OFSTED And Schools; Healing the Rift

It has become increasingly obvious to me and to others that the relationship between schools and OFSTED needs to be re-balanced. The heart-felt responses and the original article by Geoff Barton in the TES recently1 underline this. I also believe that the year ahead is a perfect storm in terms of getting that process underway. I think schools want that, and I think that OFSTED themselves are not against the idea though obviously work within constraints of their remit.


Specifically, we need to ensure OFSTED exists to support and acknowledge continuous meaningful improvement (which no school would oppose) rather than to enforce superficial change through fear. I accept that OFSTED too would prefer the former, yet we cannot deny that it is fear of what OFSTED will say that drives many changes in many schools. This is unacceptable for all concerned, so I decided to look at the new Common Inspection Framework (CIF)2, published on 15th June 2015, and due to be in use from September 2015.

It contains a few changes from the previous regime. Specifically, schools which are considered good will have shorter more frequent inspections. I am in two minds about this – sometimes shorter feels better for schools, but is it REALLY possible to get a sense of a school in even less time than they attempt to do now? Possibly – though this will need addressing in the first year of the new framework.

I welcome the recent move by OFSTED to take all inspectors back ‘in-house’. This should hopefully go some way to rebuild the confidence of schools, who have suffered from too much variance in the quality of inspection teams.


Here is what I think OFSTED inspectors should be: experts in their field, who (and this is important) can and do still teach children in classrooms.


Why do I think that?

A lot of my work in schools is based in classrooms – real teachers, real children, real mathematics. And yes, I do limit myself to maths because I feel that is the single are wherein I can lend specific expertise. It isn’t that I can’t teach or inspect other subjects (indeed I have done both) but this misses the point. I feel that only in mathematics education do I have a level of mastery that gives me any right at all to comment constructively on the work of my fellow professionals.

I think that working alongside teachers, rather than sitting in judgement upon the, would go much further in creating genuine improvements in school in an atmosphere of collaboration.

My specialist field is continuing professional development (CPD), specifically in maths. There is a significant body of research that suggests a one-off short injection of me or a colleague can help in the short-term, but for more sustained improvement in teaching and learning, collaboration over the longer term works better. This is why I work hard to build relationships with schools, though sadly the reality of time and budgets means that many still just want a one-off INSET day; to get over this I have developed a monthly update with which I stay in touch with those schools.


Also, the success of the lesson study model is something I am encouraging schools to look at – taking responsibility for one’s own CPD, and working with respected and trusted peers is hugely effective and impactful.


So, by the same logic, should inspectors perhaps look to build similar relationships with the schools to whom they are assigned? How might that change things, if inspectors knew that once they highlighted weaknesses in a school, they had to support the school in person with specific targeted help, alongside the senior leaders, to help to bring about the change? I wonder whether we would all think twice before being so openly critical!


Which brings me to my next point concerning empathy. Having inspected in the independent sector for a few years, before my consultancy work and diary made this all but impossible, I have come to appreciate the benefit of a peer-review system. The lead inspector (the RI) was always a very experienced inspector but team members were made up of heads and deputies from similar schools. This gave them an insight into how things really were, which is too often simply not capturable in a spreadsheet.


I would welcome an increase in ‘school-based inspectors’. Not the whole team, certainly, but even one or two members would keep judgements grounded in the reality of day-to-day life in schools; teachers and pupils WILL get sick, inspections DO make people nervous, some different and unusual events happen in schools, and some lessons go better than others. None of these things necessarily mean a school is less than good, and if we are to encourage a process of continual improvement, schools need to be willing to take risks in order to learn –isn’t that what we tell children after all, et then do the exact opposite out of fear when it is our turn to perform?


Talking of ‘good’, I would like to share a personal view of grades. I remember when there were seven different grades, which was a trickier thing to get right, but the current four have a couple of issues I deem to be worthy of mention.


Firstly – ‘outstanding’. The problem I have with this grade is it really means ‘better than others’. This serves to generate a culture that is competitive rather than collaborative; the word ‘excellent’ is far better in my opinion. If more than half the schools in an authority were excellent, then it is the weaker schools who stand out – my vote would be to go with excellent – we can all be excellent, but by definition we cannot all aspire to be outstanding.


Secondly – ‘requires improvement’. The issue I have with this is that I have never met a school that does not require some improvement. Even outstanding schools can do better, and should aim to do so. The Japanese principle of ‘Kaizen3’, which I sometimes teach to school leaders is about small, manageable, realistic changes for the better. Perhaps we need an adjective such as ‘significant’ or ‘specific’ or even a specific range of terms such as ‘…in leadership’ or ‘in teaching and learning’ and so on – doubtless the reader would be able to think of more.


The same could apply to the headline grade of ‘inadequate’; perhaps it might be better to be more specific about where, though I do think that the ‘what the school needs to do to improve’ section IS helpful and should stay.


How best to move forward then? Firstly, I think all schools should read the Myth-busters document4, and take comfort from much that is written there. I have long said that Our job is to fill minds, not exercise books, and when people object because “OFSTED expects…” I invariably point them to this document.


The fact that OFSTED felt the need to write it at all is sad, hinting at a tacit acceptance of the criticism levelled against them that some inspectors were arriving at schools with their own agenda and personal beliefs instead of judging against set criteria. But they did – and it will lay to rest some of the fear-based behaviour we see in our schools. The same might be said of mathematics – the excellent ‘Made to Measure5’ should be required reading, but this article is not really about maths per se.


Secondly, we should welcome the fact that 100% of inspectors will now be in-house, and provided that the consistency improves, then trust will start to be rebuilt. But just as in any damaged relationship, this will not happen overnight.


Thirdly, OFSTED inspector training must include HUGE emphasis on the first of its guiding principles (CIF, ibid)


“OFSTED is required to carry out its work in ways that encourage the services it inspects and regulates to improve, to be user-focused and to be efficient and effective in their use of resources.”


ENCOURAGE? — USER-FOC– USED? There’s the first hour of new inspector training for you, OFSTED. The second hour should be to read this article, as well as research6 on what really makes a difference to schools – and it isn’t the short sharp shock!


You’re welcome.





1 Barton, Geoff (2015) ‘I wrote about my Ofsted experiences and received a postbag overflowing with teachers’ anguish – here are their stories’, https://www.tes.co.uk/news/school-news/breaking-views/‘i-wrote-about-my-ofsted-experiences-and-received-a-postbag, 8th June 2015

2 Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (2015), Common inspection framework: education, skills and early years from September 2015, document reference 150065 (Accessed 22 June 2015 while still a draft document)

3 Kaizen. (2015, June 3). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 04:35, June 22, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Kaizen&oldid=665303353

4 Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (2015), Ofsted inspections – clarification for schools, document reference 140169

5 Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (2012), Mathematics: Made to Measure, document reference 110159

6 Cordingley, P., Bell, M. (2012) Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning: A report on the research evidence. CUREE and Pearson School Improvement

https://www.dropbox.com/s/pzs2l07ksjjg6yz/Pearson CUREE-Report.pdf