I was a failing headteacher

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Going into special measures can be a particular kind of hell, as one previously successful head discovered – and now recalls for School Leadership Today in this groundbreaking series. The names have been kept secret to protect the innocent… and the guilty.

I had always enjoyed being a headteacher. Well, of course, there were days when I would wish briefly to be anything but. The days when I had to spend hours with the LA inspectors justifying statistics or trawling through books to find something that was wrong. But most days I enjoyed the unpredictability, the variety and the challenge. Most days I counted myself lucky.

One reason I was lucky was the people I worked with. I’d gradually built a team over the ten years I’d been headteacher. Considering the difficulties we’d had with recruitment, they were an excellent bunch of people. We had our moments, of course, but as a nearly all-female workforce working in close proximity in challenging circumstances for long hours, what could you expect?

Ready and waiting
Teachers are an extraordinary breed. We can be so harsh and judgemental of one another and yet when it comes to it and Ofsted appears we are a very supportive bunch. There can’t be many who don’t see Ofsted as the enemy. And what a shame and a missed opportunity that is. Before our inspection, I personally didn’t consider Ofsted to be the enemy. In fact, I was quite looking forward to them calling.

With my very good staff, who were hard-working and conscientious, what could go wrong? We had just the right balance of age and experience following on from several years in which an NQT was an unheard-of commodity. We had an interesting range of ‘extra’ activities. A holiday club, after-school childcare, a breakfast club, a nurture room and an understanding of how important support for individual children and their families is.

Admittedly, our SATs results were not good. In league table terms, they never had been. But I didn’t feel that was particularly important. What I could see happening in classrooms was going from strength to strength - the children were responding, our special needs department was good and behaviour had never been better. Surely, the little blip of summative academic attainment would be forgiven?

We had been waiting to receive the phone call. We were inspected in six years previously. Surely time for a return visit. Our previous inspection had gone well – certainly better than the local authority had anticipated. I had been delighted by the positive comments about my headship. I was considered to be a strength of the school and complimented throughout the report.  I hadn’t sought this outcome particularly.

I’d just worked hard with the inspectors to show them where we had got to, what we were planning next and what my vision and the vision of the community was. It had been a very good experience and perhaps that was why I looked forward, optimistically, to speaking further with the lead inspector at our next phone call.

Shocked and dumbfounded
But there was a shock to come.

Having informed staff, rung my husband and generally taken many deep breaths, I rang our local authority inspector. The phone call went something like this:

“What are your SATs results like?”
“Not very good.”
“What’s your CVA like?”
“Below 100.”
“Then you can expect to go into special measures.”

I was dumbfounded. How could we possibly be special measures material? Everyone worked hard and together, the children behaved well in spite of very challenging family circumstances - things here had never been better.

I was furious.

Special measures referred to other schools. Somewhere in the unruly south, where children stood on tables and ran around corridors. They happened where heads couldn’t get staff, where lessons couldn’t be conducted for the uproar. Special measures didn’t happen here. Or at least to us, I thought. Perhaps I should have seen the signs.

Only a couple of months before, both our feeder infant schools (we share our catchment between two) had gone into special measures. We had all been shocked. They, like us, operated in difficult social circumstances but again seemed to be largely well-functioning schools that served their local communities in the best way they could. In one of the infant schools, an acting headteacher was in place. But in the other, the headteacher had been in post for some years. I knew what a difficult time it had been for her and how in the end she decided to go.

I missed her. None of us are without our faults, but I knew she’d done her best in the interests of her community as she saw fit. She had established many initiatives and there was a level of trust that was so important and difficult to gain. I couldn’t begin to imagine how it must have felt for her to be faced with parents and children who had placed their faith in her as headteacher, only to be told she was no good. What humiliation to have to stand in front of them and explain why the school was in special measures and what you were going to do about it, with the finger firmly pointing at you as the culprit.

No leaving parties, celebrations, retirement cards. All memories tarred by that final judgement. I understand that as she cleared her desk, she saw a skip outside full of items that she’d helped collect for the nurture room. Easily dumped, like someone else’s career and aspirations.

