The film begins with a snowbound reporter in Riceville, Iowa, describing the small town as being a long way from the noise of the city, protected from protests elsewhere. Then Jane Elliott unleashes a storm and a white community can’t avoid confronting racism. I’d like to think there were many Janes still in those towns.
Have I told you I’m listening to Barack Obama reading A Promised Land? Its 29 hours long so this fact will be current for some time. He talks about such small towns and how well-disposed they were towards him at the start, but how the right-learning news media turned on him and made it impossible for those folks to hear him. Especially on health care, so mind-boggling to the UK listener. Most of all, he talks about leadership, and about steering his way through events and trying to carve out time to think about decision-making.
I know how he feels. Planet Tallis is busy. What with talking to the Local Authority and governors about money, agitating on behalf of children with SEND, taking advice from our improvement partner about achievement, listening to other Heads’ woes (because I’m the oldest), making a video for Christmas, reinvigorating the national debate on ethical leadership in education, planning a conference, plotting next year’s staffing, talking to a visitor about Tallis Habits and a local journalist about adolescent crime and interviewing year 11s to check on their plans, I’m running to keep up. That’s not to mention perusing the Roman Villas in breakfast Latin (ok, that was a couple of weeks ago but I like mentioning it) or not managing to judge year 8 Dragons’ Den because the Secretary of State dropped by.
What? Calm down. It was the SoS for Science, Innovation and Technology not the other one, though she was SoS for Education for 36 hours earlier in the year. She came to visit our Cyber Explorers, part of a scheme ‘to support and inspire pupils towards a future career in tech and give them the foundational knowledge to pursue crucial subjects such as computer science for those striving to work in a range of tech roles, across social media content creation, sports technology and AI innovation.’ It was all very cordial.
But today I’m reading the reports on the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death. Which headteacher wouldn’t? I was particularly struck by some of the coroner’s remarks. She issued a ‘prevention of future death’ notice which, I learn from the BBC, ‘is a report that aims to stop similar situations arising again. It will be sent to people and groups in a position to reduce the risk of other deaths occurring in similar circumstances. Anyone getting such a notice has 56 days to say what they plan to do to mitigate the chances of deaths happening.’
I wonder what Ofsted will say? For a start, they’ll have to defend their claim that school inspections can be paused if the distress of a headteacher is a concern. Coroner Connor arrestingly described this as "a mythical creature created and expanded upon at this inquest". I wonder how they think that would work? At what point would distress become a concern? And what would they say publicly: ‘Sorry, this inspection’s been stopped because the Head can’t stop shaking?’ Where would that leave the Head? And truly, they’d hardly complete any. Their schedule would collapse.
OFSTED is, frankly, terrifying, even to old warhorses like me. The framework makes perfect sense to inspectors who use it every day and, I suppose, in schools where they speak of little else. It doesn’t make that much sense to those of us who prefer plain English and approach it in the way I assume was intended, as a way of calibrating a snapshot of a school. Like a dipstick (in the engineering, rather than abusive sense). The biggest problem is that words can mean one thing in ordinary parlance and another to inspectors. And that Ofsted inspectors like that kind of thing so they don’t think it’s a problem at all. And that the hype around inspection - which, to be fair, the current HMCI has tried to remove – makes it such an incredibly high-stakes event. That’s three biggest problems so I’ll stop there.
I’ve been Ofsteded loads of time and have many a witty anecdote but actually? It’s the fear that stays with you: of being misunderstood, of saying something that’ll sink the inspection, of not being able to prove something you know to be true, of being holed beneath the waterline by a chance event.
To cheer up, I wander around a bit at break and lunchtime. I like to see the board-game players energetically competing in the dining room, and the complicated cards that some of them bring. I’ve been keeping an eye on a little one who found it hard to make friends to start with – but now she has one and they rush to greet each other at break. Younger children still jump up and down when they see each other, they’re so happy. You’ve got to smile.
I don’t know if Jane Elliott would have done well in an inspection: it would depend on the team. One of her concluding remarks used in our household is ‘Do you know a little bit more than you did before? Do you know a little bit more than you wanted to?’ I think Ofsted could start there.