Ofsted expects

17th February 2006 at 00:00
Shorter visits should mean reduced anxiety. But anticipation of the phone call is still nail-biting, and some heads are using the Ofsted bogeyman to keep staff in line. Our online inspection agony uncle Selwyn Ward dispels the myths

The new inspection system is now into its second term and Ofsted has pronounced itself pleased. Schools that have received good reports - and that's close to two-thirds - have also praised the new system. But then they would, wouldn't they? On the other hand, the former chief inspector Chris Woodhead says the revised procedure takes the focus away from teaching. Ofsted, he says, has lost its way. Who is right?

During my six months as the TES's online inspection "agony uncle" I've tried to answer the queries and concerns of teachers and others. Some questions are unique, but common themes have emerged.

First, it's a myth that having just two or three days' notice of inspection reduces the pressure on teachers. The anticipation of the visit has always been worse than the inspection itself, and parents often used to complain that the weeks and months of notice meant inspectors did not see things as they really were. Teachers say that the shorter notice has, in many cases, ratcheted up the pressure; at schools that believe they may be "due" an inspection (particularly when it has been five or more years since the last one), some headteachers are putting staff into a state of continuous heightened anxiety.

The new system is principally an exercise in validating the school's own evaluation of how it is doing. Inspectors do not have the time or inclination to wade through a forest of documents; they will be more impressed with short well-focused evidence that supports the self-evaluation form (SEF) than by piles of irrelevant documents. Teachers tell pupils sitting exams to make sure they answer the question that's been asked. It's a skill that some heads need to brush up on.

In some schools Ofsted is being used as a stick with which to threaten staff. I have lost count of the number of queries I've had from teachers who have been told that they need to do things a particular way "because that is what Ofsted expects". What Ofsted expects is effectiveness.

Inspectors aren't there to dictate that any one methodology is better than another; when they come to observe a lesson, it should be to check out a particular aspect of teaching, usually to compare it with what the head has told them to expect. If an inspector turns up at your school trying to impose their own particular way of doing things, then you should be reaching for a complaints form.

This misconception about "what Ofsted expects" seems particularly to extend to lesson plans. As one teacher posted on the TES website: "I know we're not meant to do anything special, but my department doesn't have schemes of work - we just make notes in our planners. I'm worried that this isn't enough." Of course, inspectors expect lessons to be well planned. That means they expect pupils to be set work that offers an appropriate challenge and builds on what they have done before. It means that pupils probably ought to know what they are supposed to be learning and the teacher ought to be checking at some point that they have understood. It does not, however, mean that inspectors have any preconceived notion of how or even whether lesson plans should be written.

Newly qualified teachers seem especially nervous about upcoming inspections. As one wrote: "I feel as an NQT in a receptionYear 1 class that I am only just finding my feet. The thought of Ofsted makes me feel ill. Will they take into account that I am new?" In fact, NQTs have the least cause for concern. Inspectors may well observe part of a new teacher's lesson, but if there are any serious shortcomings, it is likely that this will focus inspectors' questioning back on the leadership of the school and what it has done to monitor and support the NQT.

Rightly or wrongly, the focus of the new system has shifted from the classroom to the leadership and management of a school. In an average-size secondary school, an individual teacher probably has a less than 50 per cent chance of being observed. So, ironically, an inspection these days can be something of an anti-climax for many teachers. Where a school is perceived to have done particularly well, it can be especially disappointing to staff not to feel they have contributed to the success. On the other hand, teachers who are observed can be nervous about letting the side down. They can take consolation from the fact that nowadays inspectors' overall judgment on teaching is not merely based on number-crunching the results of the few observed lessons. It also factors in other evidence, such as marking and the progress pupils make over time.

The test of the effectiveness of the new system is not how many schools get given which grade; nor should it be measured in the sighs of relief as the inspectors disappear through the school gate. Schools need to ask themselves whether their inspection has contributed to raising standards.

It is this that Ofsted must demonstrate in its review of the new regime. If it turns out that inspection is failing to drive school improvement, the new chief inspector, when appointed, will need to have the courage to revert to a more rigorous system that may not be as cheap, but which nonetheless ensures better value for money.

Selwyn Ward is an Ofsted inspector who has taken part in more than 200 inspections, including about 20 under the new system. Follow his advice in the inspection forum at www.tes.co.ukstaffroom

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