Educators across all sectors in the UK talk about ‘surviving Ofsted’ and are generous in offering self-help. But what about enjoying Ofsted? Enjoyment is a verb that’s applied more to learning than to teaching, as if somewhere along the line educators sacrificed their right to be happy, in pursuit of ‘Outcomes for Learners’.
I had the most enjoyable week of my working life and that’s not because of the outcome of our recent Ofsted inspection because we don’t officially know that yet (got a week of nail-biting ahead of us). It didn’t start well: tears of self-pity and single-parent guilt as my son and I cut short our Edinburgh trip after a phone call received in Greyfriars Kirkyard. But from the first meeting of the TeamNorthern organising committee, to waking up ten days later with this blog half-written in my head – and at all points in between – it’s been a blast.
What’s the secret? Well it’s not innate ‘specialness’. People often tell me how lucky I am to work at Northern College and I tell them I work my backside off for the privilege. It’s not bricks and mortar that form the heart of an organisation, however beautifully they are constructed, it’s the people. We’re no more immune than anyone else to the griping negativities of adult education. Like all public servants we’ve been doing ‘more for less’ for a long time now and it takes its toll on energy, hopefulness and staff morale. Envying the beauty of our workplace, I get that, but assuming things are innately better for us because of our gorgeous surroundings can be painful to hear on a bad day.
And yet…there was never a second this week when rising to the challenge of Ofsted con brio was not an option. I’ve written elsewhere recently about collectivism and there’s something about that concept which is built into the very foundations of Northern College, woven through its trade union education programme, its community outreach work, its diversity mission and regeneration past. As the poster of Che got an extra polish, we all stepped up, supported one another, whooped at every success, lifted colleagues who felt a little down. Our corridors echoed with cheerful greetings, we high fived and hugged, we offered and accepted help. There was a palpable sense of “Bring It On”. Why?
1. Brilliant Leadership
Incisive, cheerful and appropriately bossy, our nominee involved us all with a smile which shone like the sun and was rarely eclipsed. Her energy was infectious and frankly phenomenal, her meetings short, focused and furnished with both precise job lists (including a comprehensively pre-prepared one) and cake. I did not observe a single instance of her losing concentration; out of all that impressed me, her tenacity was the most inspiring element. Forget hierarchies. Choosing the correct nominee is absolutely key.
2. Clear Communication
Each day ended with an encouraging message to all staff – no matter how late it was and how tired we were, that was an unspoken given. Yes, there was an organising committee, reporting to the nominee (which included the Principal!) But there was no hierarchy beyond that. Northern College relies on all of us, each to his or her own role and there was that sense of shared involvement, perhaps even more important amongst those team members who didn’t have the luxury of being released from the ‘day job’ to implement the inspection tasks. More than anything, this spirit was at the heart of TeamNorthern, this and the physical spaces our nominee protected for us – our offices and tea breaks, our staff block, our glorious gardens and hugging room – to retreat from the frontline and be sustained by one another’s support (and cakes).
My own team is a distributed one, being comprised of sessional tutors, some of whom were subject to the fierce lens of observation. Our private team Yammer space was essential to the sharing of intelligence, encouragement and virtual hugs. The Emoji app was well used during inspection week, with plenty of virtual smiley faces, hearts and flowers 🙂 🙂 🙂
3. Preparation that’s Real
I bought an attractive ring binder nearly a year ago, to prepare for the inspection ‘axe’ to fall, because I knew it was expected of me. I’d got as far as putting some colourful dividers into it and a post-it sticker which said ‘Inspection File’. So far, so dull. Its spine brightened up a shelf in my office, at least.
On the other hand I also had a real working file for teacher education – in my case, on Google+, because I consider it a slight personal failure if I’m compelled to do something with a piece of paper. Colleagues had paper files, fair enough. Real working files, though. The miracle was that it took me the best part of ten months to realise that these two files were the same thing (doh). When the call came, I spent an afternoon updating (come on, I’m not perfect) and then sent the link to the irreplaceable Lisa, who printed it all out and sandwiched it neatly between the dividers. Simples.
I’ll keep the beautiful ring binder on a shelf to remind me not to be a fool. And I’ll update the Google+ site as and when, because I want to, because I’m proud of the work we do and want the evidence of it all in the one place. Because otherwise my version control is a bit erratic. My colleagues will do the same, in their 20th century way (gentle joke, made with love). And if Ofsted didn’t like us this time and decide to come again, we’ll be just as ready then as we are now.
