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26. Getting Ofsted off our backs

Both inspectors were startled by the effect of our discipline policy. All the pupils they questioned in classrooms and on the corridors knew the rules, rewards and sanctions by heart. The teachers insisted on eye contact. Pupils were putting up their hands rather than calling out. In one of the Year 10 Maths lessons, Hanif Megat HMI observed more subtle signs of progress. Megat had a fearsome reputation for closing failing schools.

This particular lesson was based on the calculation of a percentage increase in the national minimum wage. Megat noticed one of the girls resting her cheek on her hand as she looked towards the teacher. She seemed to be dreaming. However, after the teacher had finished telling the class how to tackle the questions, it was clear how hard she had been thinking about the Maths. She suggested an alternative and equally concise method. This example of reflection impressed Megat deeply. It was something he mentioned in my interview after school.

“There is no doubting your success in tackling inappropriate behaviour. I was warned I might be attacked on the corridor, yet there are no such problems now. However, it is all too easy for senior managers in your position to curtail intellectual freedom in the name of good order. The kind of engagement with learning I observed in Mr Leighton’s lesson is rare in failing schools. How did you do it?”

“My initial experience in a failing comprehensive convinced me that this is only possible to boost intellectual independence if pupils have a strong sense of boundaries,” I replied. “It’s only where these are well established, that teachers can put children’s curiosity at the heart of their teaching. Creating the conditions where curiosity thrives: that’s the holy grail.”

The most serious incident HMI observed was in Science. In a Year 10 lesson on radioactive decay, a supply teacher had given groups packs of 100 plastic coins. The pupils were meant to toss them all individually, remove the tails, tally up the heads and record the result on the graph, repeating the coin toss until none remained. The diminishing pile of coins was meant to represent the process by which an unstable nucleus loses energy.

As the Lead Inspector entered, a boy in one corner chucked a handful of coins across the laboratory. A child in the opposite corner retaliated. The Acting Head of Science speedily removed the troublemakers. No real coins had been thrown and no one was hurt, but the precariousness of the teacher’s authority had been exposed.

The Chair of Trustees, Rhiannon Starr and I were invited to hear the Inspectors’ feedback. Mrs Salomon thanked the school for its welcome. “When Eydon Vale failed its previous inspection,” she said, “it was so unstable that HMI considered immediate closure. We are not allowed to use terms like ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ for schools in special measures, but in our opinion, the improvements in discipline are ‘dramatic’. We did witness a few instances of misbehaviour, but these were quickly snuffed out. Neither of us has ever seen such a rapid turn-around in any other schools.

“The parents and pupils particularly appreciated your anti-bullying strategies, after-school classes and special needs support. The haemorrhage in pupil numbers since the school went into special measures has been staunched, and the community has high hopes of the ‘New Eydon’. We see no reason why you should not move into your beautiful new premises on schedule.

“Will that mean that Eydon Vale comes out of special measures by the end of the term?” the Chair of Trustees demanded.

“Technically speaking, Eydon Vale will no longer exist after the end of this school year. Staff and pupils will be moving to your new premises. The Secretary of State will probably turn to HMI for guidance, though. 12% of the lessons we observed were still unsatisfactory. These were mainly taught by supply staff, most of whom will soon be leaving, so a lot will depend on this year’s GCSE results.”

Was this the end?

This is a fictional, interactive blog. My illustrators and I will be creating a new instalment twice a month over the next year. Email turbulent.school@gmail.com and I will edit my text.