Lighter touch welcomed

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Phil Revell finds special school heads pleasantly surprised by the new regime

Imagine the situation. It's the first week of term. The usual hectic routine is playing itself out, with new pupils, new staff and a suddenly bulging in-tray; then the phone rings and a voice announces that Ofsted will be arriving in five days' time.

"I thought someone was having me on," says Moore Armstrong at Surrey's Sunnydown special school. He realised it wasn't a joke when the caller's serious voice asked him to send his school evaluation document. "I said it wasn't ready, but that it would be; my deputy had a busy weekend."

This is the new reality. In that first week of term, 86 schools were told that the inspectors were on the way. Inspections began the following week and by September 15, one school had gone into special measures.

Ofsted's new inspection format was introduced partly to reduce the stress of the process. It was felt that the long notice periods of the previous system raised the tension in schools and created unnecessary workload, as teachers and leaders updated every document and policy.

But that was only half the rationale. Inspection is now part of the self-evaluation process. Essentially the inspectors are moderating the school's view of itself, and that has produced radical changes in the inspection routine.

"Ofsted are coming in to confirm the judgments we have made," said Linda Low, at Knowsley's The Elms school. Ms Low received the call on September 8; an Ofsted team arrived six days later.

The inspections run over two days and it's possible to see a routine developing. Special schools The TES has spoken to were contacted on the Thursday or Friday of the previous week and asked to send an electronic copy of their self-evaluation framework document (SEF) to the lead inspector. Neither The Elms nor Sunnydown had completed theirs, but inspectors allowed the schools to send it on the Monday. Schools in the first wave have been given a period of grace on this issue, but that may not last for much longer. Schools need to have their SEF kept up to date.

After the initial call, heads had the opportunity to speak to the lead inspector. "We spoke at length on the Friday," says Linda Low. After that comes the pre-inspection brief, a document which sets out the inspectors'

initial assessment of the school, together with any practical requirements in terms of documentation and people, including students, the inspectors will want to see.

"We had a brief conversation with the inspector on the Friday and then a longer phone call on the Monday afternoon," recalls Moore Armstrong. "The pre-inspection commentary; that was very useful; it meant we were given time to organise things. And there were a couple of things where I was able to say 'You've got his wrong', and gather evidence for my case."

Sunnydown is a residential maintained special school catering for students with severe and complex special needs. It originally specialised in severe dyslexia, but today Armstrong is seeing more students with high functioning autism or Asperger.

"We see ourselves as unique in the state sector," he says. "That makes our Panda (performance and assessment reports) almost useless; it was important to get the SEF right, and to get it to them."

Sunnydown was last inspected in 1999, but this was a different experience, not least because the inspectors took the student's view of their education as central to the inspection evidence. "The students' view of the school did shape their observations and was the basis of our conversations," says Armstrong.

That was also the view up in Knowsley. The Elms takes students with severe and complex needs, but the inspector used her knowledge of British sign language, Makaton, and picture exchange to gauge what the young people thought of their school.

Linda Low was pleased with the professionalism of the new inspection process. "We did have a very good lead inspector who was very realistic,"

she said, "It was a good, strong partnership between the school and the team, better than in previous inspections."

At the heart of the process is the new self-evaluation framework document, where schools have to follow the pro forma set out by Ofsted, commenting on their strengths and weaknesses, and giving themselves a grade for a series of key areas. There are four grades, from outstanding to poor, and choosing which box to tick is difficult.

The Elms is an ex-Beacon school, confident in its strengths, and Low went for the highest grade in many SEF sections: "But it's difficult - if it's only just 'good' is that a 'good' or is that satisfactory? That's a grey area.

"We went for a straightforward view, neither optimistic nor pessimistic,"

said Armstrong. "But on the final reading, before we sent it, I thought we'd been modest. We might have upped some grades if we'd had more time to prepare."

A look at the quality of teaching and learning section of Sunnydown's report (see box, below left) reveals how close to the mark Armstrong and his deputy had been.

Both heads were happy about the inspection process, and feel that they had been given extensive feedback by the lead inspector. Individual teachers are less likely to receive that kind of feedback, but they are also less likely to be closely inspected.

In Surrey, one higher level teaching assistant told Moore Armstrong that it had been "an excellent inspection. Can we have more of these?" she asked.

In Knowsley, The Elms staff told Linda Low that they thought the process had been less stressful. "This was a much smoother and quicker inspection,"

she says. "On the Friday, staff did feel that the stress was less - and that is how it should be."



The quality of provision

How good is the quality of teaching and learning?

The pupils' learning needs are well met through an integrated team of teachers and teaching assistants working in curriculum areas backed up by specialist provision from the learning support team and enhanced by the residential care staff.

Pupils' progress is monitored through curriculum work including a range of assessment for learning techniques as well as formal assessment through end of module testing, base-line testing (and) on-entry testing.

Pupils' progress is discussed in formal staff meetings and through the important informal discussions between individualstaff. Strategies for teaching individual pupils are formulated on the basis of this evaluation.

Grade (2) Good

OFSTED REPORT (abridged)

Quality of provision: Teaching and learning

There is some outstanding teaching. Good subject knowledge is combined with a thorough consideration of pupils' individual targets. Humour is used well to capture and maintain every pupil's attention. Behaviour in these lessons is excellent. Explanations and examples related to pupils' daily lives really help to promote their understanding.

Not all teaching is as good as this. Inspectors confirm some younger pupils' views that there is too much teacher talk in some lessons. In a few lessons insufficient consideration is given to the suitability of the content, task or teaching method for those with more complex difficulties.

The learning support staff play a key role in promoting pupils' learning.

They know pupils well and are skilled in unobtrusively supporting them while at the same time encouraging them to become independent learners.

Grade: 2

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