. Excellent teachers started to doubt their proven approaches and a tremendous set of staff, already working at full tilt, tried to push things even further. I don’t recall the mock visit being particularly useful or providing much in the way of guidance for improvement. The school remains ‘Outstanding’, and this term is well deserved. I still look back on it as one of the best environments for teaching in my career.

Moving on, this time to Head of Faculty, I joined another school, termed as ‘Outstanding’. In a slightly different vein, this school had worked its way up from ‘Special Measures’ within five years, and was rightfully proud of such an achievement. The term became synonymous with everything the school did, and it wanted to be defined by it as much as possible. In fact, it seemed something of an obsession. When results took a dip, and inspectors visited to reevaluate, it already seemed clear to me that the ‘Outstanding’ moniker, of which the school was so keen to hold, was gone - results had to be excellent for a school to be outstanding. The school was moved into a category of Requires Improvement, and, through no fault of their own, the current students were left to wonder why they were being held to account on the basis of the results of previous students, why their school was a less happy place to be, and why many of their favourite teachers were starting to leave.

Of course, there is an awful more to running a school than an inspection result - a snapshot determined within a few days - but that inspection result can carry an incredible amount of weight. It is often the first thing which a prospective parent looks at when deciding their child’s educational future, or that a teacher reads when applying for a post with that school. It’s only in immersing oneself in the culture and climate of a school that one can really judge its merits, and this is where my experience of an ISI inspection carries far more memories of being a worthwhile developmental experience. Of course, I must include the caveat that I’ve not been part of the leadership team at any of my previous schools going through Ofsted visits, and so I was fully focused on classroom teaching and departmental responsibilities. Nonetheless, I found the entire process of an ISI inspection geared towards improving a school incrementally, and working with staff in schools to do so.

To give a basic explanation of their differences, both ISI and Ofsted report on independent schools’ compliance with the Independent School Standards Regulations. For example, ISI uses excellent, good, sound and unsatisfactory and Ofsted uses outstanding, good, requires improvement and inadequate. Another difference is that ISI inspection teams largely consist of practising senior leaders currently working in ISC schools, whereas Ofsted inspectors have not necessarily run a school. This means ISI inspectors are realistic and knowledgeable about the challenges for individual schools and their reports are more nuanced.  For example, ISI inspectors judge ISC schools against the higher standards of academic achievement and extracurricular activities in the sector as a whole as well as against national norms.

There is an article written by someone who has undergone a similar transtition, which compares the approaches of the two. Despite being somewhat romanticised, it is closer to fact than fiction.

ISI reports stand out for the attention they give to whether a school meets its own aims. These tend to be more specific to the school and fuller than in the state sector. In other words, ISI inspections are tailoring their report around what the school says it is doing rather than what the state thinks it should be doing.

And so, what do I think we should be doing as part of the London North Committee?

There is an incredible array of talent across independent schools in the region, and that needs to be tapped into and shared where possible, in a spirit of give and take, and in congruence with the wider ISA goals of training and development. We have embarked on putting together such a process, where schools and colleges can identify areas of strength and potential issues which require CPD or guidance from those more experienced. The pandemic has made clear just how important support is for all staff. We are fortunate to have this through Bellevue Education. Many independent schools, out on their own, can not count on such an arrangement. There were several instances I can identify from the last year where problems were new: Covid testing; Increased safety measures and risk assessments; the administration of Teacher Assessed Grades and the moderation and standardisation which goes along with that. Having to tackle such monumental tasks is only achievable through the adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved.’ Using now universally used video conferencing to connect staff makes such a plan possible. 

From my perspective, having help on hand and a willing ear to discuss matters made me feel not just that I could do my job, but do it well. If we can create a similar framework of support and a ‘go-to’ directory of best practice, we can help those most in need to improve the provision for those most important - the students themselves.

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