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Guest Blog Post from Dave McPartlin

Since speaking out about the effect of high-stakes accountability on his emotional
health, headteacher Dave McPartlin has been sent personal and heart-rending
stories from other leaders, right across the UK.

It is clear, before there is another tragedy, things need to change.

After going public about the toll 'waiting for the call' had on my emotional health as a headteacher of a primary school in the north west of England, I was inundated with stories from school leaders.

Each one talked of the stress and fear, the sickness and anger that the current inspection regime has on them. 

It was clear that we had all been suffering in silence, as if leadership isn't lonely enough at times!

What's more, messages came from Scotland and Wales too, so the pressures involved in high-stakes accountability go beyond the Ofsted process. 

By speaking out, it allows others to find their voice too, hard though it is.

Below I share just some of the stories I have received in recent weeks:

"Thank you for your amazing inspiration and peaceful warrior leadership Dave. I'm in my 19th year as HT - last year in particular, the thought of Ofsted almost broken me. We are an Ofsted rated RI school... What kept me going at darkest moment was comment from our SBM who said whatever happens ie they rate us RI again and I leave the school as HT; they cannot take away all the daily positive difference we have made in so many lives over past 5 years. When you said - who is safeguarding me and my colleagues..it just resonated. Thank you . Hope you are OK and bless you for who you are - much valued!"

"You’ve done a brilliant job this week, and we all thank you for it. I know I’ll probably face one more Ofsted before calling it quits and the thought that the school could lose it’s good rating for the first time ever terrifies me. I’ve been there 32 years, HT for 15. Do I leave before and take a lesser pension or take the risk? It keeps me awake at night and makes me feel ill. It shouldn’t be this way, and hopefully because of what you’ve said things will change."

"I’ve struggled in the last 2 years so listening and reading your piece was really helpful.We are all trying to do the best in unbelievably difficult circumstances & less capacity- the system has to change to ensure staff teams are mentally well for their communities. High accountability, high stakes- I know we changed our community over 6 years and I can live peacefully with it yet somehow the internal “it’s not good enough “ voice is always there. It comes from the system as like many HT you are always trying to do what’s right for your children but at the moment can never “enjoy the moment” & feel on edge. Thanks for making that real & present for everyone."

"Thanks you so much for your stance at the moment. You are being a rock to many of us. I too was on Citalopram for a number of years following an awful Ofsted experience, but I don’t make it common knowledge. No idea why, but I still have than pang of embarrassment etc. but… thanks again!"

"I have huge admiration for your story I had inspectors in my school in October. It was a less than pleasant experience. Although I was pleased with our grades the dialogue was less than helpful. It’s not much better north of the border. But the evaluative language in ofsted reports and the tone in which reports are written is less than encouraging. Thank you for sharing your journey. My experience took me very much to the point of breaking. But I had good people around me that caught me when I fell. Stay strong my friend."

"We’ve had really disruptive building work at our school. I’ve got teachers off on long-term sickness due to the loss of close family members. Then I lost a family member tragically and just days after that I got the call that Estyn. I honestly thought someone was joking due to the awful timing. I just felt the blood draining from my head. Some of the teachers that are off long term were due to come back on a phased return arrangement, but they won’t be coming now due to the Estyn call. We weren’t due an inspection for a few more years!! Despite all this we should be ok though. Just makes you wonder where the breaking point is. I just hate it when my phone pings in the morning. I just try to be as empathetic as possible to staff sickness, but it’s difficult when there is literally no one available to cover. I’ll now be putting my own grieving on hold ‘till after Estyn. That sounds awful..."

"Hi Dave, first of all what a great job you have done this week. You have shown great courage. Secondly, I have to add me to the list of HTs on medication. Went to the doctor in January about something else and broke down and left with prescriptions for meds to help anxiety and depression. Those Sunday - Wednesdays waiting for the call were getting too much. Inspected last week and thankfully it went well so hoping to wean myself off them now. The normal stress of being a HT is enough without the added pressure of a call from someone who does not get it and never will. Anyway, thanks again. You have been amazing."

