Visit to Ofsted – May 18th 2015

18th May 2015

Sean Harford is a nice man. Which considering the job he does, and the way most of us in education feel about Ofsted, is quite a shock. A bit like fighting your way to the top most tower of Barad Dur only to discover the Mouth of Sauron is… Simon Mayo.

Which, of course, is not at all fair. Ofsted Towers, despite having the sandstone façade of a Victorian church, is not a Temple of evil (read Alan Moore’s “From Hell” if you want to get this joke) and those who work there are not servants of the Dark Lord. Yet this, considering the power they wield and the stress they bring to teachers and school-leaders, is the perception many of us on the other side of their revolving class-door have of them. It’s difficult not to. We don’t see them for years, yet we worry and stress about them all the time, and when they do arrive their decisions can launch, consolidate, threaten, or even end careers. Nobody thinks this is right – certainly not Sean Harford – but it is reality.

Take a look at the comments of the teachers and school-leaders that filled in the online-survey we created for our visit. The fast majority are negative. Many tell stories of lives adversely affected by the awful weight of worrying when the call will come; others recount tales of rogue inspectors and unfair inspection grades.

For years Ofsted has been a byword for fear and loathing in education and, if anything, things are getting worse as the government continues to wage war on what they perceive are ‘coasting’ schools. (Another entirely innocent word none of us will ever be able to use again without our minds flooding with negative thoughts – like those of eating cold semolina with a dollop of jam in the middle).

Yet, yet… Sean Harford is a nice man. He invited us all – @HeyMissSmith, @PrimaryHead1, @educationbear, @cherrylkd, @Mishwood1, @theprimaryhead, @emmaannhardy,
@debrakidd – up to his place of work, without us having to threaten or cajole. And when we got there, there were cakes – really nice ones – sticky donuts, stuffed with cream, and glazed with sugar. And Sean (did I mention how nice he is?) gave us lots of time: he talked to us about his plans, answered our questions honestly, and was generally frank about Ofsted’s shortfalls (if not perhaps their failings). He admitted there are some rogue inspectors who were not properly trained or monitored and he is determined to root them out. But, he said, things have improved enormously since Ofsted stopped using outside contractors (who, it seems, were a law unto themselves) and have started doing all their own training.

The New Handbook, he explained, is an attempt to make the system fairer and more proportionate – “the right sort at the right time”. As a consequence there will be a single Framework for all settings, from Early Years to Further Education, with separate Handbooks for each phase. Which, I think, is welcome.

The big change is the way Good schools will be inspected in future (at least until the next change). From September, Good schools will be visited once every three years (on average) for a ‘quick’ one day visit. All these quick inspections will be conducted by HMIs who will come with an expectation that the school continues to be Good. If they judge by the end of the day that this is still the case, then they will leave and the school will continue to be graded as Good. If, however, they deem the school might have improved or declined, then they will stay on for a second day to complete a full Inspection (or, if that’s not possible, come back within 48 hours), they will then give their final judgement at the end of the second day.

Sean thought, based on previous experience, about 10% of schools would go up a grade and about 20% would go down. Professional dialogue, he said, was key to this process and the Head-Teacher would know at the end of the first day whether her school was staying as Good or under consideration for a different grade – either up or down.

There followed a discussion about the number of new HMIs that would be needed and Sean reassured us that the number of HMIs would be increased to cover the extra workload. He also said it is Ofsted’s aim is for 70% of Inspectors to be practicing teachers (by which he meant Head-teachers and other senior-leaders).

This is a welcome change in my book.

If you want to read a summary of the clarification for schools of the Ofsted Handbook then this is excellent. I believe it should be printed out and put up in every staffroom in the country.

What followed this initial conversation, about the changes to the Framework and the Handbook, was a wide-ranging discussion about different issues. I don’t have the time (I’m writing this on the train home and have given myself Norwich station as a deadline), but here are the headlines:

@theprimaryhead (PH) asked a question about what the government meant by ‘coasting’ schools. Sean said they are waiting to hear, but “Inspectors are trained to inspect without fear or favour” and so, won’t be influenced by pressure from Government. “If there clear evidence of improvement then the school won’t go into Special Measures. Definition of SM is a school that doesn’t have the capacity to improve.”

