Though there is a cycle of inspection, you never know precisely when you will get the call. When it does come, you will typically have just two days' notice that the inspectors will be arriving. You can throw yourself and the rest of the school into panic mode. But this won't show the school off at its best. Safer then to take a leaf out of the Boy Scouts' manual and "Be Prepared".
Inspectors' starting point will be the school's test results and leaders' own evaluation of the school's strengths and weaknesses. There is no legal requirement to complete Ofsted's online self-evaluation form (SEF), but almost all schools do.
Since the SEF is organised around the key questions that inspectors will be checking out, completing it and keeping it up-to-date is a good way of making sure that you have a handle on all of the issues that are likely to come up when you are inspected. Make sure, though, that your SEF evaluates and doesn't just describe what you do. When inspectors make judgments, they will not base these on assertions. Expect them always to ask you: "How do you know?"
Inspectors will have seen the most recent RAISEonline data for the school. You will be even more familiar with what it is saying and what, if any, trends it points to. If you think it gives a misleading impression, then good preparation means marshalling those arguments in advance of the inspection. For example, if you think that the value added measures in RAISEonline give a distorted picture because mobility in the school is high, then expect inspectors to probe more about why those who join other than at the usual time may be doing less well than others and what the school has done about this. Good preparation means not being surprised by the questions inspectors ask.
It is likely that the inspections from September 2009 will involve inspectors spending a greater proportion of their time in class than has commonly been the case over the past three years. Nevertheless, inspectors will also still draw on school leaders' monitoring of teaching and learning. Be sure that this does not just flag up all the good features you have seen and you have identified points for improvement.
Ofsted does not send inspectors into schools armed with checklists. But there is one aspect of inspection where they are formally required to check that all legislative requirements are fully met - the arrangements for safeguarding pupils. They will definitely ask to see the school's Single Central Record (SCR) showing that all adults have been properly vetted. A number of schools have been issued with a notice to improve because they have an inadequate SCR, despite other strengths. Safeguarding arrangements also include risk assessments, child protection systems and your racial incident book.
Last but not least, remember that inspectors are not just looking at pupils' academic progress and welfare, they are also going to be focusing on their personal development. It is not a coincidence that the framework for inspection bears the title Every Child Matters. The ECM agenda is at the heart of the inspection system. Inspectors will be forming judgments on each of the ECM outcomes, as well as on pupils' behaviour, attendance and their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. If you think that your school is strong in these areas, be sure you can demonstrate the positive effects in your pupils.
Be prepared and the inspection should go smoothly. It will help you present an accurate picture of the school's strengths and weaknesses, so that the inspection becomes a helpful process rather than a trial to be endured.
Selwyn Ward has been an inspector for 15 years in both primary and secondary schools. Next week: Dealing with governors.