It wasn’t all about the cakes. There was fruit, too, nice posh fruit (like those flat peaches) on gingham doilies, treats brought in and shared amongst ourselves. Those little thoughtfulnesses matter (as does cake, obviously). Inspection is an endurance event and nutrition is important. You can’t get by on wine and pizza alone and expect to feel fresh in the morning. Not entirely, anyway 🙂
5. Living Your Values
This is the real big thing. Our social purpose values are written into our mission: we’re about empowerment and the transformation of individuals and communities. Something struck me earlier in the week that I think helps to make sense of this whole experience. I was working with an organisation going through a really hard time, and trying to come together after a crisis. There was a palpable willingness and some great skills in a room full of good people, but not everyone knew the mission, which appeared to have been written by the trustees. Our mission is simply expressed and it sits deep in our bones. It was written more or less collectively – far from an easy task, an imperfect collective effort, but a well-meaning one. ‘Ownership’ of an organisation’s mission is often something we pay lip service to – but it matters. Deeply.
If we’ve learned one thing, it’s this: appreciation builds a team and if we don’t know what everyone else is doing, we have little to feed our appreciation for each other. I would love to say that we have always offered spontaneous appreciation at Northern College, but it wouldn’t be true and communication is at the heart of that. We’re a small organisation of people who work bloody hard and when our heads are down grafting we don’t always notice what’s happening around us. This week we did. And if we change one thing in the future, it’s going to be how we communicate what we’re working on, to each other.
7. Diverse Voices
It’s easy to focus on the sharpened point of classroom observation, but our every intervention is genuinely informed by the perspectives of our students and stakeholders. We were humbled by the willingness of students, graduates, governors and partners to drop everything and come in to meet the inspectors, or be at the end of the phone. Their stories provided the narrative of the week and sustained us with appreciation and profound affirmation. Thank you. You know who you are.
8. Whitewashing Coals
…was not necessary. Not in the least. Even being caught slightly on the hop by the happenstance of opening two new classrooms that very week, as part of a major reorganisation of our physical space, didn’t phase our maintenance and housekeeping team. They keep everything gorgeous, always, and if you could smell the polish that was nothing new to remark upon. Place matters, as Nancy Kline tells us, because it communicates that we matter, and the people who caretake our ‘place’ are not only part of TeamNorthern at inspection time.
9. Being Present as Ourselves
A promise that we made to one another during the first conversations we had after the phone call from Ofsted: to be present as ourselves. We have worked for years on what we (never mind Ofsted) believe to be all the important elements of teaching and learning: initial assessment, differentiation, the embedding of Maths, English and digital literacy, reporting and monitoring, the implementation of equality and diversity, evidencing our mindful planning, in order to enhance the learning and self-responsibility of our students. Beyond this, we made no effort to second-guess what we might assume Ofsted wanted us to be. We played it straight, with an honest and self-knowing SAR, a sound working knowledge of the framework for inspection, and a deep belief in the power of education to change the world. We might not look like other colleges, but we are proud of who we are. If we didn’t fit some pre-prescribed blueprint, we reckoned that was a much bigger issue for education than the outcome of a single inspection. Our Principal encouraged us to teach bravely; we took that to heart and went into battle fully present as ourselves; incidentally, a phrase which is at the heart of our definition of diversity.
We will be reflecting on this experience for a really long time, sucking up all the learning from it so that we can do even better day-to-day, for the fulfilment of our mission. As I’ve written elsewhere, reflexion with an ‘x’ is about figuring out why we do what we do and that ‘why’ isn’t just our ‘why’ – it’s the why of our students, our stakeholders and those who set the policy context that we operate in. It’s the world’s ‘why’. Knowing ourselves means figuring out what we do right, as well as what we want to do better, it means celebrating, appreciating and not being afraid to change.
We know it’s a positive outcome but we can’t reveal the grade until everything has been moderated and the report published at the end of July when, one way or another, we’ll be telling the world. But for now, no regrets. What we’ve learned about ourselves is the most important thing. We are TeamNorthern and somehow we’ll figure out how to continue that sense of belonging, appreciation and challenge for always, not just for Ofsted.