Sunday, 23 June 2013

What's that coming over the hill? Is it Ofsted? Literacy

Every baddie in a TV show has a catchphrase. In Doctor Who, it is ‘EXTERMINATE’ for the Daleks. For the Cybermen, it is ‘delete’ or ‘upgrade’. As I was visited by Ofsted a few weeks ago, I heard them mutter their own unique catchphrase. They obviously had their cloaking device on, but for a brief second I heard a voice utter their phrase of intent. What was their catchphrase? The simple word – Triangulate!

Yesterday, I wrote about my Ofsted experience as a teacher. Today, I am going to share my experience as someone responsible for ‘Literacy across the Curriculum’. As I had only started the job in December, I was panicking about the mere thought that Ofsted would pounce on me in an inspection. The less time I had, the less evidence I would have ready, the less I could convince them that we were a good school. The last eight months had been tough. Each week I had prayed that Ofsted wouldn’t come. Then, April arrived and I decided that I wanted to have them visit as soon as possible. Why? Well, easy – you cannot live in a constant state of fear. The fear of a visit was causing me sleepless nights and constant anxiety. There was constant second guessing by me. Wednesday became the new Friday, as by Wednesday you knew you could relax until Monday as they were not coming in. All this made for a poisonous atmosphere. We were working hard for something that could happen tomorrow, next week, next month or even next academic year. All jobs have ebbs and flows and productivity isn’t always at 100%. That’s why you have breaks. Yet, the constant worry of Ofsted meant that productivity was at 100%. I think some people did the work of a whole year in two terms.

The Call
When the call happened, all the staff were called to the staffroom and awaited the news. I sat there anxious, worried, scared, bemused, confused, uncertain and so many other things. We always talk about Shakespeare’s plays being cathartic. However, Shakespeare has nothing on an Ofsted inspection. I was purged of all the emotions my body could produce, just waiting to hear that they were coming. The Head arrived and informed us of the obvious: they were coming tomorrow.  Then, I was told: ‘They're focusing on reading; good luck, Chris’.

Why reading? Well, I think they had worked out that a lot of my work over the last eight months had focused on writing. They had clearly spotted our weak point. That’s what a good enemy does. Find your weaknesses first. Ours was reading. And, if I am honest, writing can be addressed with some quick fixes and strategies. Reading is the biggie. It is the one that is harder to address as it is often hard to define. If I was awaiting a call from Ofsted, I’d think about this. What are you doing about reading skills?

Anyway, I retired to the War Room, my classroom, and planned my case for the defence. If there is one thing I am pleased of, that is my evidence folder. Everything I had done in the role of co-ordinator had been collected in a folder and dated. I think somewhere in the back of my mind I had long ago thought that Ofsted was like going to court and being on trial. I had even watched endless repeats of Perry Mason to make sure I was ready with my final address to the jury. Furthermore, I had practised the following phrase several times in the mirror: ‘You can’t handle the truth!’.  I now had several hours to get my case ready. Panic!  Coffee and Red Bull aplenty.

The Meeting
This surprised me: I wasn’t called to a meeting. In fact, I tagged along to the teaching and learning meeting with the inspectors. It was primarily concerned with the teaching and I was left waiting for a space to start my opening speech. Nothing. I waited and waited and nothing appeared. I understand how conversations work and I knew I was in the wrong meeting. Mentioning Literacy at this point was like mentioning watching SAW III to someone during a hymn at a funeral. It has a tenuous connection, but it isn’t really appropriate. I left the meeting saying virtually nothing and being left frustrated. Therefore, I went straight to SLT and asked (demanded – depending on perspective) for another meeting, explaining that it wasn’t the right moment to discuss what had been done.

Luckily, I got another meeting. All that training in the mirror had helped. You do really have to fight. Not in an aggressive knives and guns way, but a words and arguments way. I had my meeting, which was very brief. This was mainly because it was towards the end of the inspection on the second day. They had, in my opinion, at that stage had most of their evidence. This is where I think inspections are making their opinions on Literacy. It is through triangulating things. They look at the teaching, the exercise books and the students, and from all these they then form an opinion. What the schools says is only one part of this triangle. This happens towards the end, so prepare your argument for the end of the inspection.

