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Don't Let The Tail Wag The Dog!

An interesting question for school leaders to ask is, ' who decides on the priorities for development in your school, or schools?'  I am sure that most would reply that they, and perhaps their staff, do. Some may even say that actually it's our self evaluation processes that determine our priorities.

If this is really true, why then are so many Headteachers and SMT fixated on what OFSTED or HMIe or others say they are looking for as their priorities? That is not to say that we should take no notice of what these organisations are saying, of course we should, just as we do with others who might have contributions to make to the Education debate, and help develop understanding. But my concern is with the number of schools and management teams who are constantly scrutinising the latest newsletters or updates from such organisations and then adjust or change what they are doing to respond to this. Why do some Heads and their teams constantly screen latest school reports after inspections and react so quickly to what appears in them? Why are there messages on Twitter all the time asking questions and for information about the latest OFSTED or HMIe pronouncements?

Of course the fact that our inspection processes are such high stake events in the life of schools and management teams, they are going to get our attention. But it is my contention that too many schools have become preoccupied by what OFSTED and HMIe are saying to the extent that they have lost their focus on what is really important. They are so concerned by what might come out of the inspection process that they have allowed this to determine their actions and thinking rather than keeping their focus on the things are really going to determine the results of any genuine inspection process.

I could spend a lot of time discussing whether the inspection process is valid or necessary. Some would argue that if high performing countries like Finland have achieved so much without an inspection process as we know it, we could achieve the same and more by adopting similar approaches. We could question the validity and authority of some of the people involved in the inspection process. When you read of some of the statements and comments made to teachers and managers by members of inspection teams, you really do wonder about their understanding of schools, learning and the curriculum. Every inspection process is inconsistent in approach and outcomes as, although there may be set procedures and directions to teams, the members and leaders of such teams are all different and have their own interpretations of these and how they are applied. In others, many schools feel the report and the findings have been decided even before an inspector steps inside the school because of national or local agendas. Others point to the inefficiencies in the whole process, noting that inspectors are only seeing a snapshot of a particular week, a particular lesson and a particular teacher in time. If they came the week before or the week after they would get a different snapshot, and is this really an accurate picture of what a school is really like?

Suffice to say that, whilst there are a whole host of concerns about inspections and the whole process, they are part of school life and we need to find a way of dealing with them.

My strategy has always been the same. Concentrate on what is important and inspections should take care of themselves. What is important? The same things that have always been important and always will be important to schools and educators. Teaching and learning, and the quality of the experiences for the pupils. The development of the curriculum in its fullest sense and in all it's guises. The assessment process as part of learning, and in order to evidence progress and report to various audiences. Self evaluation processes that really tell us where we are in terms of our journey of development. How we provide and cater for the health and wellbeing of all our learner and how this is reflected in everything we do. Staff development in order to ensure we and all staff are continually progressing our understand and our practice to better meet the needs of all our pupils. Every single one of these areas is vast and complex and we need to keep developing in them all. In my view, the only way to do this is in a connected, organised way that seeks to make small steps of embedded improvement.

The areas above should have, and need, all our focus as school leaders. If we are constantly focused on what others outside of the schools are looking for we are going to forever changing our focus and moving from one thing to another in an unconnected way. The result? Frazzled staff and leaders. Lack of coherence and a shared understanding of where we are heading. A piecemeal approach to development and, worst of all, lack of sustained impact for our learners.

Therefore, I recommend that we accept the inspection process as it now exists, look for the positives of this and try to work towards a more sympathetic and useful system, but retain our focus on what is really important. Do not let the tail of inspection processes wag the dog of education and learning in our schools.

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