Across the country, school and college leaders were holding their breath.
Rumours were rife that Ofsted was about to introduce no-notice inspections, and educators were waiting anxiously to get official word of the new framework and work out what it might mean.
However, officials at Ofsted were rather taken aback when they opened a letter from Exeter College principal Richard Atkins volunteering to take part in the pilot project.
"I wrote to Ofsted saying `You're going to need some pilot colleges and I would like to apply,'" Atkins explains. "They were surprised; they don't get many people applying."
The very mention of Ofsted is enough to bring many staff out in a cold sweat, but Exeter College had a different attitude. Atkins wanted an inspection to get the Ofsted seal of approval on what he judged were outstanding lessons.
In the college's two most recent inspections, it had been rated good. But whereas many other colleges would have been delighted to receive the watchdog's second-highest rating, Atkins was frustrated.
"We felt, through our self-assessment, that we were outstanding. I felt we had really stepped up since our last inspection in 2008. It was important to have someone come and validate that," he says.
Ofsted focuses its attention on schools and colleges that have struggled at previous inspections. As a result, visits to those that have been rated good and outstanding are brought forward only if the institution's academic results or other data flag up any cause for concern.
This may be a welcome relief to many principals, but it certainly wasn't to Atkins. "We got a letter from Ofsted saying that they were happy with our results and they wouldn't be inspecting us that year. Oddly, we were disappointed. We knew we were doing well, but we needed the verification."
In countless surveys over the years, teachers and school leaders alike have complained that a visit from Ofsted is one of the most stressful, high-pressure experiences of their career. And, in the current climate of rising floor targets and forced conversions, the price of failure is higher than ever.
What, then, compels the likes of Exeter to voluntarily undergo this risky and potentially traumatic process?
The answer is the burning desire to be officially pronounced outstanding. The benefits are myriad: the boost to staff morale; raising the status of the school or college in the community; perhaps even attracting more students (and funding) as a result.
And the perks of joining this exclusive club are more than psychological: becoming outstanding opens doors for schools and colleges - and their principals - to take up leading roles on the national stage.
Once they have got the top grade, the opportunity for schools and colleges to achieve lasting excellence spreads before them. Outstanding schools reside in a promised land which those placed in special measures can only dream of.
It is a self-fulfilling principle. Outstanding schools are outstanding because they have been judged to be outstanding.
Many certainly believe that Ofsted's verdicts predetermine the fate of the schools and colleges it inspects. While Ofsted's detractors are quick to criticise the quality of its inspectors and their verdicts, there is a growing school of thought that, rather than just evaluating the performance of institutions, Ofsted's decisions can indirectly shape their performance for years to come.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, is a firm believer that a positive Ofsted inspection can transform a school for the better. "Once you've received outstanding, it's easier to stay outstanding," he says. "You only have to look at all the posters and banners outside outstanding schools to see what a difference it makes. It does a lot for morale. Teachers feel proud; it can be quite an emotional moment, and a validation of all the hard work."
And the positive, practical knock-on effects are numerous, Hobby believes. Heads of outstanding schools are eligible to become national leaders of education, and can use their success to cultivate what he describes as a "web of alliances" and influential contacts that can help them continue their upward trajectory.
Jan Webber, the inspections specialist at the other main heads' union, the Association of School and College Leaders, agrees. "(Becoming outstanding) does a lot of good for (a school's) reputation. It opens the door to teaching school status. If a school has a good or outstanding label, more affluent parents will aspire to send their children there."
And every additional student brings extra funding into a school's coffers, which can only further its ambition to stay ahead of the game.
Stuck at satisfactory
But whereas being rated outstanding can offer opportunities that can help a school continue to thrive, the reverse is true for schools that struggle to impress the inspectors. A particular area of concern for Ofsted has long been the phenomenon of the school stuck at satisfactory.
In contrast to receiving an inadequate grading - which often means that a school comes under greater focus and scrutiny, in many cases resulting in either a change of leadership or extra support - experts have long argued that those institutions that manage to keep their heads above water and cling on to their satisfactory grading are more likely to remain stranded in the third tier.
Schools that are deemed satisfactory - or, in Ofsted's latest jargon, "requiring improvement" - all too often become stuck in a vicious cycle of mediocrity.
The facts seem to back up this theory. According to 2011 research carried out by Becky Francis, professor of education and social justice at King's College London, for the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 50 per cent of schools previously rated satisfactory received the same grade in their next inspection. This makes them more than twice as likely to receive a satisfactory grade than their more successful neighbours; only 19 per cent of schools previously found to be good or outstanding went on to be classed as satisfactory.
Similarly, the report found that high-achieving schools tended to stay at a similar level in consecutive inspections: 78 per cent of those that achieved a good or outstanding grade went on to repeat the feat. In comparison, just 42 per cent of schools that had been previously classed as satisfactory managed to attain good or outstanding next time around.
