Ofsted Watch - Data may rule, but context is still king

2nd January 2015 at 00:00
When a school is operating in challenging circumstances, Ofsted must take this into account. Here's how to get the message across

I am the headteacher of a large primary school in a very deprived area. There are high levels of special educational needs among our pupils and more than 50 per cent of our students receive free school meals. A number of children have family issues.

Do these factors have an impact on Ofsted inspections? We like to think so; we all want to believe that every inspector appreciates the demands placed on schools that work in challenging contexts. Yet this is not always the case.

This is often because inspectors have made their minds up about a school before they even arrive, based on data. The figures may present the previous year's results but they say absolutely nothing about the school. Inspectors can guess at a context, of course, but until they have experience of the school and the area it serves, they cannot begin to grasp what any of that data really means.

In some cases, an inspection team simply refuses to consider or acknowledge the environment a school is working in. This is ludicrous. I'm all for equal opportunities for every child, regardless of background, but to make that a reality we have to acknowledge and work around those backgrounds. The same goes for a school: we don't use the environment as an excuse, but we can't ignore it.

So, what can headteachers do when they feel the context of their school is being overlooked?

Tell your story your way

The first task is to ensure that your self-evaluation form paints the full picture. This document is the most important piece of paper you can present to the inspection team and every word of it needs to be carefully considered. Don't listen to anyone who says it ought to be a certain length; it will be the length it needs to be in order to present the school properly. That said, it should be concise and written in an engaging way. Don't use bullet points - it must have a soul.

It's important that the document includes the essential facts about your student body. For example, it should provide evidence for deprivation indices, information on the number of children receiving free school meals and how they are catered for, and details of any involvement with social services. It should also show that the school supports every child, no matter what issues they may have.

Needless to say, inflating figures or overplaying the situation are out of the question. Whether you are presenting the data or your own narrative, it must always be the truth.

Having provided this base of knowledge to the inspectors, you must see to it that every moment they spend in the school reinforces what you have said. The drive to ensure that every child fulfils their potential must be evident in all aspects of your school - and in the words of every staff member.

This requires an enormous amount of training, but it is essential. All staff must be aware of the barriers faced by the children in your care; they must realise that these are not excuses and they must know what part they play in moving every individual on. When you consider the enormous range of problems a child can experience, you begin to see what a huge challenge this can be - but it is one that we need to embrace. When the inspectors arrive, you need every staff member to demonstrate the benefits of their training.

Of course, no matter how hard you work, you may end up with the "wrong" inspection team. If you are fortunate, you will get a team that listens as the school speaks and gets the right impression straight away. But you might end up with a team that needs a little more direction.

Lead the conversation

The best way to deal with an inspection team that fails to ask questions about the school environment is to ask those questions yourself as you go round the school. If you ensure that every parent, teacher and child answers in the same way, the inspectors will naturally take those responses on board. They will soon work out that no matter who they talk to, they get the same answer. The message will hit home.

And if it doesn't? I feel very strongly about some of the experiences our pupils go through; their suffering makes me angry and upset. And if Ofsted is doing its job correctly, it should know that these children require their school to go above and beyond. It would be nice for inspectors to recognise that and to grade us appropriately, but I learned long ago that although Ofsted is important, it is far more important that the children know we are doing all we can for them.

George Shipp is a pseudonym. He is a primary headteacher in the South of England

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