Young women with her hands on her head looking stressed.

Holding Your Breath Until Wednesday Lunchtime

A guest blog by a headteacher who wishes to remain anonymous.

As a school leader I read lots of tweets and talk to lots of colleagues about the immense stress we are under whilst waiting for Wednesday lunchtime when your school is in the OFSTED window. Some of the tweets are very amusing and you can relate to them and have a chuckle and it is true that you can hear a collective sigh of relief run through my school at around 2pm on a Wednesday when we all realise we are safe for another week. However, the reality for many of us is very worrying.

I have been a Head Teacher for 12 years, I am no ‘inspection virgin’ and I can hold my own in a professional dialogue about my school and our context. I haven’t always felt this absolute dread at the thought of anyone coming in to judge our learning – in fact I used to look forward to it as an opportunity to show what we are doing and to learn some improvement strategies. Sadly, I am not even sure that I can pinpoint the exact moment this started to change for myself and colleague heads. The latest OFSTED framework, when it was published, was my favourite (I realise how sad it is to admit that you have a favourite framework!). I have always been enormously proud of the fact that we did not narrow our curriculum, that we offered a broad and balanced diet for all our children, even our year 6 pupils. We have always been focused on health and well-being, we run forest schools on site 3-4 times a week, we have a wonderful school dog, and ELSA room that is used every day for a wide range of children. We achieved a good inspection 5 years ago and until recently I honestly believed that our school is better now than it was then.


The region where I work has just been named as the lowest achieving local authority in the country for GCSEs and A-Levels; I suspect our Key Stage 2 results are about to say the same thing. As a school leader I know that this is not good enough and something needs to change. However, we also have the highest number of SEND pupils per LA, yet we have the lowest specialist provision. We have huge numbers of children in mainstream schools that are being failed though a lack of resources. Everyone I know who works in education in this area is working to capacity – we can do no more. However, the inspections that have taken place in this authority in recent weeks in ‘good’ schools have been described as brutal by staff and governors that were involved. It seems that OFSTED would like us all to teach to a preferred phonic scheme with a preferred teaching style and every curriculum subject should be taught through a ‘bought in’ scheme, where your poor subject leaders (who probably get half a day a term if they are lucky) are expected to know what the progression and skills look like from age 4 to 11. In all of the negative feedback that heads have shared with me, the most disheartening thing is that there was no professional dialogue – staff were stopped in their tracks when talking about their provision. There were no opportunities to provide more evidence on the second day of the inspection – decisions were made very quickly and the inspectors were ‘not for turning’. This is very different to both inspections I have undergone as a leader – one that judged us as RI and the second one as good. I am worried this new ‘brutal’ system is the new inspection framework and in a world where Head Teachers are not staying in post beyond 5 years, and teacher recruitment is at an all-time low, how are we ever going to make a difference in children’s lives?

For some time I have known the system is broken – yet often speak about the joys of school leadership - and so now I feel like a hypocrite! But it has to be said and to a wider audience than our Chair of Governors when we are having a moment. My blood pressure is currently sitting at 160/106 and my GP has told me to relax! I am of course in school, the time is 11:15 and I am holding my breath!

Image by Freepik

The View Down the Mountain

Here in England, October half term has finally arrived. If you're feeling shellshocked, numb, grumpy, irritable and/or as if you've been run over by a truck, this is not unusual. Like many of us, I remain a stubborn optimist, but there's no escaping the fact that it's been hugely challenging for almost everyone I've met working in schools since September, and I've had the privilege of meeting hundreds of you to talk about wellbeing, working with parents or for coaching.

Today, I'm extracting myself from the sofa (the weather is practically demanding a duvet day) and studiously ignoring the domestic and family to-list to share a powerful wellbeing tip, based on an idea first shared with me by Emma Turner: turn your to-do list into a 'ta-dah!' list - look at what I've achieved!

Rather than looking ahead at everyone and everything else that demands a piece of you; rather than berating yourself for perceived flaws or mistakes; rather than worrying about the next half term ahead or launching straight into the laundry pile or DIY, can I urge you to take a few moments to look back at everything you've achieved since the beginning of September? Many of you will struggle to start with. 'It's just my job!' you will protest. 'I really haven't done much.' (Our professional is notoriously self-deprecating). I don't believe you.

  • That trip you finally managed to run? What effect did it have on the child who's struggle with confidence this term?
  • That parent who stopped to thank you at pick-up one afternoon? What exactly did they say? What does it mean for their child?
  • That colleague you made a cup of tea for because they were looking a bit frazzled? What did that gesture of humanity mean in a stressful week?
  • That student who made eye contact and smiled at you for the first time? How much patience, how many subtle skills on your part did it take to get them to that stage?

The challenges you've survived, the resilience you've shown, the laughs (even or especially the darkly inappropriate ones) in the staffroom, the mutual support, the skills you've learned, the progress your pupils have made, the fact that, even in the last week when you may have been on your knees, you still did it - you still smiled, you still taught, even as the leadership of our country imploded...

Take a moment to give yourself a pat on the back. Note it down somewhere - in a journal, an audio-file or on a few post-it notes. Treasure it. Because you truly make a difference, ever single day and you deserve, in the words of the legendary Rita Pierson, to find joy and a sense of achievement in the invaluable work you do.