Grove Church of England school has 106 pupils on roll. It is the smaller of the two primary schools that serve the sprawling postwar village of Grove, near Wantage in Oxfordshire. It's November and Julie Carr, headteacher here since 2002, is preparing for her first Ofsted inspection. It would be understandable if she were apprehensive. The school's last inspection, in 1999, did not go well. The inspectors' verdict was that it had more strengths than weaknesses, but the LEA designated it "a cause for concern" and drafted in a temporary headteacher from the school improvement team. Ms Carr, then an advisory teacher, was drafted in too, and a recovery plan was put into action. When the headship was advertised, she was appointed.
This Ofsted, she says, will be different. She is nervous, but insists that she and her staff are looking forward to it. "We've come a long way," she says. "We've worked together and we've had wonderful support from the community and the LEA.
"We're a small school. We've been looking at each other's lesson plans for the inspection week. Staff come to me and say, 'Have a look at this. Is there anything I can do better?', and we look at them together. As far as the children themselves are concerned, we've just reminded them of what we expect whenever visitors come. 'Talk to our visitors,' we've told them.
'Tell them what you are learning.'"
With only four days until the inspectors arrive, Alison Nall, still in her first full year of teaching, is probably the least nervous. "It's easier for me," she says. "The others aren't so used to being assessed. But I'm looking forward to it. If things are going well, brilliant! If they're not, I want to know." Carolyn Rackstraw, in charge of the early years and literacy and, like Ms Nall, a relatively new appointee, echoes this.
"Provided they recognise where the school is at, I think they'll be supportive. If they recognise that we know where we are going, that will be a real help."
How much work has gone into establishing such a positive outlook? "A lot," says Julie Carr. "But I don't think Ofsted itself is the trigger. I think you do what needs to be done. Our key issues were to build up self-evaluation and monitoring at every level, and to move towards a shared leadership approach. It was very lonely to begin with, but now there are other drivers on the bus. Preparing for Ofsted is something we do together.
In fact it is part and parcel of our everyday practice. Ofsted will want to see that what we say is happening really is happening. They'll track the evidence trail all the way from here (she taps the folders on her desk) to children in the classroom."
But that doesn't mean that when you receive your inspection date there is nothing more to do. For a start, there is the pre-inspection documentation, particularly Form S4, which records in detail the school's evaluation of its quality and progress. Julie Carr thinks the form is invaluable. "If it didn't exist, I would have invented it," she says.
Governors had already evaluated the school's strategic plan, and in the summer they attended a "pre-Ofsted" course with the LEA's governor support unit. Parents, well briefed by regular newsletters, turned up in force for their meeting with the lead inspector. Pupils, reminded in assemblies that the inspection was about "feeling the good that's in the school, celebrating all our learning", have put together a PowerPoint presentation about the role of their school council.
A glance at the self-evaluation form shows that in most of the categories Julie Carr has given the school a 3 or 4 on the standard seven-point scale.
"I think that's realistic," she says. "Look at the Sats scores. When I came there was a plethora of Es and E*s at both key stages. Now they're Cs, and there's even a B at key stage 2. We're on the right lines. In three years we'll be a good school; in five years, a very good one." Where there are problems ("if we need a push, it's at key stage 1"), she is careful to identify them. S4, after all, forms the basis of the lead inspector's initial hypotheses. Julie Carr doesn't expect any surprises here. "If she doesn't home in on foundation and key stage 1, I'll be very concerned."
The next stage is the lead inspector's initial visit; a chance for both sides to make a good impression. Carolyn Rackstraw and Alison Nall found it reassuring. It clarified for them the nature of the process, the inspection data, and the focus of classroom observation. "It even included a reminder to check that our classroom displays reflected our learning objectives," says Alison Nall. For Julie Carr, it was an opportunity to discuss informally her pre-inspection evaluations, and to explain the school's priorities in more detail. "We talked about our plans for more cross-curriculum work, for example, and out-of-doors teaching. We talked about the tempo of change, too, how important it is to get that right. I have to set a pace that colleagues can cope with."
Meanwhile, Julie Carr has been making sure that the evidence the inspectors need is readily available. Statements made on S4 are supported by reference to specific documentation: the school improvement plan, pupil monitoring data, records of classroom observation, minutes of meetings. These are the folders on Julie's desks, neatly cross-referenced and tabbed. Nothing, she says, has been written specially for the inspection. "Ofsted need to see that these are working documents. They are the way we are."
What about helping staff who aren't feeling positive about the inspection? "People say that leadership is a blend of challenge and support. Well, just now isn't the time for challenge. It's a time for lots of support, lots of mince pies, lots of laughter. We've cancelled the pre-inspection staff meeting we were going to have on Friday. We're going out to tea instead.
