DIY planning for inspection

Tony Powell, Consulting Educationist, considers Ofsted’s advice that schools can do their own preparation for inspection.

Introduction

Ofsted advises schools not to use consultants to prepare them for inspection, because they are expensive and unnecessary. As a consultant, I agree with the first statement but only partly with the second. Clearly it is better for schools to self-evaluate and prepare for inspection using their own resources. There are very many people in schools eminently capable to lead in these areas and since we have had Ofsted since 1992, they have had plenty of time to build up expertise.

My experience is that schools prefer to use external ‘experts’ for several reasons. Some headteachers want you to give ‘hard’ messages to staff and governors and someone with no personal ties is best placed to do this. Many schools want to have an objective view, because this helps them to validate their own evidence and they see this as an advantage in presenting evidence to inspectors. We shall see if this changes, but it is certainly the case that ex-inspectors are at a premium. Humorous stories from inspections always go down well and there is a huge fund of these.

The Task – the self-evaluation statement

The day before the inspection, there will be a 90-minute telephone conversation between the lead inspector, the Head and other school leaders. The main purpose of this discussion for the lead inspector is to prepare the inspection plan. However, since the Ofsted methodology depends upon partnership with school leaders, parents and carers, staff and pupils, it is vital that this is an agreed plan. So, school leaders must give the lead inspector accurate information about the school’s aims, progress since the last inspection and current strengths and weaknesses.

An excellent way for schools to prepare for their inspection is to prepare a script for this and if that isn’t a revised Self-Evaluation Statement (SES), what is it? My advice to schools has always been to use the Ofsted methodology and inspection techniques as a model for self-evaluation, because it was devised originally (pre- 1992) by highly skilled and experienced HMCI. Below is a step-by-step guide for schools that wish to remodel their self-evaluation systems and prepare for inspection. The process is simple but the practice arduous.

1. What will inspectors look for?

Ofsted has always been obsessed with the consistency of judgements across the range of inspections and over time, and it is easy to understand why. Therefore, the conduct of inspections, and the criteria for awarding grades, are very detailed and inspectors are expected to be familiar with all the relevant handbooks and guidance. There is comprehensive and detailed quality assurance of everything inspectors say to ensure adherence to the schedule and the internal logic of reports. The training programme for the new arrangements is the most ambitious ever and more pilots are being conducted than ever before.

Which schools, when and what aspects are inspected are governed by statute. The 2005 Education Act, Section 5 of course as amended by the 2011 Act, which followed the election victory of the Coalition Government requires HMCI to report on the quality of education provided in the school. This must, in particular, include:

  • achievement of pupils

  • quality of teaching

  • quality of the leadership in and management

  • behaviour and safety of pupils.

HMCI must consider:

  • SMSC

  • how far the education provided meets the needs of the range of pupils, particularly those with SEND.

Legislation limits the freedom of Ofsted and even our political masters. ‘Exempt’ schools, for example, cannot be inspected except within the rules laid out in the 2011 Education Act. There is a clear expectation that a new Act will end ‘exempt’ status but that will need parliamentary time, which is currently restricted by more urgent matters.

So, if schools wish to engage meaningfully with inspectors, and perhaps even call them to task, clearly, they have the advantage of familiarity with their school, its context, history and distinguishing characteristics. More than this, they need to know the legislation, handbooks and inspection guidance better than the inspectors. In practice, that is well-nigh impossible because while they are teaching and supporting their pupils, inspectors are mastering the inspection process, in which they have received extensive training, by carrying out inspections.

There is also lots to read and think about from other organisations as they update their own guidance to conform with the new inspection arrangements. See, for example, the Governance Handbook (March 2019), starting with ‘What has changed in this Edition’ on page 6.

2. What will we say and what evidence should we present?

The SES should mirror the evaluation schedule and report framework, so this gives schools a structure for their evaluation ‘story’. Since the new framework is based on a reformulation by Ofsted of what defines school effectiveness, the first stage for any school is to consider its own stance towards this. Many, many Heads, when they hear that Ofsted has rediscovered the importance of the curriculum, and other issues such as the need to understand school contexts, comment: “Well it is about time, because we have been banging on about this for ages.”

If this is true of your school then say so to inspectors. However, it is unlikely that many schools have anticipated the research findings around issues such as the importance of the internalisation and integration of knowledge and, therefore, the pedagogical content knowledge of teachers.

Your previous inspection report should have been at the heart of your school improvement plan. What did the report say, particularly about issues identified within the new framework, for example the curriculum? What were the key issues for improvement? What progress has the school made since then, across all areas? If you have been preparing for the inspection changes, include this in the statement. For example, did you respond to the consultation and do you agree or disagree with the new Ofsted focus?

Any self-evaluation statements must be supported by evidence so this needs to be planned. Think through the evidence that is publicly available such as performance data, parent view, Ofsted reports and the school website. How will this be supplemented by evidence presented by the school and who will articulate it, senior and middle leaders and governors.

3. How inspectors formulate judgements

Studying the inspection documents will give you a precise knowledge of what will happen at each stage of the inspection process and also the grade descriptors used to make judgements. Do not conclude that this is a mechanical or mathematical exercise.

Remember the essential points below.

  • The vast majority of inspectors care about the school and want to reach accurate and supportive judgements.

  • Inspectors care about their professional reputations.

  • Making Judgements is a team effort, but they are finally the responsibility of the lead inspector.

  • The report will be rigorously quality assured.

So, be involved as much as possible.

Conclusions

  • Know and understand the inspection process as well as inspectors by studying:

    • EIF and Ofsted handbooks

    • HMCI speeches + inspectors’ blogs

    • report on consultation exercise

    • Ofsted training and advice to inspectors, especially ‘School Inspection Update’ (SIU)

    • other guidance, such as Governance Handbook.

  • Revise the SES and organise

    • publicly-available evidence

    • evidence presented by school

    • evidence gathered during inspection.

  • Formulate your judgements (as an inspection team?)

    • evaluation Schedule

    • grade descriptors

    • professional judgement

    • overall effectiveness – consider what is it like to be a child in your school.