The Inspection

DAY TWO: 4.07pm.

The schedule sheet in front of me verifies that we are, in fact, 83 minutes earlier than planned. I am sat at a folding table in what we call the Big Room Upstairs: a meeting room in one of the school site’s outbuildings. Flanking me to the left and right is my senior team consisting of two Assistant Heads. The local inspector is also there as is our Chair of Governors. Directly across are Her Majesty’s Inspectorate; three bodies dressed in power suits, shuffling papers and glancing down through half moon glasses on the tip of their nose.

The Lead Inspector speaks, “In accordance with section 13(4) of the Education Act 2005, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is of the opinion that the school no longer requires Special Measures.”

There is an audible gasp as the air is sucked from the room. I feel a hand on my shoulder; someone pulling me into an embrace. One of the Assistant Heads shouts “Good,” her tone reminiscent of someone who has been waiting for a bus for over an hour, finally spotting one pulling up along the roadside.

I am slumped in my chair, my shoulders low and slouched. A strange and guttering sob comes out of my mouth, surprising me and my colleagues in the room. Tears are welling in my eyes and I reach for a tissue. The Lead Inspector waits before continuing her report, allowing the school team and myself a brief moment to regain our collective and personal composure. “It is an emotional moment,” she says. ‘Understatement of the year,’ I think to myself as an unknown hand on my left cradles my head and twists it about in celebration.

DAY ONE: 6.00am.

There are exactly 144 songs on my car’s music system. Believing as I do in omens, every inspection I put the system on shuffle and hope that a song that I consider a positive vision of the future pours from the speakers. As I approach the school, Baby Huey’s old soul version of A Change is Gonna Come comes on and I smile. It is a good omen.

Driving through the main school gates, a thick fog reminiscent of those old movie stereotypes of London clings to the entire East End. This will be the 9th inspection in my 14 years as a Head Teacher at four different schools. I have slept only a few hours since we received the call yesterday morning. Experience tells me that the inspectorate will not arrive when they say they will. “We will arrive at 8am” means “We will be there at 7.40am and get a look at the school when it is not prepared for us.”

The PIB (Pre Inspection Briefing) has already taken place in the form of a long telephone conversation with the Lead Inspector yesterday. She asked one question: What has changed in the last four months? The answer took me half an hour. The HMI tells me that I will receive a briefing at lunchtime of Day One as to whether the inspection is to be considered a Section 5, meaning it is considering us being removed from Special Measures.

Dressed in a sober blue pinstripe suit and an equally plain striped tie I scurry through every classroom in the school checking for any sign of angst in the staff. They have been through this process too many times over the past two years to be overly nervous but even so the school is eerily quiet. People know the gravity of the next 48 hours. There are two possible outcomes: the school will be removed from its failing category or it will be deemed a lost cause and closed, taking 78 jobs down in its wake.

DAY ONE: 10am.

“Clicky-Heels is in the Philosophy lesson, Grumpy interviewing on attendance,” whispers one of the Assistant Heads as I pass him in the corridor. The inspection team have been on the site for more than two hours (after arriving 20 minutes early- told you so). Myself and the senior team spend the morning discreetly checking where they are, anticipating what the team are observing and what judgements they might be forming. We have given them nicknames and are grateful that it is easy to track the movements of the Lead Inspector as the click-clack of her high-heeled shoes echo down the corridor whenever she moves. She is the good cop; the warm, fuzzy, friendly and sympathetic part of the team.

Grumpy, on the other hand, is bad cop. He is sour, un-smiling, older, cantankerous and tired. He skulks about with the expression of the second person in a lift where the first one has farted. I can’t charm him thus far and it is niggling at me. Our attendance rate has risen to nearly 95%. This is no mean feat in an inner-city school and we are rightfully proud of the figure. Grumpy does not share our enthusiasm. “Average,” he mumbles and scribbles into a pad.

DAY ONE: 12pm.  I don’t need to look up from my desk to know that Clicky-Heels is approaching. Either that or Fred Astaire has risen from the grave. I nod politely as she tells me so far so good.

She doesn’t mention a Section 5. I calculate in my head whether to ask about it directly. So much of my role over the 48 hours is a mental chess game. The HMI team make a move, I make a move. They ask me something and I answer, then they move along and ask someone else the same question to see if the answers vary at all. If the answers don’t match it creates a crack and the HMI will probe and pick at the crack to see if it makes a figurative wall crumble away; a wall we have created to screen a problem or issue. But I know the school better than my staff, I know the issues and the nuances. Therefore I answer in measured doses, feeding the HMI only as much as they need to know and what I want them to know.

And Clicky-Heels does the same. She is smiling and friendly but equally she has the face of a poker player. I can’t read her and she knows it. All I know is she is testing me; my leadership, my flexibility, my knowledge.

I decide not to push the Section 5 question, despite the PIB agreeing that HMI would make such a decision at mid day. The reasoning behind my strategy is that I want to appear cool and unruffled; the school is safely secure and I want Clicky-Heels to think that in my mind I am fully confident we are in a Section 5.

DAY ONE: 2.30pm.

Pacing the alley way next to the Charismatic Church of Jesus Christ Built on the Rock, a few colleagues join me for a cigarette. They quiz me on the status of the inspection and as to whether we are in a Section 5. “It is all very quiet,” I mutter between deep inhales of a Marlboro Light. I need to keep their guard up, to keep them at the very top of their game.

DAY ONE: 4.30pm.