"Thank you so much for speaking up on the BBC interview, you are totally right & it literally made me cry. I didn’t want to post publicly, but the anxiety HT’s feel continues into waiting for the report. We were inspected S5 earlier this year with G overall and O in B&A. We have yet to receive the draft. When I contacted O they said it’s still in QA & will be ready when I return from Easter break. I’m beside myself worrying if there is a problem, a grade change or worse & so anxious I can’t sleep or relax even though I’m exhausted. Things must change."

"Thank you for speaking up about the anxiety caused by OFSTED. As a SENCO I have felt very exposed by OFSTED. There is only one SENCO in a school so any comments related to SEND provision point directly to the SENCO. This pressure has increased with the latest framework with the focus on the bottom 20%, the majority of whom will be on the SEND register. Our last OFSTED resulted in a Good grading with only one next step SEND writing. This related to writing in Y1 only! The new framework was coming, so it was political, they couldn't grade us as Outstanding as there was no time to come back for the Outstanding QA visit before the change of framework. There was only one inspector, surprise, surprise her specialism was SEND, so when in doubt she chose something related to SEND for her one next step. OFSTED QA then must have thought they can't just have writing for one class as a next step so we ended up with SEND writing for the whole school. We have now spent 4 years focusing on improving SEND, when it wasn't a big issue! I walked away from being the Lead SENCO last Sept and went back to a CT role, I couldn't cope with the pressure of another inspection. I hope you can rest this holiday - times are tough at the moment."

"...The lead HMI had made up her mind within an hour of being in the building. She spoke about teachers practice in front of them, she spoke about children's behaviour in front of vulnerable pupils with SEMH needs who had carefully considered positive intervention plans, thus triggering them. We knew we were going into special measures very early on. The HMI had very little empathy regarding staffs feelings. I tried to protect everybody in this complex situation from the hit including the leadership team. The HMI had little empathy for me. I had a panic attack in the school car park at the end of the second day feedback and was given support from our system leader (a local Headteacher, whom I will always be thankful to) and our Governors. None of the Ofsted inspectors showed any empathy towards me. When leaving the school they told the Chair of Governors that her children were not safe at our school. The system leader said that this situation was hugely unfair. The day after the inspection I took a day off and went and sat on a nearby hill trying to process the traumatic incident. I cried and felt such guilt and shame that a school I had loved for 15 years was where it was. I perceived it to be my fault. I wrote my resignation letter, unsure about what to do next. My children were only just 2 and 5 and I was worried about what I could do to support my family without my job. Luckily the Governors didn't accept my notice. They were kind and wrapped me up. I met with them the next morning. I remember the room spinning as I met with them and my heart pounding. I didn't let on to them that I was feeling as I was and tried to hide it and focus on how we were going to get out of the mess. After the left, my chest went tight and I had what I know now as a panic attack. At the time I thought it was a heart attack. I wasn't thinking clearly so I drove myself to hospital and didn't tell my family as I didn't want to worry them or for them to make me stop working. I was wired up to an ECG, was given the all clear and returned to work to run a staff meeting to support my colleagues. Only one colleague, my assistant headteacher knew I did this and was a rock and support throughout. 5 working days after the inspection, we had a play for parents. Our plays have always been amazing and have always made me proud. I sat in my office and told my Y3 teacher that I couldn't face the parents. I knew the secret but they didn't. How could I hide the shame? My lovely colleague gave me a stern word and told me that everybody else needed me and that the play would make me feel proud of our wonderful school. It did just that. For the next few weeks, I tried to be the best Mum to my kids and tried to be the best leader. It felt overwhelming and the panic attacks remained. I became anxious about the panic. I was signed off work for 8 weeks but refused to accept I needed to be and kept on going for the community I love. When the report was published the community wrapped me up. They did a collection, gave me flowers and let me know that they didn't blame me. I still blamed myself..."

"I'm sure you've got lots of input already, but the final Ofsted I had was brutal. Definitely came with an agenda, associate inspector scared staff with body language and with expression of sucking lemons. Tried, and succeeded in getting SLT to tell tales on HT. We got RI because the lead talked the associate round, but the impact of this, plus Covid, led me to leave the profession. My perspective is that the actions of Ofsted ripple into the toxic behaviour of heads, LA advisers, SIPs and MAT CEOs who lack empathy and run regimes based on fear, not relationships."

