SEF-LESS My Little Yellow Lemon Bug, why pre-MOTs are vital to schools, and the place of ‘Mocksteds’

Paul Burton - October, 2019

why pre-MOTs are vital to schools

‘Here are your keys and safe driving,’ said the sales manager as he handed me the set of car keys attached to what had once been a bright chrome VW emblem key fob, now tarnished through constant handling and revealing the underlying brass base metal. I drove cautiously away from the garage forecourt in my not-so-new, yellow Volkswagen Beetle, with the reassuring words of the manager still ringing in my ears. ‘You’ve got yourself a real bargain, young man- only two previous owners, moderate mileage, six months left on the MOT and my personal guarantee that this is a mechanically sound car,’ he had told me, vigorously shaking my hand once I’d signed the contract. His words were uttered long before the ‘ Vorsprung Durch Technik’ ad hit the TV screens and entered our psyche to become synonymous with reliability. The car gleamed as I drove into the school car park and I received admiring, envious glances from other colleagues who, like me, had recently passed their probationary year.

Six months later, I learned a very hard lesson which I have kept with me and shared with all the schools whose school improvement issues – especially Ofsted preparation - I have helped with over the last thirty years. Ignore Amanda Spielman’s advice at a recent Headteachers’ conference that schools should not be wasting scarce resources on ‘pre-Ofsted MOTs’ or what is commonly referred to as ‘Mocksteds’.

I wish I had heeded the advice of one of my colleagues who at the time taught the now-defunct Motor Vehicle Maintenance (MVM) subject when she gave my Yellow Bug a quick look-over and suggested I take it straight to a high-quality garage. She insisted that having a good mechanic give it a pre-MOT would save me a lot of stress, heartache and, more importantly, big-ticket money surprises if anything needed fixing. But no. I knew better. I had bought and studied the VW Haynes Repair Manual, and, every weekend, lovingly tended to the those parts that other parts cannot reach. Well, not really. I could check the oil and water levels, tyre pressure, and lights, and carefully position my fluffy dice on the mirror before neatly arranging the set of nodding Cocker Spaniel toys on the back shelf. Further testimony to my new-found car mechanics expertise were the hours I spent washing and polishing my Little Yellow Bug and diligently ‘touching up’ paint to cover up any emerging rust spots. However, I had no idea that one of the MacPherson strut bearings was becoming worn, that there was a slight tear in two of the rubber gaiters which were oozing grease or that an engine rocker box casket had dried out and was now leaking oil. My lesson was quickly learned as I walked dejectedly from the MOT testing bay clutching a failed certificate and a list of costly repair requirements - my brash mistake resulted in several weekends’ lost socialising and cancelled holidays to pay for all the work. My Little Yellow Bug had suddenly turned into a Big Yellow Lemon Bug.

Having eaten a large slice of humble pie, and not to be caught out a second time, the following year I called in a specialist mechanic to carry out a pre-MOT; he helped me identify potential problems, showed me how I could sort some of them out myself, gave careful instruction on how to change a few worn parts and, finally, not only gave me a useful self-evaluation check-list but reassured me that the car would pass. And it did, no problem!

Several months ago, an eminent Local Authority with a number of vulnerable schools and educational settings commissioned me to undertake ‘reviews’ of said institutions. Spielman calls them ‘Mocksteds’, but I prefer to call them ‘pre-MOTs’. The work included a pre-familiarisation visit, a one-day, on-site collaborative review, followed-up with an Ofsted-style report, and then a session to support the production of a Raising Achievement Plan (RAP).

Before each of the visits, I appraised the Headteacher of the process and requested background documents, most importantly the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF). From the very start of the reviews, I was met with a little resistance from some of the Headteachers and the commissioning organisation: they had not all produced a SEF or were reluctant to do so. If I’m honest, some of those that were sent to me were not entirely ‘fit for purpose’: excessively long, absence of evidence, no reference to impact, lacking in objectivity and, frankly, in some cases, a complete work of fiction smacking of ‘smoke and mirrors’! At times, when wading through some of the more verbose text, I felt as if I was both losing the plot – and the will to live.

