We invited Ofsted in to our school this week to support the pilot of the new framework, which will come into play in September. The framework is currently open for consultation, and you can find out more information here.
First up, I do need to give some context to this post. This is my own personal opinion and experience of the process. As a school and as a leadership team, we found the process to be a generally positive one, though one which was thorough and challenging. I am keen to emphasise, though, that follows is very much my own personal reflection, as AHT for Upper KS2 and the school’s Curriculum leader. It is also worth noting that is this was a two-day pilot inspection, the actual final framework may or may not differ from this experience.
I want to keep this as a brief and snappy post, so here we go.
We didn’t talk data; we really talked curriculum
Whilst the inspectors had seen our end of phase results, this was not really discussed in any depth whatsoever. Internal data was not only not asked for, but it was made very explicit that they were consciously not wanting us to present it to them. The focus of the inspection was firmly focused on their ‘deep dives’ into subject content and on the coherence of our curriculum. Even their discussions about EAL provision and support for children with special educational needs was framed within consideration of curriculum. Curriculum was not only the focus, but was the lens through which the rest of the school – leadership, wellbeing, enrichment, community engagement, inclusion, CPD, staff development – was seen.
The schedule and focus was negotiated with the inspection team
In the pre-inspection meeting, with the lead inspector and the SLT, we agreed their four focus areas. The inspector stated we would look at English and Maths. We were able to suggest the wider curriculum areas – in our case, we selected History and RE. We then put together the timetable for the two days – whilst this was amended after the first day’s enquiries, it generally stayed fixed.
The focus was on connectedness and not randomness
Connectedness was something discussed regularly throughout our conversations. There was absolutely no random selection of classes or activities. Every visit was aligned to the ‘deep dive’ focus on the particular subjects. In our case, lessons were seen across the school in English (English, Reading Gym, Thinking Through Texts, Phonics, Drama and Performing Arts), Maths, RE and History. The ‘connectedness’ came from giving the inspectors a chance to go very deep into the subject through seeing lessons, looking at curriculum documents (freely presented by us), discussion with me as strategic lead for the curriculum, discussion with subject leaders, quite rigorous book scrutiny and lots of discussion with pupils, focused on the content of their lessons, and looking at how much children had retained from their prior learning.
There was considerable flexibility
We were given plentiful opportunities to share elements of the life of our school which we felt were important to see, in order to gain a full picture of what we are about. Timetables were jiggled about so that assemblies could be seen. Parents were chatted with in the playground. Children and teachers were consulted. As AHT/phase leaders going around with inspectors, we were able to provide a lot of contextual information about year groups and teachers; such as how long subject leaders had been in-post, such as our high pupil mobility and language profiles in UKS2. We even had one of our inspectors join me and my Year 6 Mentees for a walk in the park with Filos the dog. It felt fair and collegiate.
Rigour and adaptation
As a school, we are pretty reasonable in our self-evaluations. We are not a show school and don’t want to be one. We were very keen that Ofsted saw, as much as possible, a regular day’s learning. We didn’t even tell the kids it was happening. If the process is to be in any way helpful as a leadership team, the feedback given needed to refer to the school as it is. We were pleased that, whilst no grading could be given, the inspection highlighted many strengths in our provision and – in summary – we did very well. What was good, thinking not about the school but about Ofsted, was that they managed to find, through their deep process, the same weaknesses that we had identified ourselves, only some of which we had shared candidly. Our implementation of the History curriculum is not yet where we want it to be in terms of consistency, and Ofsted raised this too – if they didn’t, and said it was all stunning, I think I would have lost faith in the process. They went through with a fine tooth comb and gained a much more valid picture of the school as whole, but achieved that by honing in on key areas.
Changes throughout the inspection
At the end of the first day, the inspectors met with our head, and gave some initial feedback. They also spoke to governors at this point. Their views on the History curriculum, at that point, led them to want to explore whether there was a similar picture in Science, so at that point, the schedule was adapted. No science lessons were seen, but we had a discussion with curriculum leader/science leader and padded out the discussion about our intent, implementation and impact in this area.
Discussion with children
Children were spoken to regularly throughout the process. Sometimes, we as a school could select pupils to talk to inspectors, and sometimes the inspectors made their own choices. Both were fine. Whilst I do fully appreciate that this is the luck of the draw, all three of our inspectors were very good at talking to our children, putting them at ease, and seemed to genuinely enjoy their company. The children were buzzing about it, and actually enjoyed being asked about their learning. As with other discussions, the questions they were asked seemed to elicit the true picture of things. No ‘show conversation’ or performance – the children gave a candid impression of their life in the school. They shared about what they love about maths, but also they complained about portion sizes of school dinner. Democracy in action.