It wasn’t just the two infant schools that had gone into special measures recently. At least three other schools in the immediate area were either in or about to go into special measures. Two of these, like us, were junior schools and one a primary. What a coincidence that all bad teaching and leadership seemed to be located within a very small circumference.

I just couldn’t understand, and still can’t, why our school and those in the surrounding area were classed as ‘average’. We gained nothing from translating VA into CVA. Our context counted for nothing. And yet all you had to do was step outside the school gate and you could blatantly see  that this catchment had its problems. How could this possibly not be taken into account?

Many of our children came into school with a low level of oracy, never mind literacy. Some of them came into school barely adequately dressed, let alone ready to tackle the curriculum. Why was no account taken of this? I’d given up protesting, as this was considered to be making excuses and not having high enough expectations. But more of that later.

Now, although indignant, I was also worried. Perhaps I had better have a look at those SATs results and CVA percentages again. Looking at it as an inspector might, focusing on the data and ploughing through it once more. It didn’t look good. Our statistical profile was gloomy.

But then there was always the self-evaluation form. The ‘S’ forms I’d completed for the last inspection had been complimented. In fact, the lead inspector had asked me if I’d trained as an inspector because he considered them so good.  I’d completed the SEF in the same way.

It told the story of our school and, I believed, indicated where we were and what our next plans would be. I could send that with confidence. Our school improvement and development plan was a strong document. We had always had an ethos of self-evaluation. Staff, pupils and parents were consulted regularly on their views of the school and we used a mixture of this and individual discussions with the senior leadership team to form our plan for improvement.

It was only on the second phone call with the lead inspector that I really got the message.

“You do know that it’s not looking good. You’ll need to collect as much evidence as you can to show the progress the children are making.”

No sympathy
I tried to imagine what the lead inspector looked like. I had hoped for a man. I don’t know why, but sometimes men can have a softer core (although my later experiences would lay that impression to rest). I hoped, as well, that he/she was from an ‘old school’ of headship. The headteachers who didn’t just focus on statistics and a mythical body called ‘school improvement’. Those that had a heart and a love for the job outside of the jargon of attainment and progress and ‘ratcheting’ and ‘hiking up’, as though we had to break our backs to get somewhere.

It turned out that she didn’t sound as though she was that kind of inspector at all. She was clear, concise and forthright.  I suppose you have to be to do the job. Perhaps there was a note of sympathy disguised somewhere in there. But it was hard to find and at the moment, she left me with no other impression than that we were going down unless I had an army of barristers to prove otherwise.

I blithely acquiesced to all she asked for and promised I would prepare my evidence, explanations and data analysis. I put down the phone and started to wonder what else  I might do if I wasn’t a headteacher. I enjoyed my writing and academic studies but I was a little young for early retirement and wasn’t sure what else I might have to offer. Headship was hard but rewarding. Day-to-day survival in some cases. But it was the career I’d chosen and loved.

That evening I went home and panicked. My husband calmly provided the sounding board for my exasperated ranting about how unfair everything always seemed to be. This was a role he became all too familiar with as the new few days, weeks and months of turmoil unfolded. I must have appeared to be the harbinger of all things gloomy as each day my car drove up to the house bringing with it a further flow of increasingly demoralised ravings.

But at this stage, it was all still to go for. I knew we were good - we just had to prove it and I had to make a case for why our SATs results were poor. Provided if I could produce the evidence and demonstrate the quality, richness and breadth of what we were delivering, then surely we should be OK. Shouldn’t we?


This article is the first in a five-part series from School Leadership Today. 

Also in this series:

  • The longest day of my life - In part 2 of SLT's shocking new series on a successful school condemned by Ofsted, the headteacher recalls her dread and helplessness as the inspection team arrives.
  • Judgement day  - In part three of our series, the inspection team deliver their damning verdict and wonder why the head is not 'in pieces'
  • Picking up the pieces - After Ofsted’s shattering verdict, part four of our series fnds the successful head of a failing school left to rally the staff, handle the media and prepare for special measures.
  • Fresh start or false dawn? - In the final part of our series, the school escapes special measures at last – but with a twist in the tale for the headteacher.

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