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‘Two Weeks to Remember’ – Reflecting back on June/July 2023

By Stuart Mansell, CEO, OWN Trust

The end of the summer term...

It’s approaching the end of the academic year and there is the usual hubbub of parent consultations, end-of-year reports, assessment outcomes being submitted, appointing new staff, saying goodbye to leavers, discos, etc., etc. It is never quiet in school. Having been in a state of ‘high alert’ for more than a year, the impact has been draining on everyone, and staff and children alike are more fatigued than usual. Jacki Mitchell (Headteacher at Woodston) is making the last plans for the transition to a new Headteacher (Becky Ford) and trying to take time to appreciate the two decades she has spent leading the school before her final leaving assembly.

Why ‘high alert’? Regardless of what the intentions are for Ofsted and the views of anyone involved (positive and negative), it has to be one of the most stressful systems I have ever encountered. Calls can usually come on Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, meaning that on Thursday and Friday, there is a more relaxed feeling in school – working hard and doing great things with the children, but not on high alert.

The 1st Call...

Then, on Monday 26th June, the first school, Nene Valley, gets the call and is no longer on high alert. What does being on ‘high alert’ mean in this context? It means having one ear on the telephone in the office, regardless of what you are doing. The stomach ‘lurching’ when you hear the respondent saying, ‘I’ll just see if they are at their desk’. The realisation that in the space of 15 minutes you can go from diligently getting on with your job to having to deal with a complete reorganisation over the next 3 days. This is not reorganising to put on a show, but suddenly you are required to inform staff, inform parents, establish ParentView, send out letters, provide documents, and share timetables (of course you know exactly who is teaching what, to whom and when – it's a primary school after all – always so predictable…), release staff at virtually no notice to attend the inspector’s call, be free from class to be interviewed, contact Trustees, governors (are they available at 24 hours’ notice?), manage the emotional response of staff in school (not everyone copes with stress easily), whilst ensuring that the days continue ‘as normal’; everyone is safe, secure, happy, fed, and performing at their best. Not much of an ask.

The remainder of ‘the call’ day and the following two days are a bit of a whirlwind. Meetings, observations, interviews, letters, etc. whilst always remaining the perfect host. Trust staff respond as we knew they would – drop everything, support, and enable. OWN Trust is one organisation made up of different teams, and under pressure, they come together and show clearly how effective they are. Executive Deputies migrate to one school and offer support, advice, and release cover when needed. Headteachers come together to advise on the best approaches based on their own experience. Teaching staff immediately ‘swap’ schools to enable those involved the time out of class to be prepared. And at the end of the 2nd day (Wednesday) it’s all over (except we can’t tell anyone the outcome). There is pride that the school has been recognised for its strengths and that the inspector has been realistic, pragmatic, astute, and fair. Not all schools experience that, and it can add to the endless feeling of being on high alert.

The 2nd Call...

Thursday the 29th of June gives everyone a break, a return to normality, and to go back to doing the job we love. But it’s short-lived. Calls don’t usually come on Thursdays and Fridays, but the following week is an ‘industrial action’ week and everything changes – calls can come on Fridays! With just 12 school days remaining of her 30+ years as a teacher and 20+ years as a Headteacher, Jacki Mitchell gets the next ‘call’. Ofsted will visit on Monday and Tuesday the following week. It’s more notice, but that’s a negative. More time to feel nervous, more time to feel like you’re not quite ready. At the end of that day, the message is clearly given – don’t wear yourself out over the weekend so that you are at your lowest when they come; save yourself, and be your best on Monday and Tuesday. It’s hard to take that on board and staff are undoubtedly busy all weekend – family events missed, home ‘jobs’ and partners abandoned; it’s not necessary, but it’s human nature.

Monday and Tuesday are reminiscent of the previous week. The same hustle and bustle, the same heightened activity, the same nervous tension, and the same support from colleagues both within the school and beyond in the Trust. The nervousness and extra work were completely unnecessary as the outcomes were exactly as expected and made us very proud, but very much appreciated all the same. More silence about the outcome – sharing is not allowed and may result in a new inspection! We keep the celebrations quiet, and Mrs. Mitchell can go out on a high – eventually!

The 3rd Call...

Wednesday and Friday some of the schools are closed, at least in part, due to industrial action, and the end of the academic year is almost upon us. We’re now into leavers’ assemblies, transition days, classroom moves, etc. It’s Monday 10th July, exactly 2 weeks after the first call for an inspection, and only 7 school days left until the year-end. As CEO I’m visiting Orton Wistow and meeting with the Headteacher, Colin Marks. I leave around 11:30 a.m. saying’ looks like you have missed out on a call today’ and head back to the Trust Office. Fifteen minutes later, I sit down at my desk and a call comes through from the school office at Wistow ‘The Headteacher is on the phone to Ofsted’ – they haven’t missed out at all.

For the 3rd time in two weeks, one of our schools and the Trust staff gear themselves up for the final inspection. By now the response has become a bit more like a well-oiled machine. We know who is meeting who, who is releasing staff, what the focus will be etc. It’s no less stressful, but we have very recent experience of what to expect. By Wednesday 12th July, a completely exhausted set of staff are quietly celebrating another great outcome, before gearing themselves up for the final week in school.

And it's all over!

Looking back, I couldn’t be prouder of how everyone responded and pulled together, to show off what they do every day of the year, year in and year out. No surprises, just a sense of shared relief that we got through it when already so tired, and that everyone has been recognised accurately for what they do. At least everyone could 100% relax over the summer holidays and take a break from being on 'high alert' at last!

Photo by Luba Ertel on Unsplash