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.


Can the Pupil Premium level the playing field?

This post is inspired by the #SLTchat discussion on Sunday 16th April, hosted by Russell Hobby of the NAHT. The discussion focussed on the impact of economic disadvantage on education and issues around the pupil premium grant (PPG).

The PPG is vital funding for many schools. Around a third of the pupils at my school are eligible for the PPG, so it’s a considerable component of the overall budget and vital for our provision for disadvantaged pupils.

Good teaching or special interventions?

There seemed to be agreement among participants that focussed allocation of PPG funds is crucial to raising standards for this group of students. At the same time, many contributors, commented against interventions and put forward the view that great teaching was the way to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make here. As I said in the #SLTchat discussion, if good teaching / good schools was enough, then parental income at birth shouldn’t be the indicator of GCSE success that it is. Any definition of good teaching must include strategies that enable all pupils to succeed, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This work needs to be personalised, targeting the actual needs of individual students. I can understand a frustration with short-term interventions that can end up labelling disadvantaged students, aren’t tailored to individual needs (“You’re getting extra maths because you get the PP”). However, interventions that are set up to overcome specific barriers to learning for identified students are very different indeed. Those barriers might include being hungry, not having equipment, having fallen behind in a key area of learning, or having a limited range of educational or employment backgrounds within the family.

At St Gregory’s we arrange our PPG-funded work into three strands – Nurture, achievement and aspiration. I have written more about this here.

Signing up – a job for schools? 

Many contributors to the discussion clearly felt that schools were distracted from this vital work with students by having to advertise the advantages of the PPG and encourage parents and carers to come forward and sign up. I agree that this shouldn’t be a job for schools, nor should it be a source of embarrassment for families. The government have the information about who is eligible, and which schools pupils attend. It should be possible to match the two centrally to allocate the PPG.

Working together

Our monitoring data indicates that were are closing the gap, but that there is still a long way to go. As Stephen Tierney commented in #SLTchat, other services and agencies should be involved in supporting disadvantaged students and their families, not just schools. In my experience when this works it works very well and can be truly transformational. Unfortunately it seems that all too often, funding limitations and / or recruitment difficulties restrict this effective multi-agency work to reacting to the most serious cases. Just imagine what we could achieve if multi-agency teams had the time, resources and personnel to work together proactively from the start of a child’s educational journey.

As always, I value any constructive comments or suggestions you may have.


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!


Practical Science – It’s Place in the Whole School Curriculum

Ofqual and Practical Science
I recently went on a learning walk, taking in several year 11 science classes. About half were engaged in practical work. In my subsequent discussion with our Head of Science, we got talking about the decision by Ofqual to remove practicals from GCSE science assessment. His response was that his team “would keep on doing practicals, no matter what.” At the same time he expressed a concern that there were some secondary schools where less and less time was given to practicals.

In the media, it seems that there are opposing views on the Ofqual decision. Many scientific organisations have condemned the removal of practical assessment but it also seems clear that the majority of science teachers who responded to the consultation were in favour of it. What does this tell us about the place of science within the whole school curriculum?

What’s the point of doing science?
Please comment if you think I’m wrong here (or right!), but I think most science teachers love practical science but loathe ISAs. These assessments have undergone several iterations but are now generally regarded as cumbersome, overly long, formulaic and an organisational nightmare. It’s therefore unsurprising that few science teachers are mourning their demise. But the ISA is not the only way to assess practical skills, or students’ understanding of scientific investigation.

Science teachers such as Alom Shaha (writing in the Guardian here ) point to evidence that practicals may be largely ineffective in embedding knowledge. It’s certainly true that direct instruction works, but I believe carrying out practical research is essential if pupils are to understand what science is, as well as what scientists have done.

Objectivity, Replicability, and Paradigms
One way of summarising the key features of science is it’s attempt to be objective, the importance of replicability and the building of paradigms.

We cannot teach objectivity by showing students how to answer questions, but not how to ask them, by telling them about hypotheses or models, but not how to test them. Nor is it achieved by a reliance on the word of a teacher (however expert) or a text. Furthermore, it attempting to be objective, students learn that researchers themselves are variables that need to be taken into account.

Replicability is a cornerstone of science. Any research should be reported in a manner that allows others to verify its reliability be repeating it. Students should learn to both to verify what others have done, and design and report their own investigations in a way that can be replicated.

Science is not a static body of knowledge from the past, nor is it a set of hurdles that students must overcome before they can contribute themselves. It is an ongoing search for the truth that proposes explanations, then tests them by trying to knock them down, within overarching and continually developing paradigms. To learn science is to become an active part in this process.