Behaviour, SMSC and the pastoral
The inspectors were looking at this all of the time, and got a feel for it over the course of the two days. Classroom observations were not focused on behaviour but on the content (of course, though, behaviour was noted) – by the end of the two days, the team had gleaned a fair and rounded view of the behaviour in our school. Regarding SMSC and the pastoral work we do, inspectors had noted the quality of relationships between teachers and pupils, as well as between the teachers themselves. They had seen assemblies, had spoken to leaders, teachers and pupils about safeguarding, welfare and transition, had seen our Y6 mentoring programme and had built up a picture through talking about our wider calendar of events and provision for children, parents and staff.
It is perhaps more logistically difficult in some ways under this new framework. Ours was a two-day inspection. Let’s say that the school’s development plan had highlighted Science as a weakness, and that Ofsted wanted to focus one of its subject deep-dives on this subject. In a primary school, there is not guarantee that Science would ordinarily be taught on those days. We would not allow the timetable to be rejigged for teachers – we were not asked to, but if we were, we wouldn’t do so. This may prove logistically difficult when looking at the quality of foundation subjects which are not taught daily. Similarly, in many primaries, a term-by-term approach is taken between Science units, History units and so on. If a school was to be inspected in September and October, a school may have very little to show of current learning in some subjects. This is not a problem for the school, in that things would (one would hope) balance out across the year, but it would be a problem when inspecting. It was also difficult, and would be even more so in some schools, to accommodate the timetable of inspection. We are a large school with AHTs out of class, and we were guiding the inspectors round and covering classes when they wanted to speak to subject leaders. It was not easy for us to plan out, and it would be even more difficult in smaller schools with fewer leaders or additional adults capable of teaching whole classes. Finally, simple but important one – rooms. We had three inspectors following their own individual timetables, so at various points, we need three additional small rooms, in which inspectors could interview teachers, gather groups of pupils and their books, and so on. We just about managed, but I could foresee it being very challenging in some smaller or more-packed schools.
It was exhausting
I would be lying if I did not say that the two days burnt me out. Every school wants to give a good account of itself, and actually, the collegiate but analytical approach that was undertaken meant that they required more of us because, ultimately, you can’t really surf through it on a wave of BS. I was up at 4am yesterday, getting my thoughts together. The preparation was not the frantic printing and shallow analysis of otherwise pointless data, but preparing oneself to explain the intent, analyse the implementation and evaluate the impact, and to communicate this all with utmost clarity. It is proper work, painting a narrative of what we are all about. In my case as the person with strategic leadership of the curriculum, it meant I needed to really familiarise myself with the breadth of the curriculum we teach, across all areas and ages, and even just this process alone was helpful. I know it better now than a week ago.
Finally, it was positive
I don’t just mean that we received favourable Ofsted feedback about our provision – although we did in many areas, and that was great validation for the work we are doing currently – but the whole process was undertaken in a spirit of positivity. Again, I appreciate that the individual characters of the inspectors may inevitably sway this, and I do add again that I am reflecting on this specific inspection, rather than drawing system-wide conclusions: our inspectors were lovely. They clearly cared about education, were jovial in approach, and knew enough about the practical realities of schools to be able to communicate clearly and openly with pupils and staff. There was a balance in discussion with inspectors – it felt more like being challenged in a dialogue than an interrogation.
The position that we have been left in is one in which Ofsted agreed with many of our self-evaluated areas of strength, and of weakness. There were certain areas of our provision that Ofsted perceived more favourably than we have ourselves, and certain areas which we felt were quite solid which did not stand up to scrutiny.
This is a good thing.
We now have another well-informed guide to steer our own development, and we can be optimistic about how much of what we value as a school – not just the academic, but the pastoral and the things we do which are unique, special to us, and a bit peculiar – were valued and recognised.
In the past, I have proudly been on strike about the raft of flaws in our education system – I have roared my distaste about Ofsted specifically, and its toxic effects. I am very keen to make it clear that I recognise this is only one example, and I do hope that it is quite representative of the way things will be with Ofsted. If it is representative, then I think Ofsted will be a force for good in our school system.
Schools’ hard work to provide the best possible learning for their pupils, and to create healthy working environments for their teachers should be celebrated and recognised – sadly, we probably all know of a few schools that don’t do this. Some people reading this may be in one currently. Those children who are not currently in a school whose leaders are working towards providing a context and a curriculum in which positive, rich learning can thrive deserve better. And actually, the teachers deserve better too – we need to be in well-led schools that allow us to develop our own practice and expertise, so that we can contribute to a good school culture and curriculum. I think that the deeper and more focused approach of this new framework is better at capturing an accurate picture of what is actually happening in a school. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but it needs to be well-thought out.
The alluring title of this post was ‘How to do well in the new Ofsted’. This was pretty much clickbait. I have literally nothing salacious to offer you.
The way to do well is to actually be a good school, and to focus doggedly on bettering the learning experience. No need for show-lessons and data-wizardry. Plan well, for all pupils. Support your staff to get better. Ensure consistency in the curriculum. Make it very challenging, but make it accessible for those who need a leg-up. Be bold in your ambition for what you want your school to be. Keep on improving. Make it interesting for those who learn there. Make your school a place that children and staff want to spend their weekdays.