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Short, sharp and painless

David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, is confident that teachers will welcome a new style of inspection by Ofsted

It is with some relief that I write about Ofsted's new approach to inspection. It has taken a long time to get to this point, but we are about to begin our new shorter, more sharply focused inspections.

It is my duty to keep the inspection system under review and seek continuous improvement. That is why in February 2004 I first announced our plans to change the way we inspect schools. Now 18 months later the first 76 schools have been notified that they will face their new-style inspection next week.

From now on schools will receive a minimum notice period of their inspection, generally two working days. The inspection will be shorter but more frequent; schools will be inspected every three years instead of every six.

More frequent and proportionate inspections will mean more timely regular feedback for the whole school community on the quality of education in all schools.

Another significant change is the focus on self-evaluation. All schools need to fill in a self-evaluation form (SEF) before their inspection, copies of which can be downloaded from the Ofsted website. Schools need to keep the SEF updated as part of their ongoing process of self-evaluation.

This will form a vital part of their inspection.

Conducting a comprehensive programme of pilot inspections has been invaluable in shaping the new-style inspections. From summer 2004 to summer 2005, 212 pilot inspections were completed and feedback from these has helped us develop an inspection system that we are confident works well.

Schools responded to the pilot inspections very positively and headteachers, teachers, governors, local education authority advisers and parents worked with Ofsted in an unprecedented way to make sure the new approach is practical, rigorous and effective.

Of course, trying out a new system always brings teething problems and it was vital to learn lessons from those pilot inspections that did not go as well as planned. Some of the early inspections threw up difficulties, but this enabled us to iron out problems and I hope get the inspection process right for others.

All schools involved in pilot inspections were invited to complete a detailed survey covering all aspects of the inspection. Each school and LEA involved in the pilot inspections were also invited to send representatives to regional evaluation conferences at the end of the term in which they were inspected.

Our analysis of feedback from these pilot inspections has been encouraging.

Results showed that 95 per cent of schools that received pilot inspections during autumn term 2004 felt that the benefits of inspection outweighed any negative features. Teachers valued short notice, with 94 per cent indicating that the notice period was about right.

They also appreciated that everyday work was not put on hold and that the inspectors expected nothing from the school, other than its self-evaluation form, in advance of the inspection. Many felt they experienced a much more sharply focused inspection than in the past, though some teachers were disappointed not to be observed by an inspector.

Headteachers valued the use inspectors made of the SEF and the way in which the evidence they and their staff provided informed the inspection process; 95 per cent said that the SEF was used well to shape the inspection.

Several headteachers described the experience as challenging and strongly focused on leadership and management which was tough on them, but some of the best in-service training they had ever experienced.

Almost all schools felt that the areas identified for improvement following the inspection would help the school to improve. The discussions with inspectors and the exploration of evidence gave the school a much clearer idea about how to move forward, and receiving the report quickly was helpful.

Pleasingly, many schools felt that inspection was less stressful for teachers, with nearly 80 per cent saying that the new model of inspection reduced stress for them.

The evaluation does not stop now though. Pilot inspections were carried out in all types, sizes and phases of school and this allowed us to test not only the approach to inspection but also the size of the inspection, the notice given to schools and the move from a seven-point to a four-point grading scale. These are things Ofsted will continue to evaluate as the inspection system begins in schools this month.

We also plan to go back to some schools to find out whether the inspection has had a positive impact on standards, the quality of education and on leadership and management.

While these initial evaluations certainly show a positive picture, I am not complacent. We can always do things better. Ofsted has set up a group with internal and external representation to oversee the continuous evaluation of the impact of Ofsted, and in particular the impact of inspections.

I will be monitoring their feedback closely to ensure that the system brings benefits to schools, parents and pupils alike.

I am confident that the new inspection arrangements will help schools drive forward further improvements in the quality and standards of education for their pupils.

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