There was a discussion about capacity for school-leaders to operate as Inspectors. Sean conceded this might be a problem, and reiterated their aim of having 70% or more practicing teachers as Inspectors.

DK: intentions are good, problems with unintended consequences. Schools that time and space to work on developing ideas – constant pressure is causing some crazy practice (such as revision) because the stakes are so high. What can be done about that?

JM: The relentless pressure of SATs. Broad and balanced curriculum has gone in yr.6. Is there anything you can do to talk to the govt.

SH: If it was only on exams then there would be more schools in RI and below.

PH: What are the accountability procedures for rogue inspectors?

SH: Would stop using inspectors who are ‘rogue’; if there is a consistent number of complaints.

DK: How much is context taken into account, particularly in reference to RI. Recruitment and retention a real problem in RI schs, what can Ofsted do?

SH: At some point someone will realise you can keep moving people on. One of the things we are writing into the handbook is that teachers feel trusted & in control of their CPD. Ethos building. A lot of this stuff is about school leadership here.

B: Elephant in the room – having support schs in SM, sometimes the teachers are outstanding, but the context is not taken into account.

PH: Educational landscape changing so rapidly – the high stakes becomes like a pressure cooker because of all the changes on top of the targets for improvement.

PH: differentiated levels of Ofsted –

SH: In essence that is what happens – the Handbook gets disapplied for RI schs: Professional judgement – whether to take a schools out of SM or RI, you can’t do it on results alone (no sch would come out if it was).

SH: On inspections that happen as soon as new HT comes in: The judgment is not about you. “Suddenly I’m inadequate, is clearly nonsense.”

Mary: Asked about SMSC

SH: This is virtually unchanged in the new Handbook – you need both, high standards and a broad and balanced curriculum.

Discussion around student stress particularly in Yr6

DK: Outcomes but not at the expense of children’s welfare

SH: the issue is about high stakes testing – nothing wrong with testing

B: Is the SATs test the biggest indicator of RI and SM

SH: There are 80% of schs of good or better – it will always be harder for schools in deprived areas

Ch: Discussion around special schs about the systems they are using for moderation – problem with showing progress

SH: Sat on commission without levels – they are aware of the problem.

Ch: are we going to be asked to show how are students are doing nationally?

SH: yes, you will need to have a system in place

Ch: Inspectors always ask – what’s the national picture

SH: Schools need to say, this is our assessment system and it teaches this curriculum… and this is what the students do when they move on.

Discussion around the use of data in smalls schools – SH: “Frankly, if an Inspector was going into a very small primary school they shouldn’t even look at the data.” Sean said he will revise the clarification for schools document to include this information.

B: We need a more nuanced conversation about data.

SH: Agree, shifting the balance more towards current data.

PH: RI schs

SH: RI is blank in the handbook – they are not good. The majority of RI schools are improving.

DK: three RIs in a row likely to go into SM?

SH: Likely but not automatically.

DK: A blip in results could mean going into SM?

SH: The picture is likely to be more complicated.

SH: If the leadership and management is deemed good (25% of RI schs – have good management) so can’t go into SM.

B: Talked about the pressure of being a HT worried about going into RI.

DK: The power of Ofsted as a lever for changing schools and as an instrument for govt – if Ofsted made testing a safe-guarding issue for children.

SH: We’ve got a balancing act – between not favouring a particular style

JM: Students shouldn’t be undue stress – Ofsted need to say children need to be taught properly

SH: Ofsted need to continue to inspect teaching – broad and balanced curriculum is dead important.

PH: after the inspection the HMI stays to help the school move forward

SH: We are getting criticism about getting involved in the improvement sector – our job is to judge and reflect. Relationship is absolutely key.


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