In case the moral of the sad story of my Little Lemon Bug that I told at the start of each review had not made its mark with a Head and Governors during an initial visit to one particular school, I further illustrated my point further by mentioning the old Victorian terraced house I had just recently bought. I said that, had I based my judgement on the estate agent’s fanciful blurb, patter and insistence that the house was a real bargain, then, just like with my Yellow Bug, I would once again be up to my neck in (expensive) trouble. I explained to by now, an attentive audience that, although I know a lot about buying houses through various relocations associated with my jobs, I had learned my lesson and so had paid for an in-depth survey – a bit like a house-buying SEF. It gave me background information about the house, noted any modifications that had been made, identified the really positive aspects of the house along with areas requiring urgent attention, provided contextual data, suggested a scheduled maintenance programme to meet modern building inspection requirements and outlined likely methods to remedy structural problems.

Having made this analogy, I then presented a detailed, annotated version of their school SEF before going on to use with the Head, senior team and Governors a self -evaluation tool which I have designed. Both of these activities were a springboard for discussion and, following an informative walk around the school, prompted the Headteacher at the end of the morning to say that she wanted to re-write their SEF. She was particularly enthusiastic when I presented to her different SEF models and exemplars. When she was asked if extracts from my models could be used, I was only too pleased to oblige.

A number of common features emerged in all the reviews I carried out. Headteachers were underselling the schools’ achievements; new Headteachers were failing to mention the challenging context they had inherited; Headteachers were also being too apologetic in their use of their language or not sufficiently objective in their SEFs; evaluations were not referenced against Ofsted criteria; evidence to explain and justify decisions taken was simply not there.

Before, and even after, the one-day review in which I and senior leaders jointly undertook learning walks, scrutinised books, held discussions with teachers and pupils and included many of the features of the current Ofsted process, nearly all the Headteachers re-sent amended and improved SEFs. One recently- appointed Headteacher, after sending me her fourth revision of the school SEF, the one-day review, follow-up report and RAP production, told me: “This is the best CPD I have ever had.” What was also evident from my work with these educational settings was how ‘bruised’ schools and how Headteachers had had their confidence knocked after a damning Ofsted report and critical follow-up visits by LA advisory staff. This wasn’t always helped either by further reviews by external support agencies, especially from their peers who, in their accounts, had ‘gone native’ and, from my evidence, were fudging the main messages. Their notes of visits no doubt were meant with ‘good intention’ and re bolstered the self-esteem of the Headteachers, but in no way helped to inform or accelerate the required improvements.

On the collaborative ‘learning walks’, we consistently saw signs of ineffective teaching during the reviews. Those schools which had read my article ‘Through the looking class’ on Linkedin or my blog on the Rhinoss website about the importance of lesson observation and feedback (based on my experience of observing more than 19,000 lessons) invariably requested additional time for me to return to the school and work with identified teachers. The aim is always to look at their teaching approaches and to take the teachers on ‘learning walks’ using bespoke observation materials. In some instances, I have even provided the schools with scripted lessons, posters, and ‘policies on a page’ to help staff address the bad teaching habits they have fallen into over the years.

When co-producing RAPs with schools, the tension at times has been tangible, particularly when hard messages have had to be delivered. Yes, we may quote Andy Rooney ‘Always make your words soft and tender, because you may have to eat them tomorrow’, but, if a Headteacher has exhausted all strategies to improve the quality of teaching, even re-shaping the staffing structure in order to mitigate limiting the damage caused by weak teachers, then the logical conclusion is in these words of Phil Jesson :‘ If you cannot change the people, then you have to change the people!’. Not an easy thing to achieve in the middle of a national teacher recruitment crisis.

The conclusion that I have drawn over my long career is that it is a very bold school which does not have some form of robust and secure SEF as part of its improvement toolbox, not just in anticipation of an Ofsted inspection but as an essential, up-to-date record of the school’s strengths, areas for development, concomitant strategies and mechanisms for critical self-review and evaluation. Just as my Little Yellow Bug needed to have somebody with appropriate expertise undertake a pre-MOT to identify and pre-empt potential problems, so, too, schools need to have a collaborative, well-constructed ‘pre-Ofsted MOT’: a ‘Mocksted’.

Please note: if any educational organisation would like to discuss and arrange for a ‘Mocksted’ or similar MOT review activity, please do not hesitate to contact the author at Rhinoss Educational Consultancy via or via LinkedIn © Paul D Burton October 2019 Rhinoss Educational Consultancy