More questions than answers
This leaves me with some questions about the place of science, and practical science, in the curriculum.

1. What are we seeking to achieve through practical science? This should drive the curriculum, not assessment.

2. What should be the balance of teaching practical skills and an understanding of scientific research?

3. How do our aims for science fit into our school values and what we aim for students to achieve at school overall?

Perhaps in the context of these questions, the Ofqual decision, whether we agree with it or not, can be seen as an opportunity. I welcome your comments.


Workload Planning for Peak Times

This is the second in a planned series of posts on tackling workload issues in schools, so teachers can focus on the most effective activities. Originally posted in February 2015, this post was updated in April 2015, and again in April 2016.

Planning for the Pressure Points 

One important way in which school leaders can reduce the workload of teaching staff is to recognise the times of the year when there are particularly high demands. One of these for UK secondary schools is the period in late Spring when we embark on the ‘final push’ and at the same time face the marking & moderation of coursework components. We have adopted a couple of strategies to help staff during this time.

1. Meetings Moratorium For several years we have held a moratorium on meetings for the two weeks after The Easter holiday, suspending the school meeting cycle (subject / pastoral / CPD) to assist colleagues in dealing with this seasonal workload. We also devolve a twilight INSET slot to subject teams in this period so they can share practice, honing and standardising their assessment skills.
2. SLT take on the Homework In 2014, we took the additional step of relieving colleagues of the requirement to set and mark KS3 homework. Instead the SLT set and marked a ‘TakeAway Homework’ menu (Thank you to @TeacherToolkit for that idea*) We used this as a student voice opportunity, so menu items included completing an online survey, writing to the head about an improvement to the school, and writing to me about what qualities a great teacher should have (I need all the help I can get!) We used the responses to inform the School improvement plan.

None of this makes the work go away, of course, but it does allow colleagues to concentrate on key tasks, by relieving some of the pressure on them at this time of year. Teachers have cited it as a helpful strategy in the annual staff wellbeing survey.  

April 2015 Update

This year we are repeating the moratorium on meetings, but have modified the take away homework for KS3 students. We have been revisiting our school values this year, so we have included a ‘starter’ on random acts of kindness and a ‘main course’ item which is a competition to design a poster around our school values of wisdom, integrity, justice and compassion. We are also having a push on extended writing, so another ‘main course’ is a writing competition. The inclusion of competition entries also reduces the marking load because the entries are initially screened for shortlisting rather than close-marked. We have of course retained the item most popular with parents last year – the ‘dessert’ on helping out at home!

April 2016 Update

This strategy was welcomed by colleagues last year, so we are repeated it again this year.

We used the same pattern of a meetings moratorium and devolved some INSET time to subject departments so they could use it when most appropriate to their planning. 

We also repeated the centralised takeaway homework for KS3 students. You can find it here. We stuck with extended writing opportunities. This was a great success last year and several pupils produced prize-winning entries in National writing competitions. Building on this, we have deliberately written poetry, short story writing and art tasks to meet entry requirements for competitions. We will also be comparing writing this year with that from last year as a way of assessing progress on this priority in our SIP.

We shifted the focus of our ‘values’ tasks to practical action to improve the school environment as our (Catholic school) community explores the message of Pope Francis’ letter Laudato Si’: Care for our Common Home. We’ll also be using this as a student voice opportunity, comparing answers with last year and also asking about our teaching and learning development areas for this year (feedback and DIRT, and Collaborative Learning).


Once again, adopting this strategy has helped alleviate the workload burden of colleagues at a ‘heavy’ time of year, and in a year when there is so much additional change in all areas. Even though Easter was much earlier this year, the two week period after the holiday still seems to have been the most beneficial time to do this.

I hope you found this post useful. I’m keen to hear any comments you have and I’d particularly like to hear other ideas on managing and reducing workload. 

*You can find more about takeaway homework on the Teacher Toolkit website

Making the Most of the Pupil Premium

Reviewing Pupil Premium
Last term I led the review of my school’s use of the Pupil Premium. As well as reviewing impact, we wanted to share a fuller analysis on our website. For readers outside the UK, the Pupil a Premium is funding intended to tackle the effects of income disadvantage. A third of our pupils received it last year. The total allocation was £267,000.
Previously, our published analysis consisted of a list of allocations with an indication of outcomes. I wanted to improve on this, not merely to meet statutory requirements but to show the rationale behind our plan, provide an accessible evaluation of impact, and show how this had informed our future planning.
The document went through several drafts and I’m indebted to my colleagues Steve Jones and Nick Rose (@nickjohnrose) at St Gregory’s for a key information and to Amjad Ali (@ASTsupportAAli) whose Pupil Premium analysis at Cheney School, Oxford was a help and inspiration.

