The Journey from RI to Good

This week’s Talking Head comes from Joanne Williams, Head Teacher at East Stanley School, County Durham. 

East Stanley School is a medium-sized primary school, situated just outside of Stanley in County Durham. There are currently 230 pupils on roll.

All schools live in fear of the dreaded Ofsted call, but few schools have experienced waiting for the call as often as we have over the past few years.

I have worked at East Stanley since 2005, when I was appointed as Deputy Head Teacher. During the first Ofsted inspection we went through in September 2007, we were graded as satisfactory….not great, but in those days satisfactory was good enough and truth be told, it could have been a lot worse.

I was appointed Head in September 2008, when the previous Head retired. My first experience of Ofsted in that role was positive – in January 2011, we moved from a satisfactory to a good grading. I had not been Head very long and was thrilled with the progress we had made as a school.

However, disaster struck during our next inspection in November 2013…we were graded overall as Requires Improvement (RI). Our Key Stage One results had been an issue for the previous two to three years and even though inspectors were not supposed to have preconceived judgements in mind before they landed, it was apparent that the Lead Inspector was determined to bring us down for our Key Stage One data. This turned out quite a task for him, as our Raise OnLine (anyone remember the blue boxes?) indicated that the progress of these children was good from their starting points. Therefore, the Inspector focused his attention on a different aspect of the published data.

As a school, we meticulously tracked the children year on year across Key Stage Two, ensuring that as many children as possible made the required two levels of progress to get to Level 4, or even Level 5 if the children were of a higher ability. Back then, it had not even entered our minds to check to see how many had actually exceeded this goal and made three levels of progress. That is until the summer of 2013, when our Link Inspector at the time had asked to see this data. We had never tracked it before and certainly had not targeted children to see if they could make this extra leap in progress, so when we did pull the data together, the figures were quite unimpressive. Of course, this was highlighted magnificently on the published Raise Online. So, guess what the inspection focus became.

As soon as we had recognised the number of pupils making three levels of progress was an issue, we had already ensured it was a priority on the school improvement plan for the year ahead. Looking at the predictions for the current classes moving through Key Stage Two, we were not overly concerned because most cohorts were on track to have progress figures above national averages. Unfortunately, during that particular inspection framework, inspectors were not allowed to take predictions into account. This led to a snowball effect of judgements…..if progress was not good, then teaching could not be good. If neither of those were good, then leadership and management could not be good either….hence the RI grading.

The grading resulted in the anger, frustration and disappointment of the staff and governors and lots of additional support from the local authority. We were introduced to SSG (School Scrutiny Group) meetings, annual local authority reviews, extra school improvement partner support, as well as being issued with a school improvement advisor. Many extra school improvement plans and action plans were produced and reviewed on what seemed to be a weekly basis, and monitoring increased tenfold. This led to immense pressure on everyone in school. We all lived in fear of the dreaded call to announce the forthcoming HMI monitoring visit. This happened in February 2014 and actually turned out to be a fairly positive experience – ‘senior leaders and governors were taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement’. The mood in school changed and we became almost hopeful. We got a decent set of data in the summer of 2014 and confidently looked forward to the next Section 5 inspection where we were certain we would return to being a good school.

Not the case! Our full Section 5 inspection did not take place until March 2016….the two-year re-inspection window came and passed, and by this time, we had all whipped ourselves up into a complete frenzy as the months passed by. The timing of this inspection was completely against us too – this was the first year of assessing without levels. Our assessment had always been accurate in the past, but as a school, we were still getting to grips with the new system. As were the Inspectors, so it seems. Being an RI school, we were assessing each cohort on a regular basis, but were following issued guidelines on the new assessment system and not grading a child as being age related if they had any gaps at all in their previous learning. We were no longer taking a best-fit approach as in the past. This led to a dip in percentages for each cohort – from the number of children working at the required grade on the old level system, to meeting age related standards on a far more challenging curriculum. Of course, the inspectors then challenged us for not having high enough expectations. Surprise, surprise…the end result was RI again.

We were devastated. All the hard work, sweat and tears had paid no dividends. Being RI for the second time was not a good place to be. We were under threat of being graded as inadequate if we did not get back to good during the next inspection…two strikes and you are out! This was the point where we almost considered becoming an academy…jump before we were pushed. Local Authority support was increased and instead of holding SSG meetings in school, we were ‘invited’ to attend meetings at County Hall instead. Not a great time in the history of the school, or in fact in my career. On many occasions I felt like giving up, quitting my job and letting someone else take over but something made me hang on in there. As a school, we shook ourselves off and started again – school improvement plans, action plans, monitoring on what felt like a daily basis…. basically justifying everything we did to prove the impact it had. It took its toll on the staff – everyone was anxious and questioning everything they did. A few staff resigned, as the pressure was too much.

Again we waited with trepidation for the next HMI monitoring visit, which happened almost a year later in January 2017. Again, this was positive. However it did not lead to the same hopes as it had on the previous occasion…they had been raised last time and then dashed tremendously. We continued to soldier away, doing the very best we could and doing everything that was asked of us. As the two year re-inspection window drew closer, the pressure and anxiety increased. I wasn’t sleeping properly and had a constant knot in my stomach, dreading the impending inspection. It was almost a relief when we finally got the call in February 2018. We had done everything we could. Being RI meant it was a full two day inspection and the first day seemed to go very well. Then it snowed. And when it snows in Stanley, it really does snow. As a school, our experiences of Ofsted inspections have not been the best, but this took the biscuit. School was closed for the next three days because of the inclement weather, meaning our Ofsted inspection started on February 27th but did not end until 5th March. Was that the world’s longest inspection? Was anything ever going to go our way?

Finally it did…..with a fair inspection team, supreme effort from our fantastic staff and skilled support from our governors, we did it! We were graded good in all areas.

You would think that once inspection was over that we could relax….this was not the case. The aim for school improvement carries on, regardless of whether Ofsted is due to call. But now the beauty of it is, we can afford time to focus on what is really important…..what is best for our children and not what the current Ofsted framework says.

If you would like to share your views on this, or would like to write a Talking Heads blog past, please email n.chapman@schoolsnortheast.com 

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