Ofsted's big surprise

11th November 2005 at 00:00
Something strange has happened to Ofsted. Marathon interrogations by stern-faced 'Regis' are out, and short, sympathetic visits are in. Are we really entering the age of the stress-free inspection, or does self-evaluation bring a new kind of pressure? Wendy Wallace reports

Hannah Perera admits she felt a bit tense. "If someone's inspecting you, you want to make a good impression," she says. "You don't want to let your school down."

It could be any head or teacher talking about an Ofsted visitation, but Hannah is 11 years old, a Year 6 pupil at Cranmer primary school in the London borough of Merton. Cranmer was one of the first schools this term to experience Ofsted's new-style short inspection, with its greater emphasis on garnering the views of children. Inspectors asked "strange" questions, says nine-year-old Tunde Alatishe. "Like, what is our work about?"

Cranmer was inspected in September by HMI Robert Ellis and two "additional"

inspectors, as the non-HMIs are now called. The 395-pupil school was graded 2 (good) for overall effectiveness, with children's enjoyment, behaviour and the promotion of equal opportunities given grade 1 (outstanding). In the letter to pupils that is now a standard part of inspection reports, Robert Ellis apologised for not enclosing pictures of the things he liked about their school; they'd asked him to draw some, but on that score he failed.

The light touch of Ofsted's new inspection arrangements has this term been felt by scores of schools around the country, with the first batch of reports published last month. Of 86 schools inspected during the first week of the autumn term, almost two-thirds were judged good or better; one was placed in special measures and six were found to be "inadequate".

Short Ofsted really is short. Schools are meant to receive a phone call giving them two days' notice of their inspection, although some heads report a slightly longer notice period, of up to a week. The all-important self-evaluation form (SEF) must be kept updated at all times, and Ofsted says that schools can even insert new evidence during the course of an inspection, by agreement with the lead inspector. Inspectors stay in school for all of one day and most of a second.

By the autumn half-term, 851 schools had been inspected. So far, many - but not all - report a positive experience. "They talked to children a lot,"

says Cranmer's head, Val Kenny. "My impression is that it is very much getting away from just core subjects to looking at how the whole child is valued and cared for in the learning environment."

Ms Kenny has been in teaching for 35 years and head of Cranmer for 12, during which time she has overseen its transformation from a middle school into a primary. She says she felt deskilled while writing the self-evaluation form (SEF), the document on which inspection now hinges. "I agonised writing it, because there are very few models out there," she says. "What exactly are they looking for? How do you write it? What do you say? It is more stressful now than it will be."

With the inspection behind her, Ms Kenny feels she has a handle on how to manage short Ofsted. "You have to learn to put everything constructively.

It is important to be as accurate as possible about the school, in an analytical rather than a descriptive way." Ofsted was less concerned about what they found and more interested in what the school was doing about things, she says. With hindsight, she would have approached the self-evaluation exercise differently. "I would have more courage. Because there was no yardstick, I did not dare to give us grade 1s. But now, I would. If you give your school grade 2s, do they come looking for grade 2 information?"

Ian Pollard, head of the 82-pupil Great Sampford school in rural Essex, was the first in his county to greet inspectors. He and key stage 1 co-ordinator Carole King had spent much time over the summer working on the SEF, and judged themselves overall as being "good". They were delighted when inspectors upgraded them to grade 1, "outstanding", particularly as six years earlier, when the head arrived at Great Sampford, the school had been in special measures. "It has given us a greater confidence," he says.

"We always feel behind the game because we are a small school. But clearly we are moving forward."

Like Ms Kenny, Mr Pollard struggled with the SEF and says that heads are unused to the autonomy that comes with the new inspection system. "We've had it so drummed into us that there is a right way to do things - should it be in bullet points? - you're paddling in the dark." When the team arrived, complete on the second day with two other HMIs (there to inspect the inspectors), Mr Pollard was pleasantly surprised. "They weren't coming to catch us out. They were giving us the seal of approval that our processes were right. We felt less on trial, more supported."