The inspectorate has invited me into their team meeting. This is not unusual at the half way point of an inspection. Clicky-Heels tells me immediately that the team has seen solid teaching and learning across the school and we are now in a Section 5. She presents a long list of evidence that she needs before 8am tomorrow. Much of the list is ready and easily accessible but others will require some refinement over night.

Tomorrow will also be the leadership interviews. These will be crucial. I realise that there is little I can do as I will not be permitted in the room as HMI grill my Assistant Heads and more junior leaders.

Additionally, there is one major problem. It centres on the historical levels of pupil attainment at the school. About 77% of the children are now achieving the national standards in English, slightly less in Maths. That is double the figures the school was posting prior to two years ago when I arrived. However, the strict government guidance insists that inspectors consider the THREE year attainment pattern of the school. The year before I arrived the school posted its worse figures ever. The whole process, two years work to get out of failing category will be undone unless I can think of an argument; a way around the three year issue.

Day ONE: 8pm.

I leave the meeting and head for my nephew’s birthday dinner at a restaurant in Central London. I am late and the rest of the extended family has already finished their main course. Spinning and awash with the fact the school is on the cusp, I take several minutes to acclimatise to the role of father, husband, brother-in-law and uncle. I order spaghetti and clams. I play the joker at the table but my mind is elsewhere. I am trying to counter the three year attainment argument. For some reason, the Christmas hymn “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” keeps running through my mind.

Day ONE 11.20pm:

I am getting into bed when I feel a tickle on my bald head. I glance into the mirror to see a spider perched on my bald head. I text my friend, the Advisor who has been following our progress throughout the day: “Boris is here- it is an omen”.

Day TWO: 4am.

I can’t sleep. It feels like the Christmas presents are waiting under the tree to be unwrapped. I still haven’t cracked the attainment problem. I give up trying to sleep, shower and drive into work.

Day TWO: 5.30am:

The phone rings. It is the local inspector; the amateur thespian who told me months ago that in his opinion the school was no longer failing. He has trained as an HMIr and I ask him for advice on countering the three year rule. He responds with three words: “Progress trumps Attainment.”

He was right! I could counter the three year rule with the fact that the children were showing strong progress across the school. In some cases we had not only reached but had exceeded the national benchmarks. It was painfully obvious but I had been blind to the argument.

Day TWO 10am:

I have spent the last hour prepping the Assistant Heads for their crucial interviews. They are good people, and good colleagues but they can be hand-wringy and apologetic. I whisper to one to take the meeting by the scruff of the neck, “Don’t let Clicky get a word in. Be a boxer. Hit her as soon as she sits down with what YOU want her to know, don’t let her rattle you.”

Day TWO 11am:

The doors finally open on the Assistant Head’s interview. Clicky-Heels has her best poker face on as she walks past me. She knows what I know. The interview that just finished and the next one with junior leaders at noon are crucial to the overall outcome. “It was fine,” she whispers as she walks past, unstopping.

Grumpy enters my office and flicks through the portfolio of our work in the community. He asks me straight out, “How do you feel?” I assume it is small talk and answer, “Fine, thanks.” It is only when he repeats himself emphasizing the feel that I realise he is asking a serious question. “Emotional,” I reply, “We have worked two years for this and to be on the cusp is…emotional.” For the first time in two days Grumpy smiles. “I know how you feel,” he confides, “I was in your position a few years back, took a school out of special measures. It nearly killed me. It took me two years and cost me my marriage. I gave it all up after that and became an inspector.”

Day TWO: 12pm.

The junior leaders arrive for their interview. This is the last great hurdle. The Grand National horse race goes through my mind; a horse out in front falls at the last jump. The tent is brought in and the beast is euthanized with a bullet in the brain. I walk the fine line of geeing up the junior leaders and making them too nervous. At the last minute the HMI announce that the group is to be split into two smaller groups for the interview. The lasts minute change of plan unsettles them. “They are trying to rattle you, to see how you react to last minute change. Be flexible, you can do this,” I sputter.

Day TWO 3pm:

I am back in the HMI team meeting at the end of the inspection. “Your junior leaders have moved on significantly,” Clicky tells me, “I was very impressed with them.”  She informs me that the final judgements will be presented at 4pm, much earlier than expected. She asks me to contact the Chair of Governors and local inspector to be there for 4pm. That is not unusual. That is usually the pattern at the end of an inspection.

My Christmas-morning-like anticipation gets the better of me and I raise my eyebrows to ask the silent question as to whether we have been successful.

“You will have to wait another hour,” Clicky responds with a smile.

“I have waited two years, I can wait another hour,” I call as I leave the room.

Day TWO: 3.55pm.

The Assistant Heads, the local inspector and the Chair of Govs head for the Big Room Upstairs. It is time for the final verdict. I trail behind. Ten thousand images are going through my mind. I am thinking of the 14 people I have sacked/fired/terminated in the past two years. I think of Boris the Spider and how our friend in the gent’s toilet had become a symbol of our resilience. I think of the rose bush outside my window, the bitter disappointment of not taking the school out of its failing category last summer. TS Eliot crosses my mind; the American turned adopted Brit who wrote, “To reach and end is to reach a beginning, and to know the place for the first time.”

And then the ultimate omen. A child bicycles past me on their way home. He shouts out a cheery goodbye. ‘He is saying goodbye to the past two years,’ I think to myself. Fittingly, a child. It has all been for a better life for the children.

We Kept the Faith,

The Head


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