The emotional side of an Ofsted inspection (part 1)

person signing document paper

Over the past two years I’ve attended dozens of Ofsted webinars, read an unhealthy number of Ofsted reports and sifted through a wealth of Deep Dive questions, all in the name of preparing for my own school’s inspection.

But despite all the preparation from a paperwork and school organisation point of view, there was very little to prepare me for the emotional side of the inspection.

During my 20 years in teaching I’ve experienced four inspections: one was as a student, one as a Deputy Head, one as a Head of School and this most recent one as a headteacher. The last three inspections have all been within the last five years.

By far the most overwhelming was the most recent one and this is the one which, perhaps understandably, I experienced the most emotional changes in the space of 72 hours.

First and foremost is the realisation that this inspection is something which could make or break your career, and that’s a daunting prospect. No matter how confident you may feel about the progress your school has made, there will always be a niggling thought that something could go horrendously wrong and will result in the inspector deciding your school’s grade is not what it should be. My mind did wander, at least once, to what I would do if I did lose my job; I think I may have concluded I would return to a career in retail. Now I know that may seem a tad dramatic, but trust me, the level of paranoia was real.

Of course there are many things you can do to prepare: your curriculum can be mapped out like it was done by Ordnance Survey and books, pupil voice and lessons can show really clearly how the curriculum ensures progression and prepares children for the next stage, but what really matters is what happens on the day. The new framework takes a lot of the control out of headteachers hands and you have to trust that when your leaders go into a room with the inspector, or are walking around the school conducting joint observations, they’ve got it in hand.

The desire to want to protect leaders from negative comments the inspector may make is akin to wanting to protect your child from the ‘mean girls’. But in reality you have to get to the point where you know you’ve done all you can to prepare them and you have to let them fight the battle alone. Your job becomes waiting for them to return from battle and either help them to patch up any wounds they may have suffered, or (because it’s not always doom and gloom) help them to celebrate their victory.

The range of emotions also had a major impact on my sleep pattern. The night before the inspection I went to bed and slept for three hours straight. After that, sleep was a myth. Every time I thought about a particular aspect of the inspection my stomach dropped like a rollercoaster ride. At the same time, I had this real nervous energy which made me just want to get to 5am (my new call time), get ready for the day, drive into school and get the inspection started. There was also the constant fear that if I went to sleep having been dozing on and off, I would then not hear the alarm clock, oversleep, get to work late and jeopardise the whole inspection. The struggle was real.

On the way to school I played some gospel music full blast and got myself pumped up…it was nervous energy on overdrive.

At the end of the first day of the inspection I went to bed at 9.01pm and didn’t wake up until 5.03am. I caught up on the sleep I’d lost the night before and woke up feeling thoroughly refreshed and ready to go.

If you asked me if I felt overwhelmed at any time I think the answer would be no – we were organised, we knew what we had to do and we worked together as a team. Did I feel stressed at any point…not really; I try not to do stress under any circumstances as I know what it can do to the body.

There were however definitely points when I felt my anxiety level rise and my ability to remain calm and measured was tested. For example, during the Keeping in Touch meetings, when the inspector went to visit to the playground and the dinner hall and of course when the inspector and curriculum leader went to visits classes. Those times when you hoped that what they saw was what you wanted them to see….but you never know.

All around me staff were also feeling a wide range of emotions. Some were feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of expectations placed on them and for me that was difficult. I wanted to be able to relieve them of those feelings but as much as I encouraged leaders about how much they knew already, how much work they’d put in and how this was a team effort and they weren’t alone, they still felt what they felt and that’s fair enough.

The most important thing is that those feelings and emotions were acknowledged and not ignored. Everyone deals with situations differently and even those who seem to have nerves of steel, may have moments of doubt.

At the end of the day when the inspector left one of the governors who had come for the feedback began to address me, and I suddenly burst into tears. It caught me completely by surprise and no doubt it caught the other 15 people in the room – which included LA and Diocesan advisors – by surprise too. I swiftly left the room so I that could blubber a bit more and then after a hug from my assistant head , I went back into the room where everyone was waiting; slightly stunned by my sudden display of emotion, but they understood. I wasn’t crying because of what the governor had said – they were saying positive things – it came from a place of immense relief that it was all finally over. My first Ofsted as a headteacher.

Part 2 of this blog post will be published once the report is on the Ofsted website.

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