As the staff at Releasing Potential School, myself included, sat in the lunch room one Monday afternoon this May, a call came through to our Senior Executive Officer in the middle of one of our student-led lunches. The message: “OFSTED are on the phone” drove fear and panic into the hearts of all those who happened to hear it (students included, I suspect – but more on that later!). We were, as we had known all year, due our first inspection, having had a preliminary registration inspection in the summer of 2017. The reality, as the significance of the call from OFSTED sunk in, hit home for the tired staff who on that day alone had faced a number of difficult challenges with vulnerable young people before the first half of the day was even over. Will the inspectors “get” out students? Will we be compared to mainstream schools, or Pupil Referral Units? What will they make of the fact our children are dis-applied from the National Curriculum? Would our recent gains in Numeracy and Literacy be enough? How could we hope to show progress for students for whom just leaving their bedroom is a cause for triumphant celebration?

Over a tense few hours the troops were marshalled. Our Head of School was tracked down on her day off, our Executive Leadership Team and Trustees were contacted, and we prepared to put our best foot forward as we tentatively stepped into territory unknown at 8.30am the next morning. My own experience with OFSTED had been limited to horror stories from colleagues in schools, conversations with contacts (Henry Readhead of Summerhill – I am thinking about you!), and a handful of inspection reports I had read during the course of my work for the Releasing Potential Institute. For our founder and CEO, school inspections were a bygone memory from his days as a PE teacher and for our Head of School, who had designed the bespoke curriculum against which student progress was measured, this was a first big test of the processes she had designed to make our fully functioning school look and feel as little like a school as possible.

Our OFTED inspection lasted three exhausting days during which the Senior Leadership Team were questioned, staff were interviewed, and parents, trustees and Local Authorities were contacted. The inspector observed teaching in a range of ways: with a group of boys with Emotional-Behavioural Difficulties (EBD) on an Activation session outdoors; in a classroom setting with one of our Engage groups; in a cooking 1:1 session where functional skills were “cleverly” embedded, and in our sixth form provision who were on residential at the time. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the young people we work with and the challenges they face, anxieties were high and the presence of the inspector likely affected some student’s ability to participate fully – there were an unusually high number of refusals to attend over those three days. Despite this, OFSTED were able to see first hand the different methods of delivering education that the School has developed and witnessed some great examples of innovative practice from our committed team. Underpinning all of this was the creativity of the incredible curriculum designed by our Head. Our curriculum offers something so different to almost every other school in the country (including most Alternative Provision)  it had been untested until now and was a source of both pride and anxiety – would it pass muster? Would OFSTED see what Lara had worked so hard to implement? The answer, thankfully, was yes. Indeed, the curriculum was acknowledged as a huge asset to our students’ progress, and our ability to track their outcomes through bespoke data collection and analysis tools was the cherry on top of the cake.

Described as the “golden thread” connecting all school processes and approaches to learning, safeguarding was a major focus of the inspection. What emerged from the inspector’s time with our Safeguarding Lead, Catherine, was that our robust systems for monitoring, reporting and following up on safeguarding concerns amongst our students was something about which we should feel very proud. In most schools, safeguarding is an important KPI that is related to, but perhaps not given the same resource as, academic progress. For our students, many of whom are Looked After Children or who have chaotic living situations, it is impossible for them to learn until their basic needs for safety, love and belonging and even food and shelter are being met. Safeguarding, for us, costs an incredible amount of time and energy since almost all our students are involved in risky lifestyles and behaviours. Despite this, it is central to our students’ experience of learning, a strength OFSTED  pointed out in some detail in our inspection feedback.

As a handful of us gathered to hear the inspector’s feedback on the final day of the inspection, we reflected on what had been a genuinely affirming and useful process. Whatever the result, we had achieved so much and could feel very pleased with the incredible journey RP had been on from a freewheeling outdoor education outreach provider to a fully fledged school. Once we were given the result,  we waited an agonising few weeks to be able to share it, and report, with the entire team. When it arrived none of us could have been any prouder of what had been achieved by our staff. The report highlights a number of areas in which Releasing Potential School excels: progress in numeracy and literacy, healthy and supportive adult-child relationships, behaviour management, leadership and governance. There are, however, some small improvements we need to make, and these were neither a huge surprise nor too much of a tall order for such an energised and capable group of teachers, administrators and managers. We are thrilled to be an OFSTED good-rated school following our first inspection, and look forward to our next, during which an ‘Outstanding’ result feels entirely possible!

For our full 2018 OFSTED report please click here.