How do you cope when your secondary school is placed in special measures by Ofsted? 

Imagine taking over a school three weeks before it is placed in special measures. This is what happened to me when our middle school was inspected in January 2007. The school had previously been in special measures in 2003 and removed in 2005, however it was clear that lessons had not been learned. It is now just over a year since the school was removed from category (for the second time) and it is continuing to make good progress. In reflecting on the immediate past it is worth analysing what made a difference and what key learning points remain.

Initial response
The key is to face up to the facts. Inevitably, staff will go through periods of anger, frustration, denial and blaming others (usually the pupils). All of these emotional responses are geared towards protecting the self esteem and confidence of staff, however, they can get in the way of accurately identifying the real problems. It is essential that the school does not spend too much time in self-denial but rather starts the task of acknowledging the key issues raised in the Ofsted report.

Doing the right things
The next task is to identify the key priorities. In our case the school was graded as ‘inadequate’ on all five main categories, therefore the list was extensive. It is impossible to do everything at once, so leaders have to accept that it is better to do a small number of things very well than do a multitude merely scratching the surface. The core business of each school is teaching, learning and assessment therefore it would make sense to focus on this in order to raise standards. But even this narrower focus is too broad. Each school must dig deeper to unearth the real priority by asking pertinent questions such as:

  • What aspects of teaching need to be addressed?
  • In what ways does learning need to be improved?
  • Does assessment support lesson planning?

Only then can the school start to put in place appropriate professional development and training opportunities to address these.

Do things right
It is often not what we do that matters but how well we do it and this is definitely the case in schools facing Ofsted categories. High expectations and attention to detail need to become the norm and this starts from the top of the organisation, including governors. Nothing should ever be good enough and staff should constantly be looking at how systems, processes and procedures could be tweaked to improve them further. This is not a case of hounding staff but adopting a culture whereby there is an acceptance that improvement should always be sought out and pursued in order that the experience of the pupils is enriched.

This is a key aspect and leaders must ensure that they have reliable and capable staff in positions of influence. Moving a school out of Ofsted category is a team event not a one-man show, therefore leaders need to be identified, supported and trusted so that ownership of the challenge is shared amongst many. At the same time it is imperative that teaching staff are more than capable and where there are concerns these should be dealt with quickly by offering appropriate support and training followed by formal procedures where improvements are not made. The reality is that time is not a luxury that these schools can afford and therefore issues need to be resolved without delay.

Publicity and parents
Schools in special measures find what reputation they may have had in tatters following a damning report. Convincing prospective parents that things are improving and that the school is moving in the right direction is a slow process. In order to improve the situation, there is a need to be proactive in sharing good news stories with the local press and ensuring that feeder schools get copies of the relevant articles. Regular visits to feeder schools giving updates on progress helps to get the right message to the people who need to hear. Another key aspect is being more accessible to current parents by holding monthly drop-in sessions where parents can turn up and speak to senior leaders and class teachers. We found these sessions to be of real value to parents, they raised issues before they became problems and it helped develop a much better relationship with our parents.

Stay optimistic
This is sometimes hard to do, but leaders need to develop the capacity for optimism. There are occasions when change is difficult and improvements are slow, however, this is what everybody should expect. It is easier to remain optimistic when you have already identified this and articulated it to staff. All staff observe their leaders, they listen to what they say, how they say it and check for consistency of message. It is vital that they see the same approach and resolve daily in order to encourage them to adopt the same outlook.

In reflecting on what made a difference to our journey out of special measures, it is clear that there were key aspects as outlined above, however, what is obvious to me is that these are relevant to whatever stage your school is at; they are generic themes. The only difference with being in a category is that you have an external deadline that insists in more rapid improvements than you might otherwise strive for.

This e-bulletin issue was first published in May 2010

About the author: Kieran McGrane and the leadership team at Federation of West Sleekburn Middle School and Bedlingtonshire Community High School, Northumberland