Diary of a headteacher: Practising what we preach

Written by: Diary of a Headteacher | Published:
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School leaders are quick to criticise inspectors who do not listen and stick to preconceived opinions no matter what, but do our own leadership practices reflect this ethos?

For as long as I can remember in education, school leaders and teachers have been critical of the systems by which schools are judged. Specifically, we have been particularly disparaging towards Ofsted and the way in which they impart their judgements on our schools.

Headteachers up and down the country bear the battle scars from locking horns with Ofsted inspectors and many will have found the inspection experience incredibly frustrating. A common complaint is that they have a fixed idea about a school when they arrive, based on the data available to them, and this is immovable throughout the course of the one or two-day inspection.

Headteachers have told me, and I have read online, that their frustration stems from inspectors not listening to them, or not deviating in any way from their preconceived opinions of the effectiveness.

Thankfully, my recent experiences with Ofsted (in which I led my first inspection as a head) were positive and the inspectors were fair, consistent and accurate in their judgements of our school.

One question that has resonated in my mind though, in my post-inspection reflections, has been the extent to which school leaders have mirrored the same inspection behaviours we ourselves have been so critical of. As headteachers do we make arbitrary judgements about certain areas of our school, without taking due consideration from a range of evidence sources? If results dip in a subject do we instantly assume the teaching or leadership has been sub-standard? If a teacher delivers a poor lesson, do we tarnish them with an “inadequate” label?

I have long considered a self-improving school system to be a more appropriate mechanism for raising educational standards and I have worked hard to create this ethos within the schools I have been fortunate enough to lead. However, when I speak to colleagues in other schools and when I read blogs and so on, it is abundantly clear there are many schools where the leadership styles and self-evaluation mechanisms are still very much “top-down” and “done-to”.

With regard to school self-evaluation, as a headteacher I take great pride in the accuracy of the SEF document I have produced with my leadership team. If the inspection team had questioned the statements, judgements and evidence in our SEF, they would have found it difficult to conclude that leadership and management in the school is accurate and effective.

Our SEF outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the school clearly and concisely and this gave the inspectors faith in our judgements as a leadership team. From that point onwards, the inspection became more collegiate and collaborative and I found the inspectors to be more like a rigorous school improvement partner rather than the blinkered approach I feared we might get.

The question school leaders must ask ourselves though is, if we genuinely want a self-improving school system in England, are our systems, behaviours, decisions and cultures in our own schools reflective of this?

Are our self-evaluation systems based on more than just student progress and attainment data? Do they encompass a wide range of evidence that is used to form holistic judgements on the effectiveness of the provision? Do our self-evaluation systems enable middle leaders to develop their leadership skills by “owning” the processes by which their departments are judged, or does the leadership team swoop in and impose its own judgement without involving the people who work in there, day-in, day-out?

As school leaders we must be brave enough to hold the mirror up to ourselves and continually question what we are doing, why we are doing it and evaluating the impact of our work. Self-evaluation is a critical aspect of school improvement as it enables us to make accurate judgements on the effectiveness of our work and identify our priorities for improvement. However, for those of us in senior leadership roles, we must understand that middle leaders will only help us in driving forward these improvements if they are part of the process and feel a sense of ownership.

  • SecEd’s headteacher diarist is in his fourth year of headship at a secondary school in the Midlands.


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