However apprehensive I feel inside I've got to be calm, reassuring, supportive. I'm trying to glide my way round the school." She laughs. "A bit like a swan: the idea is that you don't see the desperate paddling underneath."
So what does she hope the inspectors will see? "I want them to see the things that we want to see. I want them to see children having fun. I want them to see them enjoying challenge, beginning to be independent learners.
I want them to see a real improvement in listening and speaking; we've really worked hard on that. If the weather's kind, I want them to see children learning outside."
Carolyn Rackstraw agrees. "Reflection on what you're doing is always uncomfortable, isn't it? I think it's worse for teachers, because most teachers are perfectionists. But I still think it's going to be a positive and worthwhile experience. Things should be in place; if we need to do more, I'm sure they'll tell us."
Michael Duffy visited Grove C of E primary school on November 29 last year.
The Ofsted inspection was in the week beginning December 6. In their report the inspectors say it is an improving school, although standards are too low in Year 2. Teaching is satisfactory overall and the headteacher leads the school well. See the full report at www.ofsted.gov.ukreports123123149.pdf
MATTHEW HOLEHOUSE is a Year 12 pupil at Harrogate grammar school
"Our teachers were pretty straight with us about the inspection. In assembly the week before they just said: 'We're the ones being tested here, please help us out a little'. We were asked to make sure that we were on time, that our uniform was correct, and that we were prepared for lessons; nothing unusual or set up, just sticking to the rules that are followed fairly well all year round. I think we responded well to that.
"At primary school teachers would reprimand us with, 'You will not behave like that when the inspectors are here!', which did little for our classroom discipline. At sixth form, teachers did not make an issue of it; rather, they implied that they trusted us to make their inspection as easy as possible.
"My advice to teachers preparing for Ofsted would be to be honest with a class. Perhaps this is not so easy with younger pupils, but by sharing with us that they were bored with filling in lesson plans or by apologising if lessons were changed around, we were fairly sympathetic and willing to get the week over with."
ALISON SHEPHERD is chair of governors at a north-east London primary school
"The arrival of the brown envelope containing the date of our destiny brought with it a sense of relief, as we now knew when it would all be over. For terms governors had prefixed almost every agenda item with phrases such as, 'This has to be in place by the time Ofsted comes'. At one level this heightened expectation may have benefited the school; things that we could have let drift were anchored into place. But it became very draining. We lost a few active governors in that period, who decided there must be a better way to spend their free time.
"But as soon as we knew the fateful week, we could relax a little because we knew we had to work with what we had. We could no longer squeeze one last initiative in, or redraft that extra policy. The link governors, who deal directly with subject co-ordinators, could concentrate on the policies already in place, not worry about which DfES missive might be around the corner.
"That's not to say the last months were a breeze, but there was no sense of panic. We were confident that we were not a bad governing body. We knew the school's strengths and, possibly more importantly to Ofsted, its weaknesses and how we planned to rectify them."
JOHN CLAYDON is head of Wyedean school, Chepstow
"When inspection looms, the best advice is to get the paperwork right.
Efficiency in terms of clear policies and schemes of work goes a long way to convincing even the most dubious inspector that the establishment is fairly well run. Self-evaluation forms are, of course, all the rage now (presumably because there aren't enough inspectors to go round), and when we spent all that time agonising over them for our most recent Ofsted I'm sure I resolved to update them every year and never again be in a situation where I had to start from scratch.
"I think now that this is baloney, brilliantly induced doublethink by someone at the DfES, Ofsted or the Government. In fact, when you try to update the form you find you haven't got much new to say, and we find reviewing our three-year internally devised targets much more valuable.
"Our most recent inspection created as much angst amongst staff as the previous ones. In reality, the new era of limited warning, which was designed partly at least to reduce this anxiety, has resulted in even greater stress as everyone is kept in a heady aura of expectation for weeks from the first possible date."
VAL WOOLLVEN is head of St Andrew's primary school, Plymouth
"Our last inspection was in October 1999, which means that we are more than likely to be one of the first schools in Plymouth to be given two days warning in the autumn term. When we have visitors in school, we have what is called a 'mother-in-law check'. This means metaphorically running your finger over the skirting boards to check for dust. With two days' notice, that's about all you can do.
"The short notice wipes the complacent smile off your face. The school improvement plan must be spot on, describing all the priorities identified by rigorous whole-school self-evaluation. The priorities must be focused and linked directly to raising attainment. The key word of our SIP is 'assessment for learning', and every action plan refers to this.
"Looking back at the last Ofsted report, I can see the changes that have taken place. We've appointed five new staff in a team of seven teachers, which ensured that we worked hard at continuity and maintaining the positive ethos. Free school meals are down from 50 to 30 per cent, but we don't feel that the nature of the children's needs has changed by 20 points. I am proud of what we have achieved. During the summer holidays I intend to wash my dusters."