"My HT friend had an Ofsted short inspection this week. The treatment & requests from the inspector were nothing short of ridiculous, all staff left on tears on day 1! They fought back on day 2, but this should not be. She is a wonderful head & so committed to her community. I begged her complain ... but she won't in case they decided to reinspect...she can't face it again....her words "this is how they get you, they know we won't complain so we aren't reinspected" ... fear, bullying, power should not be tools for inspection. Not putting it on the thread as it is this week & I am also fearful in case I jeopardise anything... maddening isn't it!"

"I am on the 2nd day of a two day, ungraded inspection with one (new) HMI. It’s completely disrupted the children’s days, staff are doing amazingly. However, their stress levels are through the roof as they feel they don’t want to let the school down (not pressure from me, they just want to do a good job). The school was in a horrendous state when I got it in September and we are fighting for a good. He’s acknowledged that there’s been rapid improvement (good grading previously). He hasn’t kept with timings, moved things from day two to day one. I haven’t been able to get my full point across as he’s behind time, digging deep into things where he says there is a strong culture. Example: Sexualised behaviours: we have 7 incidences this academic year. One offs. Children haven’t repeated after it being tackled by staff. We’ve identified it and have put together key stage lessons to tackle it and raise the expectations that didn’t tackle it previously to me. It’s the smacking bottoms mainly. He’s said it’s a concern. I said the reason why we have more because it’s a new category on CPOMS this year. Staff are better trained to notice, better at logging concerns. I’ve been through a graded inspection two years ago and got good, but this one feels as stringent and it’s ungraded!! Nearly 1.45minutes of a safeguarding meeting! Where at the end of it said it’s good record keeping and strong culture?!? I was up until midnight getting things that he wanted for day two prepped. I’ve come up with the timetable myself from his bullet points as he pretty much sent me a blank document (like I have time for that). I now have woken up at 4:30am as I can’t sleep thinking about how I need to fight to come out as solidly good. It’s a joke as he asked me about 4/5 times yesterday, how are you feeling? Have their been any complaints about me? What can I genuinely say?!? I can’t say how I really feel about the whole crazy process for fear of being downgraded because of it. The whole rhetoric they’ve been told by their bosses to ask about the heads well-being because of what happened..., is a joke! It’s putting a plaster over a broken leg! I’m sorry to rant, but I am behind you! This has to change. For the first time ever I’ve asked myself why am I actually killing myself for this hoop jumping exercise! It’s a farce! The reason why I’ll be staying on come what May… the children, staff and families!"

"Yes, I too can trace my heart condition directly to Ofsted’s door. It needs abolishing and starting again. I’m all for accountability but the emphasis needs to be on improvement; Ofsted were there to ‘judge not advise’. We have given some of the power to them ourselves (banners & judgement chasing) as have LAs by listing how many good schools etc. I have always been clear that, with Ofsted, you can’t ignore the bad and celebrate the good- you ignore it all."

"Thank you for doing this. For saying what I should have said out loud. Battling with menopause at the same time as COVID and a new headship, I wasn’t sure If I was just being a wuss. I did 4 years and then stepped “back” to a Head of Primary School position... I was so close to jacking it all in. The pressure was unbelievable. I’m 4 months into my new role and I’m just beginning to emerge, it’s still stressful but I look at the exec HT and I am so glad not to be him anymore. Again, Thank you for putting your head above the parapet."

"Well done for sharing how you feel. I’m a teacher of just over 15 years - I had a stint as an AH but it wasn’t for me. I moved to a new school after 10 years at my previous school in September and we were inspected in November. As English lead, I felt the heat and was terrified that I’d make a mistake that would cost the school… But what I felt most was fear that I’d affect the work of my Head Teacher who has worked tirelessly for nearly 20 years in post and has created something special. My boss is a great guy who genuinely cares about the children and his staff and it was clear that he felt scared but bottled it up to protect his team. Our work is hard and the pressure on leaders is unsustainable. I hope what you’ve started leads to change. Thank you, well done and keep doing what you do. You make a difference."

