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Guest Blog: My Ofsted Experience

Our guest post today comes from @dht_101, who recently shared his school’s recent Ofsted experience on Twitter. With the release of the new Education Inspection Framework and a shift of focus for inspectors, evidence is now beginning to arise as to the nature of the new inspection format. @dht_101’s experience was primarily positive, and we hope that sharing it will help provide a sense of clarity and calm to schools about to undergo their own inspection.

Ofsted… the word can strike fear into even the most resilient teachers. The whole staff email summoning you to the school hall at 3pm, the long evenings, the nervous twitch every time the classroom door opens, followed usually by piece meal feedback that doesn’t really help you improve your practice. Then they leave, and the real pain starts… the worst school-leaders knee-jerking into action plans and uncoordinated improvement strategies. It can be a really gruelling experience. In my career, I’ve seen it all… outstanding to special measures and everything in between!

That said, credit must be given where it is due. I have just come through one of the most positive Ofsted experiences of my career. The inspection was done ‘with us’, as opposed to ‘to us’, and whilst it was incredibly challenging and rigorous, we came away with a real sense of fairness and openness. This blog hopes to expand on the detail in the thread I published on Twitter, and hopefully will be of use to teachers who might also be expecting ‘the call’ in the near future.

Firstly, some context… during the inspection, we moved up an Ofsted grade. Whilst I would rather not share the direct grades, it would be fair to say that an inspection some two years ago had been pretty damning, and ruthlessly exposed the problems the school was facing. A new Headteacher, two new Assistant Headteachers, and a new Deputy (yours truly), had set the school on the right path and the inspection we’ve just had recognised the progress the school has made. Still a long way to go mind…!

I had heard all the rumours about how Ofsted wouldn’t look at internal data and wouldn’t want a data meeting, and whilst I welcomed this, I think deep down I doubted it. I had visions of an old-school inspector coming in demanding some number crunching. The rumours were correct however… not one conversation about performance data, nothing about gaps between groups of learners, or what percentage 4-9 students had got in a subject. It felt bizarre. There was more to this however… it wasn’t just a data meeting that got dropped. They hardly met any senior leaders. Gone are the days of meeting after meeting with SLT, and I don’t think our Headteacher was spoken to throughout the entire two days, apart from the regular feedback. I saw the Head wandering around outside with the litter picker… a far cry from previous inspections of furrowed brows and stern looks.

The reason for this is simple, and that is because inspectors were only interested in one thing: the curriculum. I say one thing, of course, the curriculum is much wider than that, and inspectors really got stuck in. They talked a little about our intent, but they were more interested in the intent of the individual subjects. These conversations marked the beginning of the Deep Dives (more Ofsted jargon) but a refreshing experience nonetheless. The experience of the Deep Dive was intense, but questions generally were fair and any subject leader worth their salt would be able to answer them. This isn’t the hard bit though… the hard bit is making sure your answers can then be evidenced both in the classroom and in the work of the children. ‘Let’s go and have a look together’ was a common mantra.

Although it was my first official Deep Dive, we had practiced them before in our school. We bring in a local expert from our trust to really get stuck into a subject, always working ‘with’ teachers though, not as a vendetta, like some reviews can be! Watch some lessons, talk to children and look at books. Yes, have a chat about the performance data and the way it’s used to drive improvement, but don’t get too hung up on this… after all, Ofsted won’t.

Ofsted no longer observe lessons. Now, they visit lessons. Key difference here? No feedback to teachers. I think this has some positives and negatives. It saves time and avoids the random nature of feedback to teachers that had become common on previous inspections, but then many teachers plan tirelessly for these visits and deserve some constructive feedback to help them improve their practice further. During our experience, we found that these lasted around 25 minutes, and usually were accompanied by a subject leader.

Inspectors then asked to scrutinise some work. We found that around eight books per class visited were taken, and we were allowed to select the books. I have heard through other Twitterers that other inspectors have given names of students for the work scrutiny, so this may differ from inspection to inspection. This was a tough gig. Each piece of work was looked at in detail, real detail. A common approach was to compare two students of different ability, and then see how their work differed. What additional support was given to those who needed it? How were students challenged to exceed the expectation placed on them?

My advice to colleagues here would be to replicate this experience in schools. Now, key point here… we all do work scrutinies… but do we actually DO them? Or do we just look at a few books, check off whether they’ve underlined the title and are writing neatly, and then move on? I know in my past experience, it was lip service. It didn’t really drive any standards, or improve things, which of course begs the question, why do it? I would suggest for you to get really stuck into some books, with students of similar ability and compare their books, in forensic detail. One fairly simple task Ofsted did was to line up the books from ‘best to worst’, and then ask us if this lined up with our whole-school priorities. For example, our issue is upper attaining boys – they simply do not do well enough. Lo and behold, when the books where lined up, all the ‘worst’ books were our upper attaining boys. We knew therefore that our interventions weren’t working, and Ofsted flagged this, quickly!!

One area that we found they really honed in on was literacy. Now, if you’re anything like me (and probably the million other school leaders out there), then you will associate literacy with your lower ability children. In the past, a few blags about Accelerated Reader or Lexia, with a few nicely collated colourful spreadsheets showing some ‘impact’ would have sufficed, and of course, when Ofsted came calling, I had my excel documents ready to go. Curveball time however… ‘How are you preparing higher ability students with the literacy skills they need to go to Oxford or Cambridge?’ or ‘How are language learning opportunities taught in MFL developed in English?’ Errrrr… . In truth, I didn’t have the answers to these questions, but it has made us reflect about how we want our children to not only write, but speak like subject experts. We are based in the heart of the Black Country, and many of our children speak with that beautiful Black Country twang, which unfortunately can mean that Tier 3 vocabulary is not always at the centre of what they are saying. Our children will often say ‘…but Sir, I sound thick’ which is heart breaking, so our goal is to make sure they never feel like their literacy, oracy, vocabulary (or whatever you want to call it) will hold them back.

The final aspect I would urge school leaders to consider, particularly secondary school leaders, is challenge in lessons. This is the holy grail I think… children working really hard, doing hard work, with teachers having high expectations. In some ways I have seen progress in this over the years, but I do still see the occasional ‘Rosa Parks Story Board’ or ‘Diary of a slave on the transatlantic trade triangle’… nothing-tasks that are essentially time-fillers and do not challenge children enough. Ofsted had a good go at this… criticising us for our children not knowing what satire was (Year 9 History) and what syntax was (Year 8 English). Now I argued that our children probably did know what these things were, albeit without being able to give the correct term for it. Either way, it stuck in their head and it made its way into the report. My advice… have a real think about how hard your curriculum is.

Overall, the experience was a refreshing one. Inspectors were fair but tough, which is what you would want from the body who are there to help improve standards. I liked how consistent the team were, and how they interpreted the new framework, and it was nice to see them using what they saw in the classroom to inform their judgements, rather than reams of historic data from children who left the school years before!

I hope this blog is of use… feel free to tweet any questions to @dht_101!

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