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Headteachers Should Not, and Cannot, Carry the Burden of Accountability Alone

Good leaders work to protect staff from excess pressure – but no one can carry the full weight of our current accountability system on their own, says Vic Goddard...

  • Headteachers Should Not, and Cannot, Carry the Burden of Accountability Alone

As Joni Mitchell said, “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” – and I found out the truth of this very recently.

To be precise, it was at 2am, on Friday, May the 11th, and I was sitting in the chair at my kitchen table where I had spent four or five nights a week, for months, trying to work out what else I could do to help the school get the outcome from Ofsted that our hardworking staff and students deserved.

It had been almost five years since our last inspection, so we had a brief conversation about being inspected with staff after our results in 2017 – but other than that, the SLT at Passmores had made a very clear decision not to talk about Ofsted to the staff.

We wanted to keep the pressure off them – however, I was so desperate not to pass on any anxiety that I probably overcompensated, which led to those long nights of solitary reading and thinking at the kitchen table, looking at reports from similar schools and scrutinising data.

At 2am on that Friday, though, I pushed my MacBook forward and said out loud, “Have a word with yourself, Victor.”

Now, there are a couple of unusual things about that.

First, why on earth did I say it out loud? And secondly, why call myself Victor? I am only ever called that when I am in trouble; yet I had suddenly turned into Zlatan Ibrahimovic and started talking about myself in the third person.

Beyond the data

The truth is, this conversation with myself took place at the end of the long-dreaded inspection; and I simply hadn’t realised just how much it had been affecting me over the previous six months or so.

I had become fixated with the P8 score that put us closer to the floor target than anyone could be comfortable with. I knew we were working flat out to improve the situation, but I had lost sight of the amazing service that we provide for our community.

All I ever focused on at my kitchen table was the data, and the outcomes – and the possible impact of a poor inspection on school intake, recruitment and retention, budgets and so on.

I know the leadership of Ofsted are working hard to convince us that the accountability system is flexible and mature enough to see beyond only the big data outcomes – and, being totally honest, everything that Sean Harford has been saying was indeed true of our inspection team.

They were human in their approach. They did get under the skin of the school. We were open and candid about our strengths and weaknesses and they agreed with us.

We actually learned very little new information, but it did reinforce that what we had decided to do was the right direction of travel, which has empowered us to carry on.

If our experience is becoming the norm then, over time, staff in schools will be able to become much less worried about the visits and start to see them as the validation of work that’s already going on.

Share the burden

However, we’re not there yet. I think I am reasonably robust as a leader, but the waiting was not good for me. So many people have told me, since we were inspected, how worried they had been about me over the last few months.

They said that they tried to help but I never made them feel I wanted them to. So if that has happened to me I wonder how many of my colleagues are going through similar or worse as they await their ‘call’.

Back to Joni, then – what, exactly, didn’t I know I had until it was gone?

Well, the list included a feeling of nausea on waking up, for a start; not to mention poor eating habits, a lack of time to exercise, and a maximum of two nights a week when I could get some half-decent sleep. I haven’t missed it much!

For colleagues reading this who know exactly how this feels, remember, a problem shared is often a problem halved.

And for those of you worried that someone is struggling with the strain of their job, please let them know what you are thinking, even if it doesn’t look like they want to discuss it, because it still helps immensely.

You can find me on Twitter if I can offer any help, too.

Vic Goddard is headteacher at Passmores Academy, as seen on Channel 4’s Educating Essex, and is the author of The Best Job in the World; you can follow him at @vicgoddard.

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