"I was Headteacher for 7 years and spent the last 2 years in post on antidepressants due to not knowing how to get the school to 'Good'. Had lost sight of what the school was for. The Ofsted grading was all that mattered. Felt locked into an unsolvable puzzle. My drive to work took me over the Ship Canal. Occasionally I would think that driving off the edge would get me out of a job I couldn’t see a way out of. ‘Luckily’ I got pushed out of post by new MAT CEO. Been working in a LA Education team for last 3 years. Really happy now. Inspection system is mad and we are mad by working with the system. It’s an abusive relationship."

"Hey, fellow teacher and medication taker here I'm actually leaving the profession this summer after 13 year. Times to prioritise my mental health and build a life with my family and wellbeing as my priority."

"Have been on citalopram for a while now. Outwardly surefooted, likes a challenge and enjoys standing up for what matters. Inwardly anxious, over thinking and fearful. Outwardly a head who is experienced, knows what they are doing and unafraid to speak out. Inwardly hyper vigilant, constantly ‘on it’ and putting her own well-being last. Outwardly a smile, inwardly tension. Thank you for sharing."

"You don't know me but I just want to say thank you for speaking out. I am a fellow head and am not ashamed to say that today I had my first counselling session after being signed off sick six weeks ago with work related stress. Last year, we had OFSTED and received a declining good so have known that they will be back. The day after OFSTED a teacher was signed off and being a small school I had to cover her class. The new academic year came and I hoped it would go smoothly. Unfortunately not. Another teacher went on long-term sick and I had to plan for her class. Then a second teacher was off so I was planning for her class too as well as covering PPA and trying to bring about the changes we needed to for OFSTED which we knew were coming. My working days in were 6am - 1am. When I did sleep, I woke up convinced the phone was ringing and it was Ofsted. During the school day when the phone rang my heart rate was off the scale. The LA put us on a "supportive" package but what that meant was at least two visits a week with work required for each. Eventually I broke. I had chest pains, a numb arm and the inability to speak in full sentences or remember words. The Dr signed me off straight away. Six weeks after and I am still waking in the night hearing the phone. Any mention of school and my anxiety rises. The counsellor today has compared my anxiety/stress levels to a soldier in a war zone. She has assured me I can heal but I'm not sure how long it will take."

"Just a quick one to say thanks for your bravery in speaking out . I’ve had a horrible time due to Ofsted . 23 years … 2nd headship and moved from outstanding to RI following unfair inspection littered with inspection failures. We complained and obviously nothing happened due to archaic system. I’ve been left demoralised, humiliated and having to pick up pieces. It’s affected my health and I have a young family. It has to stop - it’s so unnecessary and cruel. Data is not my king - but my school is full of happy children and high achieving- they weren’t interested at all. We have a keen focus on values and well-being - again not interested. Just want to thank you for speaking out."

"At our last inspection the first thing the lead inspector said to the head and myself (deputy) I guess you think you have a good school - well I’m here to tell you you haven’t. She then told our whole staff that we may not like her style, she will upset people , but that’s the way it is! Interesting that the first bullet on the Ofsted code of conduct is : ‘to inspect without fear or favour’. She blew that in the first contact with all staff. We scraped through with ‘good’ despite our data consistently about National Average since the last inspection. We are now in our inspection window and every member of staff is terrified. Despite what Amanda Speilman said in her recent speech - we were definitely done ‘to’ not ‘’with’."

"You’re not alone Dave. I am on anti depressants due to the stress of the job. Last year waiting for OFSTED was horrendous. I was crying a lot and having mini panic attacks. Thank you for speaking out."

Harrowing reading don't you think? Things have to change and hopefully by using whatever platform I have - we have, standing up as a profession - something will. 

As I wrote in a recent tweet:

"Every day, I can feel more and more people are being more and more open about the urgent need for inspection reform. Thank you, everyone, together we’ll make this happen. #ForRuth"

You can reach out to Dave through his Twitter account @dave_mcpartlin or drop us a line learn@independentthinking.co.uk and we will forward to him.

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