A monster uncloaked

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Nobody likes OFSTED inspections. But it is possible to come out of them with your sanity - and reputation - intact. Reva Klein helps strip those unwanted visitors of their mystery and terror

Fear and loathing are inadequate words to describe the feelings aroused by an imminent OFSTED inspection. Despite headteachers' pep talks about it being a useful exercise because it sharpens the focus on what you're doing and why, the basic truth is that nobody likes inspections.

They are liked least of all by newly qualified teachers who have never been through the ordeal, I mean experience. But there's truth in the adage about the devil you know, so here's a deconstruction of who's who in the inspectorate, including a few tips for survival.

What is OFSTED?

The Office for Standards in Education was set up by the Conservative government in 1992 as part of the Education Act, to standardise inspections of schools. Before OFSTED, schools were inspected mainly by local education authority inspectors. HMIs (Her Majesty's Inspectors) were responsible for national inspections but, because of the small number of inspectors and large number of schools, these were infrequent, especially in primary schools.

Under the current system, OFSTED was required to inspect every school in England within the first four years. In the second round, each school has to be seen once every six years - more frequently for schools with problems.

Who's in charge?

Her Majesty's Chief Inspector is Chris Woodhead. Outspoken, controversial, renowned for shooting from the hip. A former teacher and LEA adviser, he was chief education officer for Devon and then Cornwall before going to the National Curriculum Council, followed by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

He's been big chief since 1994, and to the dismay of many he was recently awarded a 34 per cent pay rise (amounting to a salary of pound;115,000) and had his five-year contract extended by four years.

Who are the inspectors?

Almost all inspections are carried out by independent teams of inspectors who competitively bid for work from OFSTED. They are usually LEA inspectors and advisers, retired HMIs, or seconded teachers and headteachers. There are three kinds of inspectors.

* Registered inspectors (or Reggies, as they're known in the trade): these are the team leaders, who have years of experience behind them.

* Team inspectors: usually these are subject specialists, particularly for secondary inspection teams. The number will vary with the size of the school, but there could be as many as 12 or 13.

* Lay inspectors: these were the most controversial of the new inspectors, non-educationalists who often are school governors. They are chosen for their management or business skills, and rather than go into classrooms they look at schools' management issues and areas such as schoolhome and pupilteacher relationships.

Who are the HMIs?

Before 1992, only HMIs carried out national inspections. Today, there are about 200 of them working as part of OFSTED. All are specialists in particular areas and have a variety of roles; some have responsibility for inspecting teacher training, others oversee local education authorities, and others deal with inspections of schools with weaknesses and those on special measures. Others produce reports on their specialist areas, which involves visiting schools. Some also monitor independent inspectors, both on the job and on the basis of their written reports.

What is inspected?

The OFSTED handbook Making the Most of Inspection, a guide for schools and governors, is essential reading for teachers.

At least 60 per cent of the week that inspectors are in schools is spent observing lessons, talking to pupils and looking at their work. This applies to all full-time and part-time teachers, supply teachers who are at the school for more than five days, peripatetics, Section 11 teachers, and other qualified support teachers.

Inspectors don't sit observing the same teacher for a whole day, although they may spend up to half the teaching day with one teacher and, in some instances, three quarters. Sometimes, they will leave before a lesson is finished. They are looking at:

* evidence of planning and recording * evidence of standards of attainment, how well pupils are learning and the quality of the teaching * lesson plans and curricular work to ascertain whether it is challenging and progresses from the preceding year * strengths and weaknesses of the lesson and how well pupils appear to be learning as well as their participation in class * resources, the classroom and use of support staff.

How will you know what they think of you?

Inspectors use a seven-point scale (ranging from excellent to very poor) to evaluate teaching. At the end of the inspection, inspectors are required to give informal spoken feedback. At that time, they will present to individual teachers an overall idea of their strengths and weaknesses, but they won't identify the grades they've given.

It's a good idea to jot down points if you're feeling a nervous about it and feel you won't take the information in. You don't have to receive feedback if you don't want to.

Apart from feedback, will they talk to you?

They sure will. An important part of the process is looking at how your school has improved since its last inspection. This means assessing how staff have worked to raise attainment and what impact it has had. To find out how the school has responded to the previous action plan, the inspectors will ask you questions about such things as how the school has changed, how effective the changes have been and how improvement can be sustained.

Will the inspection disrupt classes?

Inspectors are meant to be as unobtrusive as possible. But, given that they are supposed to look at pupils' work and talk to them about their understanding of what they are doing, a certain amount of disturbance is inevitable.

What happens after the inspection is over?

The inspection team will collate its information and reach its judgments. The headteacher is given, in confidence, a breakdown of the quality of teaching in all the lessons that were observed. In addition, each teacher who was observed receives a profile of their teaching and given a grade. Grades 1 and 2 are excellent or very good; grades 3 and 4 are good or satisfactory; grades 5, 6, 7 are less than satisfactory. It may be small comfort, but OFSTED doesn't receive names of individuals with grades against them; it's all anonymous information. The school, not the teachers, is being inspected.

The report arrives: what next?

Within six weeks of the final day of inspection, the final report and parents' summary are sent to the head and governing body. These evaluate the school according to the OFSTED framework, identify the school's strengths and weaknesses and set out an agenda for action to improve the school. Within 10 days, the school governors must send out a summary of the report to all parents and make the full report available to the public.

The headteacher will have meetings with departments and groups of departments, as well as with senior management and governors, to discuss the report. If you've been identified as needing further support, the head will spend time discussing with you how this can best be arranged.

What happens if your school does badly?

Schools must display "significant weaknesses" in one or more areas to merit such a judgment from OFSTED. These are generally low attainment or unsatisfactory progress, substandard teaching in one quarter of lessons, ineffective leadershipmanagement. For a school to be judged as failing or requiring special measures, inspectors must ascertain that pupils' attainment and progress is poor and that there is the likelihood or risk of a breakdown in discipline.

If either of these judgments is made, the registered inspector will inform OFSTED and then the school before reporting the full findings. The chief inspector will be consulted in the case of special measures and will decide whether he agrees with the inspectors. But the final decision rests with the registered inspector.

All schools requiring special measures and some which are designated as having serious weaknesses are visited by HMIs in order to review their progress. The impact of a poor inspection on a school can be profound and can change the self-image of the professionals within it as well as its image to the outside world.


New Rush Hall School for Emotional and Behaviour Difficulties, in Redbridge, Essex, had an OFSTED inspection last year, which it passed with flying colours. Headteacher John D'Abbro offers the following tips to classroom teachers.

"To quote the SAS, if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. It's all about playing their game. In the same way that when you went for your job interview you took special care over your hair and clothes, you've got to prepare yourself in an OFSTED-pleasing way when your school's being inspected.

"One of the most important things is to prepare your lesson plans so that nothing is left to chance. I took care to lay them out meticulously, making sure that the lesson was appropriately differentiated, that I had strategies at my fingertips if I was presented with challenging behaviour and that I had lots of material to pull out of my bag so that there was no risk of running out of things to do.

"Leading up to the inspection, I got colleagues to sit in on each other's lessons to monitor and give feedback. We developed a monitoring form that we now use all the time. I also made sure that the marking was up to date.

"Lastly, I followed the old adage of making sure my back was covered. If you can see the class all the time, you can better manage them.

"Turn your back on them and you risk losing it."

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