Is this really the best way to inspect schools?

This post draws on my experience of a recent Ofsted inspection, to ask questions about the validity the current school inspection process in England. Nothing here is intended to be a criticism of the recent inspection, or of the inspection team. They arrived at judgements which agreed with our own school self evaluation. It was clear that judgements were based on a range of evidence and rooted in the criteria within the Ofsted handbook. You might then ask why I’m writing this at all. It’s because while I can see that the current framework is one way to inspect schools, I’m not convinced it’s the only way, still less the best way.

 

 

Short notice

I can see some advantages to short notice inspections. A phone call by midday signalling a two day inspection starting the next morning means our inspection didn’t ruin the previous weekend, nor the one after. I’ve been teaching long enough to remember when schools had enough notice to paint classrooms before an inspection, with the entire staff on alert for weeks beforehand!

Nevertheless, I don’t like such short notice for two reasons: it limits the ability of the team to gather evidence and it implies distrust. The team only gain access to some information after they inform the school of the inspection. For example, our team wanted to look at some year 11 maths lessons. There weren’t any timetabled on the days they were in school. A little bit of flexibility around dates, times would have allowed them to see what they wanted, and us to demonstrate how our fabulous maths team are effecting improvements at GCSE.

It’s not so long ago where we had an inspection model where the role of Ofsted was to verify the self-evaluation of the school of it’s own effectiveness and priorities. This has changed to a sub-script of ‘catch them napping’. I think this is disingenuous to both school leaders, particularly in challenging schools, and school inspectors, who take on that role to improve outcomes for young people by helping schools improve.Furthermore, I think it detracts from the reality that to effect long-term sustainable improvement in a school, the vision for that improvement must be owned by the staff of that school. External dictat can only ever create short term compliance, not transformational change.

 

Pace of the inspection

The pace of the process seems rushed, and too fast to do justice to the important issues that must be covered. Now, I was as happy as anyone to wave goodbye to the inspection team on Wednesday evening, but rather than asking for longer inspections, I think the teams could be afforded more flexibility.

If for example, it becomes apparent through joint observations on the first day that the SLT have a good handle on assessing the quality of teaching and provide developmental feedback to drive improvement, why is it necessary for the inspection team to continue to conduct a large number of lesson inspections (so many that providing feedback to all staff proved impossible). Surely it would be better to spend that time on other lines of enquiry? In this way an inspection could maintain the remit to gain a valid, reliable overview of the school, but also be better able to personalise the process to the specific context and needs of each school. As it is, it seems that the balance of an inspection has swung back towards a large number of lesson observations, reducing the time available for anything else.

Short notice and limited time to address issues during an inspection mean that schools must spend and increasing amount of time ensuring that they are ‘Ofsted ready’. Not only that, we are required to re-establish our readiness with every change to the framework. This is, not surprisingly, a good way of providing inspection teams with the information they need, smoothing the path of an inspection, but surely it should be enough for a school staff to devote all their time and energy to helping their students make good progress.

In contrast, inspection teams don’t seem to have much time at all to be ‘school ready’. Thrown together at short notice, battling their sat navs to find us, with little time to gel as a team before they’re meeting the head and out into classrooms and corridors, it can neither be easy nor an aid to efficiency.

 

The report

Why do Ofsted inspection reports start with the negatives? In what feedback situation, in any context, is it deemed a good idea to start with the bad news? When has any training in giving feedback recommended starting with what is wrong? Even Ofsted don’t do this when they feedback to teachers following an observation, or in the verbal feedback at the end of the inspection, yet when it comes to writing it down in the report, it’s right there front and centre!

This seems extraordinary, especially when reports seem to be becoming much fuller and more developmental. Our inspection report is full of depth, detail and a wealth of positive comments, but I’m not sure anyone would guess that if they didn’t read beyond the first page.


Ofsted Feedback Form

This inspection is the first time I’ve been asked to complete the online feedback form. I think it’s a welcome addition and I’m sure it’s a reflection of Ofsted’s genuine desire to engage with teachers to improve their service.  Nevertheless, I have to admit that as I filled it in I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that all the answer options resolved into:

A. I agree that Ofsted are wonderful

Or

B. Please clobber me with another inspection


A better way?

I think there does need to be external review of schools, that’s healthy for schools and good for children and their families. But if the overall aim is to improve standards, especially for disadvantaged students, I think that the current system needs to change to focus on that, celebrating and sharing successful practice, and helping schools improve. I believe that a fuller Pre-inspection brief informed by better communication afforded by a bit more notice, agreed agreed areas of focus and a more flexible approach to the actual inspection could not only improve the efficiency of the whole process but transform the current inspection regime into a valuable aid to school improvement.

For that to happen there needs to be a bit more trust in schools from the top, and a reevaluation of some key assumptions. Teachers do the job because they want to make a difference to children’s lives. They are the key to school improvement, not an obstacle. It is becoming increasingly evident that, perhaps unintentionally, the current framework favours high prior attainment: that isn’t going to help students who have fallen behind, nor schools in the most challenging circumstances.


What about my feelings about that online feedback form? Perhaps if I want Ofsted to trust me, I need to trust them too, giving feedback and appreciating the fact that they want it.

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