My second meeting was lovely. I know I am using the word ‘lovely’ to describe a meeting with Ofsted, but it was. I sat chatting to the inspector about what he had seen and the meeting was filling the gaps. It was about tracking improvements and about evidence. At the end of the failure of the first meeting, I had given the team a sheet with key aspects relating to our Literacy strategy. He knew the basics and I admitted the problems we had had. The main problem was that a lot of evidence with Literacy at the moment is anecdotal. The changes have been so sudden that getting evidence and data is quite hard. Thankfully, I had some data to support progress. We discussed the issue of reading and I told him the truth: we have a plan. This year’s focus was writing and next year’s focus is mainly on reading. I was honest and told him that it was still being developed. I told him the plans and what was currently in place. I felt that that was important for Ofsted visiting. They know that things may not be perfect, but they want to see action and plans and strategies. They don’t want a list of excuses.

The Result
The result was really good. I cannot say how pleased I am with it, but it was a team effort. Literacy is a team effort. The report featured lots of lovely comments relating to Literacy:

‘Students’ literacy skills have improved in most subjects because staff have well-thought out approaches to improving spelling and punctuation, specialist vocabulary and writing structures.’

What was the magic ingredient? What was the secret? To be honest, I don’t think there was one simple thing. No, maybe there is one: a culture of literacy. (I will in a future blog write about creating a culture of Literacy.) The Ofsted inspectors couldn’t escape literacy because it was in every lesson. It was referred to everywhere. It was constantly talked about. It was part of everyday conversations. It was something students were aware of. It was everywhere. There wasn’t one thing that everybody was doing. Each teacher was doing literacy in their own way. They were skimming and scanning. They were guiding students on how to form an argument. They had a little booklet of key terms. They had mats. There was a consistent approach to Literacy, but not a consistent way to how it was delivered in lessons. Teachers were seen to be thinking about Literacy rather than just doing it. Things were joined up in lessons and not just superfluous grammar lessons.

As with most things, we might have just got lucky and had a nice team. But, I like to think we would have got the same result with another team.

At a recent teachmeet, I was inundated with questions about the inspection and I think it is hard to give pointers and suggestions. These are some of the things I might suggest. I must add that my experience is isolated to one inspection, so I am hardly an expert. Below, are just a few things I would consider if it was me facing an inspection in the next few weeks.

1: Think of triangulating and the strengths and weaknesses of Literacy in the school.
What will the students say about reading / writing in lessons and Literacy?
What will their exercise books show?
What will the teaching show?
How will the inspector see that Literacy is a priority across the whole school?

2: What is your plan?
What strategies have you put into action?
Why did you use those strategies?
What are the problems you are working on now?
What is the plan for the next term or year?
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
What are you doing about reading, writing and speaking?

3: Where is your evidence?
What evidence have you got to show that the improvements in Literacy are working?
What data can you provide? 

I think the best piece of advice I picked up in the Ofsted journey is to have a ready made crib sheet. On one sheet, write down bullet-points about the key things you have done and have in place. Like a court of law, have your brief ready for the judge. Be prepared. In courts, juries are subjective and have their own set of prejudices and judgements. They may have their point of view, but it is the prosecution or the defence’s job to convince them. Ofsted may have some assumptions based on the school’s data, but it is our job to fight.  However, the key to any good fight is having done the preparation. We shouldn’t avoid the difficult questions, because you know sooner or later that is where Ofsted will focus on.

What’s that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster? I don’t know if it is a monster, but all I can hear is, ‘Triangulate. Triangulate. Triangulate’. Like Doctor Who, the monsters I thought were really scary were in fact nice people (smaller than I thought) dressed in scary suits. We might have been lucky, but I do think that the process was fair. I might not like the process, the scrutiny, the extra pressure, but I felt it was fair. Oh, and it was quick. I just bloody wish they were more transparent about what they want to see. Where's the crib sheet, Ofsted?  

Thanks for reading,



  1. Guess who visited us this week ...!

  2. Poor you. I hope it went well. Thinking of you. : )