Rationale for Allocation
We organise our allocation of the Pupil Premium into three areas: nurture, progress and aspiration.
Nurture covers everything we do to mitigate the effects of economic disadvantage so that students can engage fully with the curriculum. This includes various subsidies, providing breakfasts, clothing & equipment for vocational courses and specialist activities, and a contribution towards providing a family support worker.
Progress involves teaching strategies and specific interventions to enable pupils with low prior attainment to make more rapid progress. This includes whole school and departmental interventions, mentoring and learning support.
Aspiration includes provision that enriches the curriculum, extends opportunities and raises the breadth and extent of student aspirations. It includes clubs, instrumental loan and tuition, enhanced independent advice & guidance and university visits.

Impact Analysis
We have chosen a range of impact indicators including Good Learning Development in Early Years, end of key stage attainment and indicators in English & maths, KS2-4 VA and A2 VA. We also include numbers in education, employment and training post-16 and post-18. These form the basis of our planning & evaluation cycle. For each allocation, success criteria are established. These are subsequently used to RAG-rate impact, followed by a brief commentary on future actions which forms the basis of planning for the next year.

You can see our 2013-14 analysis on the St Gregory’s website here.

What have we learned?
The new format has helped parents and carers understand the importance of the Pupil Premium and the range of work it supports.
School Governors have found the new format helpful in understanding the relative impact of different interventions.
The approach to impact analysis in particular has highlighted some key points for school leaders including the areas where we need better data to inform our evaluation and the importance of raising our aspirations for disadvantaged students. In general it is clear that the most successful interventions are those that are very specific, with tightly defined success criteria, and are targeted towards particular identified needs.

Next Steps
We know that we aren’t there yet. We may not have the best mix of indicators and many will have to change with the introduction of assessment beyond levels, progress 8, etc.
To achieve better outcomes for disadvantaged students we need to work more with those students and their families to establish individual needs.
It is also becoming clear that there are a group of families just above the Pupil Premium threshold who have been hit hard by the current economic climate. The Premium is a fairly blunt tool and it’s important to use a range of other information in assessing need.

This is a work in progress and I’d appreciate any comments or advice readers may have to offer.

Why I Do What I Do – Remembering My Grandfather

One hundred years ago, on 7th January 1915 my grandfather Alexander Caseby enlisted in the Royal Field Artillery. He had left school (many of his teachers having already joined up to fight in the war) and got a job as postman. Every day he passed a recruitment poster at Leuchars Junction in Fife for ‘Kitchener’s 100,000’. Although not yet the required age of 19, he felt ‘haunted’ by this poster. On the third attempt, he enlisted in the New Year, just short of his 18th birthday by allowing a confusion between his birthdate of 19th January and his age to go uncorrected.

What has this to do with me being a teacher? I suppose it’s because I have a sense of legacy. I’m aware that previous generations had a much tougher life that I have had, with fewer options available to them. My grandfather spent his youth on the battlefields of Loos, ‘Wipers’ and The Somme being shot at and gassed. He came away with his life and a metal plate in his head. I spent mine having a fantastic time at university and came away with a degree in Zoology!

I know that I have benefitted from a good education and the choices it afforded me because previous generations were determined that their children would have opportunities they didn’t. They worked hard within families for the sake of their own children, but also collectively within society to build a state education system for every child. I know many teachers with a similar family experiences – I’ve worked in school leadership teams where most colleagues were the first generation in their family to go to university.

We know that this work isn’t finished. There are still far too many children in families living in poverty, or on the edge of it for whom education can be a ticket to better opportunities, but it’s a struggle. I feel proud that in teaching in one school, in one part of our country, I am part of a national network of dedicated professionals committed to a common cause. I’m also proud to be continuing a legacy passed on by previous generations.

This morning, 7th January 2015, I’ll be teaching A level psychology, helping my teenage students prepare for their mock exams next week, the next stepping-stone towards their goals and aspirations. I’ll also be thinking about my Grandad, the teenage Gunner 70412 Caseby, A. I’ll give thanks for family and remembering that the opportunities I had, and my students have, were hard-won by previous generations.