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Do schools have intelligence when it comes to inspection?

My wife is a supply teacher and this week, the day before she went in to teach, she found the school was being inspected. My wife’s recollection of the impact of a pending inspection, from when she was full-time, was in line with what she was hearing from the staff at this school.

Essentially it was a feeling of fear-induced panic and crazy behaviour; hardly conducive to the ongoing education of children.

How did we get to this state, where teachers, and of course leaders, are constantly in fear of something which in theory is about driving improvement but in reality, is counterproductive and sometimes damaging? How did someone at the top decide that the best way to improve outcomes for young people, was to instil a feeling of fear in those who we trust to educate them? Or do they not trust our leaders and our teachers?

Irrespective of the question of trust, schools must deal with the system that prevails. This begs the question, how best to deal with it?

First of all, let’s put some (uncomfortable) realities on the table:

  1. There is a broad spectrum of performance by schools

  2. There is a broad spectrum of performance in schools

  3. There is a broad spectrum of circumstance in schools

  4. There is a broad spectrum of performance by inspectors

Of those, only the first two can be affected by leaders and teachers, and by leaders, I mean within the context of a school, SLT for example.

We can do little about 3 & 4 directly, but we can influence how they affect and impact the school as a learning organisation and how they affect teachers and leaders as people. It is simply wrong that circumstance and performance by inspectors impacts on the wellbeing of people who we trust to educate our children.

So, back to ‘how best to deal with it’. The answer is ‘intelligence’ or, to put it another way, how well you know your circumstances & their impact on your performance and how well you know your performance (and I don’t mean data).

Intelligence in this sense must transcend the capacity of any one individual, not only because it’s unreasonable to expect one person to know everything about a school (however small it is), but because it’s not healthy for the school or the individual to work this way.

Intelligence must be informed by multiple processes, both internal and external, and must include a range of people, again, internal staff and external collaborators. This helps to overcome the negative impact of what I call ‘single-vision introspection’.

Another common problem is that schools focus too much on data. It’s understandable they do this; after all, it is the ‘go to’ output of a school and often the easiest target for inspectors. But, as most of us know, data on its own can be dangerous or misleading and at best it is a view of what has happened up to a point in time. It says little about what will happen tomorrow should a unique set of circumstances come along.

A good school, in my view, is one that demonstrates they have the capability and capacity to absorb unique circumstances and for their target outcomes to be largely unaffected. This requires more than good data over time; it requires strategy, intelligence led leadership, informed decision making at all levels and most importantly, it requires systems, processes and procedures to ensure it is all sustainable.

In practical terms this means an inspector should be able to go anyone in the school with a (non-confidential) question and that person should know where the answer will be; they do not need to know the answer!

An intelligent school, in both senses of the word, will provide high-level information to inspectors, secure in the knowledge they have great depth & breadth of information underpinning it. When the probing question comes, they will reveal the next layer of detail; the next question – more detail. An intelligent school will ‘out detail’ the inspector and an intelligent inspector will quickly recognise an intelligent school.

You can be ‘always ready’ for the encounter should you choose to adopt this approach; you just need to be brave enough (don’t make excuses) to step back from frontline firefighting and decide to use your limited resources more effectively.

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