When I left Ofsted in August 2012, I made a pledge to myself that I would not undertake any more inspections. I felt as though the shine had come off inspection work for me and I wanted to establish more sustained relationships with schools. This isn’t a poor reflection on Ofsted but more about what I wanted to do with the latter years of my professional life.
Having been visiting schools since 1995 as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors, a seconded additional inspector and a headteacher who inspected now and again, I felt the time had come to draw a line under my inspection work. When I look back on what I gained, it is clear to me that inspection made me a sharper evaluator of evidence and made me question more regularly how well a school was doing. It gave me criteria to consider when reflecting on progress and improvement.
It also gave me a chance to consider whether I was giving sufficient weight to particular aspects of evidence such as the views of pupils, the positive approach (or not) of key partners like further education institutions or businesses, and the often contradictory messages within various data analysis packages.
The key issue here is that inspection supported me in developing a long-lasting discipline that involves trying to keep an open mind about evidence and not jump to early conclusions or judgements.
Since I left Ofsted I have become director of a sponsored academy trust. In this time I have asked our academies to tell me why they believe they are “good” – and challenged their responses. This could be termed as Ofsted preparation but I believe it is effective school improvement.
Since joining the trust I have undertaken two days’ worth of paid school review work at a secondary school in the North. I persuaded a former HMI to join me and we made it clear that our intention was to assist in the school’s self-evaluation. We watched pupils learning and we chatted to staff and students about their work. It was a formative and helpful process and the reactions were overwhelmingly positive. I felt that the inspection experience my colleague and I were able to draw on helped teachers and leaders at the school in gathering and evaluating evidence.
Having an external eye was useful and reassuring. We didn’t refer to the Ofsted inspection framework too often because our task was simply to support self-evaluation. I suppose the school review could have been called a “mocksted” by those wanting to create a negative story line, but it was more about helping the school get a clearer sense of where it was in its improvement journey. The fee I received went to the trust I work for.
I know that headteachers in our trust expect to have an effective governing body, a challenging and supportive academy improvement manager who can help provide insight into an appropriate improvement strategy and a director of the trust who they feel is credible in terms of school improvement.
These aspects play a role in helping senior leaders better understand what needs improving and how. I am not interested in undertaking more school reviews for schools outside my own trust, whether paid or not, but I know that blanket criticism of “mocksteds” ignores the genuine benefit that can be gained from occasionally drawing on experienced and reasoned evaluators with an external eye.
Frank Norris is director of the Co-operative Academies Trust