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Leaders' letters

Boxing Gloves

Rising to the Challenge with ASCL in our corner...

Funny old game this head teacher thing, to misquote Jimmy Greaves. In June, like many of the 634 schools serving challenging highly selective communities, we were left on the canvas following a stinging blow from the prime minister. National Challenge was the carcass eagerly consumed by a baying press.

Last week our staff were on a tremendous high after being told they were 'outstanding' by Ofsted. In between this we had a gracious visit from Ed Balls who did a lot to put the 'national challenge' record straight with the local media. He was a superb statesman and came across as very knowledgeable and supportive.

Peters and Waterman probably called it right in their seminal leadership work In Pursuit of Excellence when they argued no one is ever as good or as bad as they think they are. Like many schools working in challenging communities we have more than our fair share of ups and downs. We meet these with good humour and humility. I am lucky to work with some inspirational staff at all levels. I pen this article to show there can be justice for National Challenge schools, and sincerely hope it is not too self-indulgent.

I've been principal in this selective authority at the same school for nearly 14 years. Starting with a satisfactory Ofsted in 1995 we progressed to good (1998), then very good with outstanding features (2005) and finally this tremendous accolade. It has been a long hard slog; "little pushes on the fly wheel" as Jim Collins describes. There was no key defining moment. No magic ingredient. No quick fix.

I made clear at interview that I was in it for the long haul, and that communities like this need affiliation and long term commitment. There has been much heartache along the way. Too many times we have been on the front pages for the wrong reasons. There will undoubtedly be many more setbacks. But, boy that moment was good in the staffroom. The tears of joy from dedicated professionals who had been wrongly humiliated 5 months earlier will for ever be etched into my memory.

I used to think Ofsted was 'the enemy'; part of the systemic problem we have created in this country. Leadership gurus from all walks of life from all over the globe have questioned their efficacy. I am now left to thank God for their impartiality, and their framework that is at least clear for all to see.

It would be very wrong to let the DCSF mandarins make it impossible for national challenge schools to attain 'outstanding'. Very wrong indeed. Our staff needed that affirmation. They deserved it. We know full well outstanding does not mean perfect. We know full well we still have a mountain to climb. But the pack we were carrying now feels a whole lot lighter.

However, we could not have achieved it without the tremendous help of ASCL and in particular Keith Dennis. I attended an ASCL pre Ofsted training session in London where we were given hands-on experience improving our own self-evaluation and SEF writing. The exercises really sharpened my practice.

We then invited Keith down for a whole day session with SLT. He really put us through it. He seemed like a one man inspection team. As a consequence we improved our practice in several key areas. During the inspection, from the initial phone call to the pre-inspection briefing and through the two days he was then available online with handy suggestions. This certainly gave us heart and emotional support when we needed it.

Why did we grade ourselves 'good' when they thought we were 'outstanding'? A tricky last day question to answer. Only those punch drunk from the National Challenge and the insidious threats of closure in the local press will really understand how such things sap the confidence.

I once described managing an inner city school akin to a heavy weight boxer. There are only so many blows you can take in a lifetime. Only so many times you can pick yourself up off the canvas. I am so pleased that with the support of some great ASCL colleagues we picked ourselves up this last time. The staff now walk a foot taller.

Of course WE Deming argued that good organisations should never rely on external validation, least of all inspection to improve quality. Total quality comes as it always has done from within. We build in quality through rigorous planning, evaluation and by co-constructing good practice with staff, students and parents.

So whilst it is tempting to mimic Pete Posslewaite at the end of Brassed Off, on this occasion we will take the accolades while they are going. After all my NCA SIP arrives tomorrow for the first of his 30 days telling me how to run a school.

Steve Baker is head of Lipsome Community College in Plymouth

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