If you are all sitting comfortably I’ll begin. Once upon a time my Ofsted SEF was twenty seven pages long, contained just under nine thousand words and had eleven pages of tables filled with data.
I considered the document a work of art, a national treasure, a document of considerable distinction. Pride comes before a fall and my bubble was well and truly burst last summer.
“But the inspectors won’t have time to read it.”
The document had taken literally days to put together. I actually stayed at home, for one day, to complete part of it. Not only had it taken days and days to put together, with other people’s assistance, but pity the poor senior leadership team and governors who had to wade their way through it. Both groups were very complimentary about the document. To be honest you couldn’t fail to be impressed by it … but the inspectors won’t have time to read it.
Before writing the document I knew our key issues were further raising attainment in Mathematics and closing the gap between students entitled to Pupil Premium and those who are not. After many hours of writing I concluded our key issues were … further raising attainment in Mathematics and closing the gap between students entitled to Pupil Premium and those who are not. Not only was it useless to an Ofsted Inspector, it wasn’t very much use to me.
It’s the Narrative Not Just the Numbers
With Blackpool in the eye of an almost perfect Ofsted storm the local authority brought in a consultancy team to help raise standards. One visited us to review the SEF. I’m not always impressed with consultants (that’s a blog for another day) but this one had really done his homework. He had read our SEF, looked at the previous OFSTED Report and been through our RAISE with a fine toothcomb. In short he had done a very professional job. He had done just what an inspector would do. This shouldn’t have surprised me as being an inspector was his other job.
It was during our initial discussion I had a light bulb moments. These don’t come to me that often. He had created a story about St. Mary’s to help him understand the data and to make the school real to him. He had a series of hypotheses or story lines, none of which were particularly positive, mapped against the deficit style OFSTED Handbook and guidance.
Story Line 1
“Exclusion data is shocking. You’ve far too many exclusions. Behaviour must be appalling, your strategies aren’t effective and the school is in melt down.”
Now whilst he didn’t quite express it in these terms I knew what he meant. This was the part of his narrative. The percentage of exclusions relating to number of incidents of exclusion was very high.
Story Line 2
“You were lucky to be judged good with many outstanding features at the last inspection. The team were soft on you. You told them a whole series of lies about the following year’s results and you got away with murder.”
Now again whilst our consultant didn’t quite express it in these terms I knew what he meant. This was another part of his narrative. The previous Ofsted Report stated:
“The school’s historically accurate tracking predicts that the mathematics results for 2012 will be broadly average.”
His story consisted of a story line that Mathematics A*-C results hadn’t gone up in 2012.
Story Line 3
“The gap between students attracting Pupil Premium Funding and non-Pupil Premium students is closing.”
My SEF had identified closing the gap as a major priority. Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth we agreed and moved on. Our narratives were again different. His analysis was actually correct about the gap closing whilst my narrative was, “There is much more we can do.”
Try putting eyewitness fallibility into a search engine and you’ll get an avalanche of possible websites and articles (Google gave me 34,800 in 0.24 seconds). Reading the first few produced a series of common threads about the unreliability of eyewitness accounts. There are inherent problems with people:
- Filtering what they see through their own prejudices,
- Making up information to fill in the gaps in what they remember. We need to make sense of the World and events within it. Creating a coherent story is part of this making sense.
- Responding to suggestion, by other people, that shape and reshape the story in our minds.
Ofsted inspectors will produce narratives on what they read and see – they will consist of prejudices, made up information to fill gaps and responding to suggestions and observations. This is part of our human nature. They all shape the story. Inspectors and headteachers just need to accept “it is” and move on. Inspectors need to be aware of it in order to minimise it. Headteachers need to be aware of it in order to use it. The intention must be to minimise the chance of an Ofsted Inspection and Report becoming a crime against a school due to its false narrative.
Producing the Counter Narrative – Attendance & Exclusions
A brief bit of background. In September 2012, the latest data available to our consultant, we had introduced a new Behaviour Policy. It had a series of short exclusions for repeated low level disruptive behaviour in class or failing to complete homework. This significantly raised the bar for us. A number of students fell foul of the triggers before readjusting their behaviour. We also used one day exclusions for students who twice failed to attend a detention, didn’t behave appropriately in our seclusion room, struck another student or used bad language towards a member of staff. You need to be aware in RAISE that excluding a student for a day or for fifteen days both count as one incident of exclusion.
It was time for a walk around school to help rewrite the narrative. The school is purposeful, students are focussed and teachers can teach. No riots, no meltdown. We deliberately called in on an Assistant Headteacher, who leads one of the Learning Houses, and quizzed him hard about attendance and exclusions overall and by sub-groups. We asked questions about who was on what level in the Behaviour Policy and the actions being taken. He knew his stuff, the consultant was impressed. Interestingly the consultant began to engage in conversation with the Assistant Headteacher digging around the data and getting more detail than he had actually asked for.
Current Data is Your Trump Card
“What percentage of Pupil Premium students are persistent absentees?” “This is the percentage, here are their names and this is what we are doing about each one of them.”
The Assistant Headteacher didn’t know we would call in. It quite literally was no notice. We expect our leaders to have an understanding of what is going on in their Learning House. Data is analysed for behaviour and attendance half termly. We knew our current data was much, much more positive than the historic data. We had spotted the issue, started to address it and monitored the impact. We were clear about the progress we were making. If things haven’t gone well despite your best efforts and the data is poor you need to: know it, admit it and address it.
Our SEF had the current data in, somewhere on the 27 pages containing 9,000 words and 11 pages of tables. The issue was the document was impenetrable and the narrative had been lost in the volume of numbers and words. This example however stresses the importance of knowing your data. You will know the current data far better than the recently arrived inspection team and need to use it to shape the narrative. Data matters within a clearly told narrative.
Producing the Counter Narrative – Mathematics
The A*-C results in Mathematics had gone up between 2011 and 2012 by 8% and 5+A*-CEM went up in line with national average. It had however fallen back slightly in 2013. It was the 2013 results, of a different cohort of students, which he had focussed on alongside the previous Ofsted Report. After rechecking RAISE it was clear his narrative was wrong and he readjusted.
The Executive Summary
The SEF now has an Executive Summary consisting of seven pages, just over three thousand words and four data tables integrated into the sections. An inspector now stands a chance of reading it. It will be what we share with senior leaders, governors and any future inspection team. The management data behind it is for internal consumption. Too many numbers will distract people from the narrative.
Not surprisingly the SEF is written in four strands to replicate the Ofsted framework. The first achievement strand is two pages and the other strands are a page in length. Each section consists of a set of bullet points addressing the main issues in the framework and highlighting strengths
At the beginning we have written our meta-narrative. This is the big story around attendance, exclusions and Mathematics which inspectors are bound to be interested in. We know this story well, it is our school and we live this story every day. My advice is, use the data and evidence to create a compelling narrative about the great work you are doing, what you are focussed on improving and the progress you are making. The numbers still matter but so does the clarity with which you tell the story.
Our SEF is nowhere near perfect … but at least an inspector might have time to read it. Let’s hope we all live happily ever after.
If you are interested in where Ofsted might be going next with its inspection process, here is a link to a summary of a meeting I attended with Michael Cladingbowl (National Director, Inspection Reform, Ofsted)
The above graphic is a summary of a SEF that was handed out at an ASCL Ofsted Seminar in December 2014. It was generally thought to be a great way to give the inspectors a clear steer as to the main points of your story.