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Thud! The 2019 Ofsted framework just landed in your in-tray. What’s your response? Former headteacher and iAbacus creator John Pearce explores how the new criteria can be used as a springboard for high quality, professional school improvement.

When the 2019 Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF) thudded onto our desk, or more likely pinged onto our screens, we knew it meant additional work.

As a professional optimist, I see the new framework as an opportunity to reaffirm, establish and rethink our vision for education as teachers, middle leaders, senior leaders, head/principals, CEOs, governors or trustees.

I believe our attitude, the second we hear that thud, set the tone for what follows. I’ll test this by posing two questions.

Do you inherently view the new framework as:

A. an irrelevance you can choose to ignore

B. a set of new standard operating descriptions you have to follow

C. a set of new guidelines to help you think through what you want to achieve

Having supported too many schools labelled ‘inadequate’, who were surprised at ‘failing’ Ofsted, I’m not convinced that A, ignoring external criteria, (be it Ofsted or the Teacher Standards) can ever be a sensible position. Place them into context, yes, but ignore them at your peril.

In reality, we know that there will be some who choose B – accepting and working within criteria set by more powerful others. Sometimes, this is out of necessity; sometimes because of lack of vision, or strong enough leadership. My concern is that it renders us operatives rather than professionals.

The vast majority of education leaders, I believe, aspire to C. They recognise the reality of working within national expectations whilst knowing there will be local circumstances that must be factored in. This is the professional approach.

Responding A, B or C to this first question will, inevitably, determine our approach to the second question, which is:

To what extent will you engage colleagues?

How will you explore implications arising from the new framework? With which colleagues? And how?

This about how leaders at all levels, not just heads, create the permitting circumstances for whole staffs, teams and individuals to collaborate, develop professionally and undertake effective school improvement.

By creating the ‘permitting circumstances’ I mean being efficient and effective. This can only be achieved, we increasingly realise, by maximising staff well-being. It involves taking time, taking care and clearing away other less important work.

If we choose to ignore the Ofsted criteria (A), how will we work with colleagues who hold differing views? Unless we act there is an obvious risk of letting slip a confusing variety of interpretations. Ignoring stuff does not make it go away.

If we view the Ofsted framework as the latest standard operating descriptions (B), a new professional straightjacket, we are more likely to implement without much scrutiny. It is also likely we will expect staff to do the same. In my experience, there will always be colleagues who want to discuss and debate. How we react will need careful thought, if we want motivated colleagues.

If we see the criteria as a set of guidelines to help us think through what we want to achieve (C), we will, by definition, be considering how best to lead the ‘thinking through’. This will be about engaging colleagues and involve a more consensual leadership. It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it…

Professionals’ judgment

We all have to find our own way to success. There are no simple answers.

And yet, working in many schools over several decades led me to understand something very important. Our best starting point for school improvement is the perspective of those in the school.

The ‘powerful outsiders’ view is crucial but so is your gut feeling about where you are, and your vision for what you can become.

Learning this led me to create the process that we use in the iAbacus self-evaluation and improvement planning tool – which starts with professionals’ judgements.

We now see the iAbacus deployed in schools that use each of the three approaches: A, B and C.  

We are also seeing users being drawn towards C as they think through the iAbacus process and what they want to achieve.

Read how you can do this in the second Ofsted criteria 2019 article.

If you’re not yet an iAbacus user, why not try it now for free to see how it can support your improvement work.

John Pearce, creator of iAbacus, writes as a chair of governors, school improvement consultant, NCTL consultant leader, ex-headteacher, ex-Ofsted inspector and  ex-teacher. www.johnpearce.org.uk