Trying to win over the hearts and minds of potential students and parents is no easy feat – in many aspects it’s as daunting as facing the dreaded Ofsted inspector, says Ross Morrison McGill.
A war of nerves?
It was comparable to a ‘no-notice inspection’! My deputy headteacher asked me to stand in for him at one of our local primary schools to speak at a secondary transfer meeting. My heart palpitated with fear, but I knew I wanted to rise to the challenge. Speaking on behalf of your entire school community for the first time is no easy feat; nevertheless I was up for it!
Over the next 24 hours I did my research – not only investigating my own school, having worked there for less than a year, but also conducting a more detailed examination into the process of the meeting, the audience and the competition. I had the deputy’s script to use as a guide, and I would be armed with a handful of prospectuses and laminated photographs of some of our key students that demonstrated our school ethos and vision.
On the morning of the day itself, I had a discussion with our headteacher about stereotypical attitudes I may encounter, the barrage of questions that I would face and the ambient prejudice that would make anyone reach to pull their tightening white-collar away from their stiff, reddening neck! The thought of it made my blood pressure bubble…
Already exhausted from a full day in the classroom, followed by a 2.5-hour senior leadership team meeting, off I trundled to my office to freshen up and make the short walk to one of our local primary feeder-schools. No sooner had I set out, on a warm September evening, armed with a small box filled with 20 copies of both our school prospectus and latest summer magazine, that I knew I had already made the wrong choice!
I arrived in a sweat, but thankfully earlier than required. I said an over-enthusiastic “hello” to the welcoming headteacher, and swiftly scanned my surroundings. My heart lifted as soon as I surveyed the venue: a small room of 20 chairs or so. The primary headteacher told me that they had “decided to move away from the large school hall and make the evening a more intimate affair”.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t smile.
Taking the opportunity to distract myself from the task at hand, I used what little time we had left to take a short tour of the school with the headteacher. This was very brief, but amiable and enlightening. A small primary school is far away from the realms of a large 1,200+ comprehensive with more than 140 staff.
On our return, three of my competitors had arrived – I mean colleagues! Likewise, they were preparing themselves for the speeches – the occasion was akin to Dimbleby’s Question Time, only this time, with four grey and lonely chairs judiciously spaced across the front of the classroom. I sneaked a glance at my counterparts and their resources.
Headteacher A arrived with a USB memory stick and had their school logo emblazoned across the only ICT screen.
Headteacher B perused over a detailed speech resting on top of a clipboard.
Headteacher C was armed with a cup of tea and, in tow, a second colleague…
…and finally there was me.
I had already over-played, showing my deck of cards by filling a crowded table with our prospectus, magazine, Ofsted report et-al. Clearly I was over-compensating for my likely, floundering sales-pitch or I was hoping to tactically spread out the material and bat away any awkward questions with a pamphlet or photograph.
So, simply because I sat nearest to the primary headteacher, I was up first! I refused to ramble on for longer than five minutes, assuming most parents would switch off after two, having decided that they were bored or that they had already decided not to send their ten year-old child to our school.
Each headteacher took their stand in turn, each defining the school, its ethos and its USP (unique selling point).
Parents seized the chance to ask questions at the end – and there were none of difficulty – but what stood out for me was that each speech, regardless of context, was echoed by each other senior leader. I discerned that with each answer an over-arching degree of respect for each school and education itself in the borough was mutual.
Despite the moral message, this wasn’t my overriding memory of the evening. It was a fleeting judgment made by a fellow headteacher, just before we started proceedings: “Well, we are simply tarting ourselves, aren’t we?”
Open season has now drawn to a close and, no doubt, these decisions will now have been made. I can only imagine if my tartlets would have attracted any new potential students.
End of article.
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- Notes on the new Ofsted framework: how to be outstanding (guardian.co.uk)