If you want to impress Ofsted, you’ll need to know its ever-changing framework like the back of your hand, as Kate Townshend discovered when she spoke to three heads whose schools have been rated Outstanding since September 2012...
For many teachers and school leaders, it doesn’t so much feel that the goalposts are constantly shifting when it comes to Ofsted; more that the goalposts have grown legs and stolen bikes in order to lead a crowd of frustrated headteachers, governors and staff in some hilarious Benny Hill style chase scene.
Changes in January last year, followed by further changes in September, have led to a framework that’s been edited more times than your average Wikipedia page. And the most recent updates have meant real differences to the way schools experience Ofsted on the ground; half a day’s notice leaves little room for ‘faking it’ and a new emphasis on teaching and learning means a school can’t be graded as Outstanding overall without Outstanding teaching.
But as difficult as it may seem, it is possible to de-code the Ofsted mysteries, and you don’t need Tom Hanks in order to do it. We spoke to three schools who have achieved the holy grail of an Outstanding grading under the latest framework, to find out how they did it and what advice they have to offer to others.
Cartmel C of E Primary in Cumbria, Sheldwich Primary in Kent and Whitchurch C of E Primary in Herefordshire have all fallen off the inspection cliff and managed to fly rather than hitting the ground. So what are the key areas of common ground when it comes to impressing the inspectors?
For starters, all three schools agree that the Boy Scouts got it right in choosing their motto. Claire Mckeown, head at Whitchurch, readied her school for Ofsted with a clear and simple School Improvement
Plan in which all staff were invested. She recommends being well organised to other schools: “Be prepared! Look at the documents that Ofsted produce and use them to guide you as to what the inspectors will focus on. Most importantly, once you get the call, enable teachers to focus just on their lessons.”
The message then is that the groundwork for an inspection may be even more important than the inspection itself.
So far, so obvious, perhaps. What does seem to be new, however, is a slight shift in emphasis away from some of the paperwork and onto more of the daily practicalities of school life. “A lot of time was spent by inspectors conducting lesson observations,” says Sarah Garrett, headteacher at Sheldwich Primary in Kent, who was also asked to grade each of her teachers’ performances prior to inspectors watching them teach. “As a result, you must know the strengths and areas for development of your staff. Your appraisal systems need to reflect support and accountability. Every lesson matters for every child!” At Whitchurch, there was a similar experience, as Claire remembers: “From the minute the inspectors arrived they were immediately into the work of the day. They met staff, had a brief chat with me and governors and we were straight into joint lesson observations by 9.30.”
The good news, though, is that although you could reasonably expect to be observed more, what you won’t need to worry about is a lesson plan so detailed that it includes breathing patterns, standing positions and voice changes. At Cartmel C of E Primary, Sarah Firth found that although planning files were available, neither these nor individual lesson plans were looked at at all.
Of course, inspectors are still likely to be interested in the written (or typed!) bottom line on a school wide basis.
At Cartmel and Sheldwich, lengthy discussions about data and pupil progress took place, but Claire Mckeown from Whitchurch does observe one key difference, which again comes down to emphasis: “[The inspectors] were not as interested in unpicking the group data that I had prepared as I thought they might be,” she says. Instead, there was an increased interest in summaries and picking up on the progress and attainment of individual children. “The inspectors genuinely wanted to see what was going on in lessons, looking at work, talking to children and then triangulating it with the data.”
Sarah Firth also found that knowing the needs and abilities of individual pupils was key in impressing the inspectors. “I was able to demonstrate that our children make outstanding progress, through the use of case studies to show how this had been achieved,” she reflects.
And if teaching and data seem like rather obvious things for the inspectors to be focused on, then that in itself is a key to successfully negotiating Ofsted. All three schools found there were few surprises when it came to the written emphasis of the framework versus their experience of it on the ground.“Their focus was on the new inspection framework and having looked at it in great detail there were not many questions that surprised us,” says Claire.
And for Sarah Garrett and Sheldwich Primary, a detailed integration of the new framework was even part of their success. “Staff and governors had all received training regarding the changes to the new inspection framework and our School Improvement Plan and SEF were intrinsically linked together using the new headings,” she says.
Of course, in the Ofsted maelstrom, it’s easy to forget the real bottom line when it comes to impressing the inspectors. “The key point that got us the grade was the fact that the children, as a result of quality first teaching, have a real desire to learn. This showed on the day and is something that you just can’t fake,” says Claire.
And while many schools are all too motivated by the ‘stick’ of the consequences a bad Ofsted can unleash, here’s a little taste of carrot from Sarah Garrett to finish on instead:
“For any headteacher to be told that your school is outstanding is an incredibly emotional feeling. You feel proud on so many levels: for your staff and governors, for your pupils and for your parents – because you know they thoroughly deserve it.”