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Don’t be ‘disappointed’ with a poor Ofsted rating

I have lost count of the number of times that I have seen the head of a school that has just received a poor Ofsted rating tell their local paper that the judgement is “disappointing”. Well, I haven’t actually lost count – it’s 2,137 times.

Occasionally, you get a full-on, toys-out-of-the pram rant in which the head rails against the injustice of it all. “We do not recognise the picture painted of the school,” they fume, rather like the owner of a fast food restaurant lashing out at the council for a no-stars hygiene rating because there happened to be rat droppings in the kitchen “just that one time when the inspectors visited”. But, generally, the reaction from schools to a poor Ofsted is a sniping and narky “disappointed”.

It is not a good look and we would advise that you avoid it.

Getting wound up by a bad Ofsted rating is understandable. After all, no one likes being criticised. This blog, for example, is flawless and I would be “disappointed” myself if anyone were to disagree. But “disappointed” is a mealy-mouthed, disingenuous reply and one that will do little in the long term for the reputation of you, your school or your trust.

The first step to solving a problem is to recognise that you have one. And “disappointed” does not suggest you have completely done so.

It is deliberately misleading as it leaves open the possibility that your “disappointment” is with the unfairness of the judgement rather than with you and your team for failing to tackle issues that led the inspectors to issue a poor rating. It is not unequivocal. It looks like a clever-clever and prickly politician’s response designed to express your irritation but also to allow you to say: “Hey, we’ve recognised the problems.”

The only problem with this approach is that nobody’s buying it and not everyone’s impressed. By all means rant and rage about the verdict with colleagues privately. Make your anger known in private correspondence with Ofsted. Stand up for yourself in debriefings with your MAT or LEA. But when you are communicating with parents and other stakeholders you need to show that you are 100 per cent accepting of Ofsted’s criticism.

Rather than be “disappointed”, explain that a school is a huge enterprise with many moving parts, funding pressures and staffing issues. Sometimes the leadership’s eye is taken off a particular ball. It will happen at every school to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes this can coincide with an inspection and the problem can happen to pass a threshold that sees a poor judgement handed down. But this is a judgement of a school at a single period in time – a snapshot.

A local child will be at that school for five or seven years in the case of a secondary, and it is your ambition that, at the end of that time, when that child’s parents come to make their own judgement on the school, they will find it to have been a fine place. Those kids are on a journey, and one unsatisfactory element in one section of that journey does not make it a bad journey overall. Neither does it stop those students from getting to where their parents want them to be.

Parents are very fond of the schools that they send their children to. Sure, there are a few who like to moan and make your life difficult. But they are generally very understanding of any problems. It is perhaps because of confirmation bias – parents make a decision to send a child to a school so any criticism of the school is a criticism of that decision. It is also, most certainly, because the majority of schools are actually damn good in the circumstances and are full of committed professionals.

It might interest you to know that we had a rule when I produced and edited papers not to put a failing school on the front – partly because it would not win you any friends, but also because it wasn’t the experience of most parents that the school was failing their child. We found that parents would back the school and its leadership over Ofsted.

But don’t abuse that and risk eroding the respect, trust and affection that parents have for your school by failing to be honest with yourself and them. If anything, honesty reinforces all of the above – a bit like what happens when a friend or family member owns up to and confronts a problem or a flaw. You admire these people more as a result of their honesty. You know the problem they have does not completely define them as a person. It doesn’t mean they aren’t wonderful in many ways.

So, in a world we are all flawed in some way, recognise your school’s flaws with grace, humility and an unequivocal resolve to address them. Oh, and we’ll help you do it.

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