Top of the agenda

A while ago I wrote a post, inspired by one by Stephen Tierney, about focussing daily on the things that really make a difference in school: Down to brass tacks.

That was about the day-to-day interactions that make the most difference. In this post I’m considering strategic priorities for school improvement. One of the features of working at a school which is in Special Measures is how many people come to visit us. Each one has some advice on defining our priorities. The trouble is that each one believes that their area of interest is the most important.

“Safeguarding definitely has to be at the top of your agenda. It’s absolutely imperative that children should be safe and feel safe.” No argument there.

“It’s the basics really. Literacy & numeracy; English & maths. They are the foundation of the whole curriculum. It’s crucially important that they are at the top of your agenda.” Well, quite.

“You’re a Catholic school. It’s obvious that Catholic Life should be at the very top of every agenda. After all, it’s what defines this school as distinctive.” Amen to that.

“You need to ensure that the Pupil Premium is your key priority. Look at your data. You have a high proportion of disadvantaged students: closing the gap is the key to school improvement.” The numbers are irrefutable.

“Attendance has got to be your top priority; if children aren’t in school, they aren’t learning.” Absolutely, that’s a given.

And so on. Each of these, say our visitors, must be at the top of our agenda. The trouble is, they’re not wrong. All of these factors are important to the success of students and to our journey of school improvement, but how can they all be at the top of the list? 

The fact is, we have to keep all those plates spinning at the same time, and support colleagues who are keeping their own plates spinning. The real issue isn’t so much what to put at the top of the agenda but how to coordinate a coherent approach to developing all these interlinked aspects of an effective school. In my opinion, this involves two parallel elements:

  1. refining the most important aspects of each area so that, at any point, our efforts are focussed on a few things that make the most difference.
  2. Planning across the areas of focus so that the thinking and actions of staff members are directed efficiently, so that actions in one area support those in others.

An example of this approach is our school Pupil Premium strategy for 2017-18. In a departure from the previous format, 28 separate strands have been reduced to six areas:

  • language and communication skills in Early Years & KS1; 
  • behaviour for learning; 
  • attendance; 
  • literacy, with a focus on KS3; 
  • numeracy, especially with respect to being prepared for the new KS4 curriculum; and 
  • lack of home access to resources, study support and cultural experiences.

The previous structure was unwieldy, difficult to coordinate and hard to monitor and evaluate effectively. The consolidation into just six strands (with behaviour and attendance as priorities in both primary and secondary phases) allows us to concentrate our work on those areas which we have identified as the greatest inhibitors to the progress of disadvantaged students.

Each of these areas also interlinks with other school improvement priorities, so that initiatives will work more efficiently, complementing each other and maximising the effective use of time an resources. For example, the focus on literacy in the Pupil Premium strategy sits within our values, is based on evidence-based evaluation, builds on previous whole school work, draws on expertise from the primary phase, and utilises resources developed within our inclusion department.

The next step I’m working on is to build in the milestones for each area to create a monitoring, evaluating and reporting map across the school year. This will enable better tracking of our progress, and better reporting SLT, governors, and all our visitors. I hope that this revised approach will help us keep all the plates spinning at once by integrating our different priorities. 

As always, constructive comments and suggestions are always welcome. Click the links to read my other posts about Pupil Premium and Reducing Workload.


Ofsted Offerings 2 – Preparing for a Section 8 Visit

last March, I wrote about our section 5 Ofsted inspection. You can read that post here. In this post, I share our experiences of preparing for a Section 8 monitoring visit in December 2015.

Getting the Call

If you are judged RI in an inspection, you know there will be a follow-up monitoring visit, so in a sense there are months of notice. As it turned out, ours came much later than we expected. We had the call a Thursday for a monitoring visit the following Monday – the start of the last week of the Autumn term. Probably not the week we would have picked – busy with nativity plays, carol concerts, etc., but then again lots to show a visitor! So the answer to the question ‘Will Ofsted visit in the last week of term?’ Is ‘Yes’. 

Having notice before a weekend is a double-edged sword: there is more time to prepare but there is also more time to worry. All the documentation had to be sent in advance; the SEF had been done and the SIP was being tightened up anyway, so these things were in place. We told staff at a special briefing on Thursday and it became clear that colleagues made good use of the time they had.

Use the Handbook

This was only the second monitoring visit I had experienced, so I was less familiar with the format than that of a full inspection. I found the Ofsted handbook really useful in understanding the purpose and format of the visit, what the inspector would be looking at and what the possible outcomes could be. Our inspector was Chris Wood, interesting because I’d read some of his work on Pupil Premium. I’d led the PP evaluation last year and authored our new plan, so this certainly served to concentrate my mind.

The Day

The day included the following elements. Although Mr Wood specified most of the order of events, exact scheduling was left to us.

  • Meet Head
  • Meet SLT
  • Learning Walk (11 classes were visited)
  • Meet Middle Leaders (He chose which)
  • Meet student group (mix of abilities, we chose individuals)
  • Meet Governors
  • Meet Diocesan representative (we’re a faith school. Due to availability this was a phone call)

Apart from these elements, some further information was asked for with a couple of follow-up conversations. This was to clarify points and/or provide further evidence.

Even better if…

In general we were well-prepared and the day went smoothly, sticking to the schedule. One question I had to deal with was accessibility of pupil premium information on our website. This puzzled me because it should have been easy to access. A hyperlink was broken so the 2013-14 evaluation could be seen but not 2014-15. I should have double-checked that all was OK.

