Ofsted's new short notice inspections began this term. Gone are the days when teachers could spend a frantic few weeks updating their policies and polishing their practice. From now on, schools will get virtually no warning of an inspection.
For a few schools, that reality arrived last summer. "We volunteered to be part of the pilot scheme," says Pat O'Donnell, headteacher of Park primary school in the London borough of Newham. "We knew they were coming, but we didn't know exactly when."
A team of four inspectors went into the school over three days in July. "I wondered how rigorous it was going to be, but those worries weren't borne out in practice; they knew exactly what they wanted to see."
The inspection now centres around the self-evaluation form - the SEF. This two-part document is a self-portrait of the school and includes its performance data, plus a self-evaluation report, where the school grades itself on a four point scale - from grade 1 for "very good", to grade 4 "not adequate". "It is crucial that schools complete this form rigorously,"
says the rubric.
Section 15 of the data section asks for detailed information about children with special needs, while the self-evaluation section on "How well do learners achieve?" asks schools to judge the success or otherwise of learners who are "hard to reach and vulnerable". On "quality of provision", schools are asked to judge how well they meet the "individual needs of learners".
The SEF has to be ready to send at a moment's notice. Mr O'Donnell and his staff had debated how long and how detailed it should be. In the end, the Park school SEF is a 55-page working document.
ROLE OF THE SENCO
Sencos should expect to be involved in the preparation and updating of a school's SEF. Park primary's Senco is Dominic Wilkinson, an Australian who has worked in the UK for six years. "The key element for me was making sure that the school had a very clear vision of inclusion," he says.
"The inspector who focused on special needs interviewed me for around an hour. He wanted to know how we tracked pupil performance; how we were monitoring that. He was also interested in the movement off and on the SEN register."
The Ofsted team were particularly interested in how support staff were integrated into the teaching and learning of pupils with special needs; a factor of the new inspection process that was also noticed by Graham Draper, Senco at Durham's Hermitage school, a technology college and full service school with more than 1,000 pupils on roll. "They wanted to know where learning support assistants (LSAs) were deployed, and they saw all our LSAs in action," he said.
At Hermitage, Mr Draper had an advantage as he had just worked on a local authority project focused on school evaluation. "That was excellent preparation," he said.
He was also able to give the inspectors a copy of a special needs briefing document that he prepares on an annual basis for all Hermitage staff. This has general information about special needs - allergies, dyslexia, dyspraxia - together with a section for each year group where children with special needs are identified, so that teachers and support staff can see how youngsters need to be helped.
In both schools, the inspection teams wanted to see how the school interacted with other children's agencies, and both Sencos were asked for their views on the children's agenda as set out in Every Child Matters and the subsequent legislation.
Inspectors wanted to meet the specialists who worked with the school, a request that Mr Draper and Mr Wilkinson managed to meet - just. "It happened that on that day a member of the speech and language service was going to be in school," said Mr Wilkinson.
"At two days notice it was difficult to organise," recalled Mr Draper. "It took a bit of ringing round. I think we were fortunate that we have excellent liaison with our agencies."
As any Senco knows, educational psychologists, speech and language therapists, occupational health therapists and others who work with special needs children have full diaries. Ofsted teams expecting to meet these professionals in other schools may be in for a disappointment.
And Mr Draper points to a scenario that most Sencos would want to avoid.
"It would not be good to get all those people together and then find yourself having to introduce everyone," he said. Establishing regular contact with these agencies is clearly important.
Overall, both schools felt that the inspections went well, though both raised the caveat that their inspections were carried out by highly professional HMIs. We will no doubt soon discover whether Ofsted's usual teams will be able to match those standards. And the actual reports are brief, a couple of pages for the whole school, with just a few lines devoted to special needs. In such a short timescale Sencos will be fortunate to receive any individual feedback.
"I would have welcomed more space for SEN," says Dominic Wilkinson. "But I was pretty happy with the process."
"I felt that they were looking at inclusion across the school rather than just at special needs," says Graham Draper.
"My advice to other Sencos is to make sure that communication with the senior management team is very good."
Guidance materials on school self-evaluation from the National College for School Leadership: www.ncsl.org.uk
Next month: inspecting special schools