Ian Pollard was one of two headteachers to speak to The TES in a hoarse whisper, laid low with colds as half-term approached. The new inspection arrangements undoubtedly place more of a burden on heads, although senior managers are also intended to play a significant part in the self-evaluation. "It is very much an assessment of the headteacher," says Jeff Holman of the National Association of Head Teachers. The union is in discussion with the chief inspector, David Bell, about how to make the SEF shorter and less repetitive; some run to more than 30 pages.

While most feedback to the NAHT has been positive, being failed or judged merely "satisfactory" is just as heavy a blow as it was under the old regime. It may even be worse, since the implication is that heads and senior managers do not know their own schools. Colm Flanagan, head of St Wilfrid's RC primary in York, learned on the first day of term that inspectors would be arriving early the following week. The SEF was ready and his initial contact with the lead inspector was positive. "It sounded as if we could engage in dialogue, although the inspector himself seemed to have concerns about the speed of it all."

Staff were devastated when the school was graded only 3, or "satisfactory", having assessed themselves as "good". The head believes weak maths results this summer influenced the team. "My feeling was that a more confident inspector would have been able to see all the things the school does well,"

he says. "I have a sense of failure because we have created a good school but not been able to convince the people who assess these things." St Wilfrid's is to launch a formal complaint, a course of action even more untested than the new inspection regime.

The day after running a training session on the new Ofsted, headteacher Jacqui Rothery called her staff together on the first day of term to tell them the inspectorate had been on the phone that morning. They thought she was joking. Teachers and support staff at Holgate school, an 11-16 comprehensive with 946 students in Barnsley, were expecting a visit, but not quite so soon. At the beginning of the school year there were few displays on the walls and some staff faced the prospect of being observed teaching classes they hadn't met before. "They were worried," says the head. "But we had the energy for it."

Like other heads and senior managers, Ms Rothery had played it safe in the grades she awarded her school, preferring to err on the side of caution.

Despite best-ever GCSE results in 2004 - subsequently improved on in 2005 - they had given themselves "satisfactory" in almost all categories, modestly allowing a grade 2 only for their "capacity for improvement". The HMI's first question was, why? "I think that worked in our favour," says Ms Rothery. "They were looking for positive things to prove their hypothesis that we were better than satisfactory. And the school was very ready and very proud."

She considers the new inspection a great improvement on the Section 10 format, despite the fact that some teachers have now moved from being "brought to nervous breakdowns" to "feeling left out", because not all were observed even briefly. "It was rigorous; they checked thoroughly. Did we know ourselves? We did feel our self-evaluation was being inspected. We had done departmental SEFs that contributed to the overall SEF. Where there were areas of inconsistency, we knew about them already. As leaders, we have to know what is happening in the school."

A profession grown weary of new initiatives and changing frameworks for inspections is justifiably waiting to see what larger numbers of colleagues will have to say about Ofsted's supposedly light touch. But there is some optimism that this may mark a turning point, at least in relations with inspectors. "It is far better," says Val Kenny of Cranmer school. "Now, it is about us grasping the opportunity we have been given to be the leaders in our school, to be trusted for the judgments we make and be supported in them."

Do you have questions about the new framework? Help is on hand at the TES website, where Selwyn Ward, a seasoned Ofsted inspector, is waiting to answer your questions (www.tes.co.ukexperts)

How heads rate the new inspections

Ofsted now grades schools on a scale of one to four, where one is "outstanding", two "good", three "satisfactory" and four "inadequate". But how do schools rate Ofsted?

* "One and a half to two," says Val Kenny of Cranmer primary school, "for putting professionalism back in the hands of headteachers."

* "I'd have to give it a one," says Ian Pollard of Great Sampford primary school in Essex. "It made us feel better about ourselves, that we were doing something right for once."

* "Two," says Jacqui Rothery, head of Holgate comprehensive school in Barnsley. "It checks self-evaluation and therefore encourages good practice. There were some raw edges, with people getting used to the framework themselves."

* "Grade four, inadequate," says Colm Flanagan, head of St Wilfrid's RC primary. "Because they got it wrong. I can't think of any other way of putting it."

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