"Schools are more likely to be graded `satisfactory' or `inadequate' if they have previously been judged `satisfactory' - hence suggesting a lower capacity to improve among these `longer term' satisfactory schools," Francis writes. Of the 2,996 satisfactory schools at the time, almost a third (967) got the same grade at their previous inspections. Even more worryingly, one in six (473) were stuck at satisfactory for the third consecutive inspection.
In January 2012, Ofsted released its own data appearing to support the theory that past inspection grades tend to shape schools' future performance. It found that, of the schools that were rated satisfactory, 46 per cent of primaries and 49 per cent of secondaries went on to receive the same grade again.
In order to combat this apparent stagnation in the performance of persistently satisfactory schools, Ofsted's chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, announced plans to scrap the label altogether, renaming the category "requires improvement".
The change is about much more than semantics. "There are too many coasting schools not providing an acceptable standard of education," Wilshaw said at the time. "This is not good enough."
Formerly satisfactory schools would be reinspected sooner, and expected to demonstrate significant improvement, he added. And schools that failed to break this cycle of consistent mediocrity would face the ultimate sanction: being placed in special measures. Concerned that its inspections were not just reflecting schools' performance but actually influencing them, Ofsted had decided to take action to break the pattern of stagnation.
Burnt Mill Academy, a secondary school in Harlow, Essex, may well have been one of the schools Wilshaw had in mind. It had found itself stuck after two successive satisfactory inspections in 2007 and 2010.
Assistant head Paul Williams freely admits that the preceding few years had been a "tough time" for Burnt Mill, which had undergone several managerial changes. "The school had been in a period of flux," he says. "In those three years (between the 2007 and 2010 inspections) the school had probably trodden water a bit. There was disappointment about that. Everybody wants to be outstanding, but there were times when we thought we were never going to get there. Until we changed the leadership and focused the staff on raising attainment, we were never going to shift from satisfactory."
When a team of inspectors arrived in November, Williams could have been forgiven for feeling somewhat apprehensive. But with new head Helena Mills confident that they had made significant improvements since Ofsted's previous visit, the teachers were in a bullish mood when the inspectors arrived. "It was quite a stress-free day," Williams recalls. "We knew we'd recruited people who could deliver the goods; we did this every single day."
And their confidence, it seems, was justified: just two years after its last satisfactory rating, the school was found to be outstanding in all areas. It had finally thrown off the shackles of its persistently satisfactory label.
"This academy is high-achieving and provides a first-rate environment for learning. It has made substantial and wide-ranging improvements," the report concluded, adding that the "exceptionally well-led" school had "tackled previous weaknesses in the quality of teaching and the progress of the students". Burnt Mill had laid to rest the ghosts of its recent past.
The impact of the report, Williams says, has been seismic. "For staff, it recognises their hard work is something important; all the difficult times, all the hours they put in. An outstanding Ofsted grade means we know we will be left alone - for a few years, we hope - so that we can just get on with what we do best: teaching and caring for our students."
The thumbs up from the inspectorate has not just provided a boost to morale, it has led to tangible benefits, too. As a result, Burnt Mill has become one of the first schools in Essex to be approved to be an academy sponsor, and has taken two struggling local primaries under its wing.
After volunteering to be on the front line for what turned out to be a brief pilot campaign of no-notice inspections, Exeter College was also awarded Ofsted's top grade.
But this was only the start for the college. Atkins freely admits to being taken aback by the FE college's transformation since it was rated outstanding. "The benefits have been enormous; they have been much greater than I imagined," he says. "We had a real sense of wanting to be outstanding for our community. People in Exeter and Devon can now go around and say `That's an outstanding college.' "It has enhanced our local reputation, no doubt at all.
"While we believed we were outstanding owing to our internal assessment, the brand of Ofsted enhanced our local reputation, particularly as it was a no-notice inspection."
Proud of their choice
Ofsted's verdict has turned out to be a fillip for students as well as staff. "It changed the way learners felt about coming here," Atkins says. "From what I see them writing on Twitter and putting in questionnaires, it has enhanced their pride and validated their choice to come here. And they will tell their friends and siblings that. It's a direct result of the inspection."
Atkins also partially attributes Exeter's surge in popularity to the successful inspection - in September it received 450 more applications for 16-19 places than the previous year, amounting to a 10 per cent increase. "I've been here a while. In my time I've seen us go up 150 or down 150. But I've never seen an increase like that before, and the inspection clearly played a part," Atkins says.
The heightened interest in the college has not just been local; Atkins has fielded calls from his counterparts across the country. "There's been more interest in Exeter from other colleges than I could ever have dreamed of. There have been more visits, exchanges, talks and conferences than we ever expected."
The pinnacle of the college's year of success was receiving two gongs, including outstanding provider of the year, at the TES FE Awards, which were held in Birmingham in November.
The only frustration for Exeter has been that, according to the record books, its outstanding rating does not count. As it took part in an inspection pilot, the verdict is not recognised as a full inspection.
But, having made it to the top of the Ofsted tree, Atkins has no doubts that when inspectors return in the next couple of years, the college will show itself to be outstanding once more. If they manage it, it will be further proof - if any were needed - that an Ofsted verdict is often a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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