Back in April, I said that education was facing a perfect storm and it feels like the storm circled over the Teacher Education programme at The Northern College for a while this year. No-one can plan for two reviews/inspections at the busy end of the academic year, when the team is running at reduced capacity. And we don’t even talk about ‘cover’ now in FE, do we? We are all so cut to the bone that it’s just not a thing.
Everyone in state education knows that Inspections/Higher Education Reviews are blindingly hard work; for the Inspectors/Reviewers too, to be fair. The guys who came to us had a punishing schedule. We did all the stuff I’ve written about elsewhere, we were bold, we were brave, we were Northern; we gave it our best shot, students were amazing (obviously) and it all went euphorically well. But a bit like Glastonbury after the crowds have gone home, I spent some time afterwards looking round at the debris through the lens of an adrenaline crash and wondering how to tidy it all up. And don’t even get me started on how the maths stacks up: how one day’s 48-hour notice inspection can put me behind schedule for three weeks. (Maybe that’s just me…)
The most recent inspection was a two-part process, so the pain/pleasure won’t be over until the Autumn, though I have to say that everything is very clear and fair, we know what we need to do. Maybe that’s part of why my dopamine high was short-lived; maybe too the tangle of emotions occasioned by at the same time saying goodbye to Certs 2014 after two years and two bereavements meant that it was all too much…but there was an unexpected flatness once we’d waved off the inspection team and I certainly felt very strange for quite a few days afterwards, way beyond my annual separation anxiety.
Part of what’s tangled in my head is the paradox of doing incredibly well and at the same time breaking all the perceived rules of what Ofsted look for. It’s not an easy one to unpick but it seems to me that if we could do that, we’d stand a better chance as a sector of doing education substantially differently than the risk-averse, panicky sausage-factory we have now. I’m not saying, “Do it like us,” – one of the lightbulb moments this last week is that consistency and diversity can co-exist – but at least, “Take a chance on being yourselves.” Everyone I speak to seems to be telling me that Ofsted are mainly interested in making sure your paperwork is in order but that has not been our experience, perhaps because our Principal is a experienced pragmatist who doesn’t use the threat of inspection as a stick with which to beat her staff. What inspection teams do find with us is a deep knowing of students, where they’ve been, where they’re at, where they are going…and that always seems to be appreciated. So what is happening with the perceptions of the majority? Are we just a tiny microclimate at Northern College (1)? Or is it possible for us to really think differently about inspection in the sector as a whole?
Are we, in fact, outstanding because we stand out (2)? Because we are different? A sort of national treasure like Vivienne Westwood or John Lydon, Mrs Brown perhaps or Jade Goody, naughty but nice. Let’s have a peek in at Northern College then return to doing what we do….
I sincerely hope not. We are trying to change education here and it’s a serious mission. My dissonant feelings are caused in part by doing well under a regime I know isn’t healthy, in terms of its impact on mental wellbeing. At the heart of any such scrutiny is the need to be reassured of the commitment to continuous improvement (or ‘enhancement’); on the face of it a good thing of course but surely the quest for ever-better practice is a kind of perfectionism? If so, my CBT training tells me it brings in its wake a world of pain, in terms of never being able to feel that you’ve done ‘good enough’. If your self-worth is tangled up with your work…that’s not a healthy place to be. Something doesn’t sit well with me about succeeding under a system which, whatever its intentions, quietly terrorises our profession.
As I write this, there’s a change at the top of Ofsted and it’s impossible to know whether meeting the new boss will feel the same as the old boss. I wonder if Amanda Spielman realises the sea is rising up to meet the sky? At Northern Rocks 2016, where she would have spoken had her appointment not been announced, the mood was clear. There is a sea change. There was a strangeness and richness about every one of the Northern Rocks presentations that spoke of a time beyond teaching to the test. Utopian, perhaps, but new futures were being imagined there, and at the launch of EdTech North in Sunderland just a couple of days before. Perhaps those of us left standing have nothing left to lose.
*Be careful. I do get irritated when people try to marginalise us as being able to do what we do because we’re fortunate in some way. We don’t do anything that others couldn’t do, if they were minded to.
**Many thanks to Tim Wood for flexing my thinking around this. Outstanding/standingout.