My favourite moment – when in conversation with inspector in the school office, a colleague walked in dressed as a minion (all part of the infant nativity play – don’t ask). What did I do – kept calm and carried on! “I don’t see that in every visit” Commented Mr Wood with a smile.

Hope you find this useful if you have a visit coming up. I welcome any comments you may have.

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


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.

Ofsted Offerings – Reflections on an Inspection

These are some thoughts following our Section 5 Ofsted Inspection this week at St Gregory the Great Catholic School, Oxford. The original post, originally published on 26th March 2015, just contained some of my initial reflections about the process, the effectiveness of our preparations, and where we could improve these before the next one. 

31st March: updated with minor amendments and thoughts on an inspection without lesson observation gradings.

25th April: Updated to include additional details now the inspection report has been made public. Includes some additional reflections.

With a little help from our friends

 The experiences of other schools who had recently received a visit were immensely helpful in informing our preparation. I’d like to extend my particular thanks to colleagues at Cheney School, Oxford.

The training we received from Ofsted Lead Inspector Mary Myatt on the inspection process and in particular observations and feedback under the new framework was invaluable. I’d certainly recommend getting an expert external perspective from someone like Mary in preparation for inspection. 

Being Prepared

Having key documents ready collated together in files saved us a lot of time in the short space between the call and the visit and was helpful to the Ofsted team. These days we store and access most of our documentation electronically, but it was useful to have hard copies ready to hand. We keep two folders ready: school policies and key documents, including those listed on pages 13 & 14 of the Ofsted handbook. 

As I’ve also seen in previous inspections, the better the evidence you provide, the less they need to talk about it with you. That means that, for example, the lovingly-crafted evaluation I was just bursting to lead them through was just accepted, but they want to talk about something else entirely. That is, of course a good thing – if you have already communicated something well, they don’t need to enquire further. 

Even better if: We store minutes of governors meetings separately, but it would have been useful to include minutes of recent meetings, perhaps for the last term, in the key documents folder.
We forgot to give them maps of the school – that would have helped! 


A short briefing to staff by our Principal demonstrating confidence in colleagues and reminding them of some key points worked well. We tried to keep colleagues appraised and encouraged throughout the process, especially at the start of the second day.

Even better if: Some colleagues in their first years of teaching and who hadn’t experienced an Ofsted Inspection before were clearly anxious about the process. While they did receive support from their team leaders, a separate opportunity for this group to ask questions and receive reassurance might be a good idea in the future.

Keeping colleagues informed during the process was helpful, as was senior and middle leaders modelling confidence for their teams. 

Encouraging colleagues to take up the offer of feedback proved useful, although I had forgotten how daunting this prospect can be for those who haven’t been Ofsted-ed before, so I’ll try to remember that next time round. 

Observations and feedback

As I have also noticed on previous inspections, the time allocated for feedback was not sufficient, so it’s worth remembering that everything planned to take place after these sessions is likely to be pushed back. 47 lessons were observed including 8 joint observations with SLT – more than in other inspections I have experienced. Not all colleagues who were observed received feedback, although in some cases this was because they declined the offer. 

This was my first inspection where no lesson observation gradings were given in feedback. After a debate last year, we had introduced this form of feedback in school, so it should have been familiar. I believe it has helped make observation feedback developmental. It seemed to have the same effect during the inspection: staff left feedback talking about what the inspector had told them about their teaching, rather than a judgement. I and SLT colleagues were both observed teaching and giving feedback following joint observations. I felt both were more developmental, but subsequently discovered that colleagues had varied experiences, from very full feedback to a couple of sentences. When SLT had conversations with inspectors following joint observations these sometimes included specific reference to grades, but not always. Grades were not however referred to in feedback to teachers and the overall judgement for quality of teaching was derived from a wide evidence base.

Even better if: next time round it might be better to make the availability of feedback from inspectors clear at the start, but also the likely pressure on the inspectors time. We could also raise concerns with the team if we perceived the planned time for feedback would not be enough. We also needed to keep a closer check on who had been observed so we could ensure all who wanted feedback received it.

We didn’t get a large Parentview response, despite communicating with parents via all our usual routes (pupils, email, website, Twitter). Perhaps the notice was just too short, but only about 60 responses as a result of the inspection is not many for a school of 1300 pupils. We clearly need to discuss with parents on how to encourage engagement with this questionnaire. Any suggestions on this would be really helpful. 


Being able to observe the Ofsted team meetings at the end of both days gave me a real insight into the process, especially how lines of enquiry were developed and pursued and how rigour in judgements was achieved. It was also apparent how little time the team had to collect and analyse evidence, so if you want them to see something, don’t be reticent about pushing good evidence towards them! The time is so short that I have to wonder if this is the best way for an inspection team to form a comprehensive view of the school – a matter I intend to write a separate post on.

Even better if: while the Principal was given ample opportunity to draw additional evidence to the attention of the team, the pace was so breakneck that there was little time to do so. We need to give more thought to supporting key staff to respond to lines of enquiry that emerge during the inspection, as well as those we anticipated in advance.

Draft Report

The Principal has a matter of hours to respond to the draft inspection report, so it pays to be ready for it. We found Ofsted to be responsive to comments that were supported by valid and reliable evidence.

Special Events

Lastly, we received a bit of help from St Gregory the Great himself. We found out afterwards that our inspection had apparently been scheduled for earlier in the term but Ofsted had seen from our website that we were celebrating the Feast of our Patron, St Gregory the Great and moved it. Whether or not a school has a patron saint, this illustrates that Ofsted will pick up on special / unusual events if they are publicised online. We’re currently working on our calendar of saints for every day of the school year!