Surprise: Ofsted calling
Short-notice inspections were part of the Ofsted makeover. Along with shorter and more frequent visits, the new approach aimed to make schools less the victims and more the participants.
But avoiding the build-up of anxiety associated with half a term's notice has its own drawbacks. It's rather like getting married knowing you'll get only a few days' warning of when you're due at the church. Instead of gearing up towards a date circled in your calendar, you must exist in a constant state of readiness waiting for the phone to ring, with the vicar, caterers and disco on standby.
Some headteachers have already resorted to extremes to cope with the surprise visits, with one pulling star pupils back from a residential trip while another rearranged her mother's funeral.
And although the new regime has been styled "light-touch", the stakes are just as high. One key difference is that the emphasis is much more firmly on the school's own assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. This, in turn, means preparing for an inspection - in the shape of anything from a full-scale mock inspection to a few soothing words of reassurance - has never been so important.
Barbara Ford, head of St Anthony's RC Primary in Bradford, brought in outside help when her inspection was imminent. "We wanted someone to come in and look at what we were doing, say: 'Have you thought about this?' and suggest different ways of doing things," she says.
On the recommendation of a fellow head, Barbara called Clive Davies, director of Focus Education, a consultancy based in Saddleworth near Oldham. He spent several days in the school over the autumn and spring terms, ahead of the inspectors' visit in March, when the school was graded outstanding.
She says his role involved looking at the school's data and its teaching, including videotaping interviews with the children and then playing them back to the staff.
"Of course you are evaluating what is happening when you're teaching, but you don't really get the chance to stand back and hear the children's thought processes," says Barbara. "Clive was also a whizz with the data and good at showing the progress the children had made by the time they left."
As well as working with the senior management team, Clive held staff meetings and spoke to teachers individually. "It helped me see how I could stretch and challenge the children," says Year 6 teacher and maths co-ordinator Elaine Kernan.
"I'm new to the maths role this year and it was daunting knowing I'd have to speak to the inspection team. But we worked together on some figures and he gave me a lot of confidence in myself as a teacher."
While few schools ask for full mock inspections, Clive, who charges up to pound;600 a day for his services, reckons mock lesson observations can provide valuable reassurance to heads.
"The new system is all about knowing what the school needs to move on, so you want the inspection team to come to the same conclusions and identify the same issues as you have," he says.
"Sometimes the head has their own view of teaching but lacks the confidence to know if their judgment would match that of a typical inspector, and usually the teacher has volunteered to be observed, so it is a three-way process."
Clive says heads often also ask for help in checking the school's self-evaluation form, which provides the basis for the inspection. "We'll go in and look at their data and help them portray themselves as well as possible. Of course we also highlight the areas the inspector might look at."
Angela Walsh, head of Ridgeway High in Prenton, Merseyside, feels an outside pair of eyes is particularly useful for checking a school's data.
Angela, whose school was rated outstanding in its inspection last month, says the new-style inspections focus far more on the senior management team than previously.
"The Ofsted team hasn't got a clue about you until they read the self-evaluation form, but it's an unwieldy document and it would be helpful to have someone read your data and say what they would ask about the school. You need to be able to justify your view of yourself," she says.
The May inspection was Angela's third as head - first under the new system - and she says she prepared in the same way as she had for the previous two.
"We had tons of evidence and the inspectors said it was helpful, but it is hard to judge if we over-prepared. Would we have got the same result with less evidence? I don't know."
Keith Dennis, inspections consultant for the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), discourages mock ins-pections, and says that instead heads should concentrate on ways of improving their schools.
"Inspection is about weighing the pig, and that does nothing to fatten the pig. School leadership is about feeding the pig," he says. "Inspectors are looking for sharp self-evaluation and when schools do something to improve themselves, there should be a good evaluation of the impact that change is having."
ASCL runs its own courses on inspections, including sessions on the self-evaluation form and with former heads who have trained as inspectors.
"We try to get them to think like inspectors. But our aim is not just for schools to do well in an inspection but to think about self-improvement,"
Keith says. He believes that understanding what inspectors are looking for is the best way for schools to avoid becoming victims of the process. Kevin Haddock, senior secondary adviser to Suffolk county council, says schools should treat Ofsted visits as part of a continuous process of improvement.
Kevin, himself a lead inspector, helps schools put together their self-evaluation forms and advises heads on issues raised in the Ofsted team's pre-inspection briefing.
He also runs training programmes including videos of effective lessons, aimed at enabling schools to have confidence in their own judgment of the quality of teaching.
He says it is a misapprehension that inspections are all about the numbers.
Inspectors want to know what progress is like now, not what it was like in the past. This view is supported by an Ofsted briefing of May 16 this year, which states that while performance data informs inspection judgments, it does not dictate them, and account should be taken of the full range of evidence, including that gathered by first-hand observation.
"Inspectors will often ask who the good and outstanding teachers are in your school, and this can be difficult for heads, who may feel reticent about calling their school outstanding," Kevin says.
Backing up her own judgment was one of the reasons why Andy Bleasdale, head at Foxhill Primary in Bradford, called in consultants. Clive Davies, of Focus Education, carried out lesson observations, and spoke to staff and pupils. But even though the school's inspection is expected sometime before Christmas, that was not uppermost in Andy's mind.
"I feel more confident because of his input, but it is all part of the improvement process," she says. "I wouldn't do something just for Ofsted.
An inspection is a snapshot, whereas I'm more concerned that the children are getting the best deal all the time they're here. Ofsted will come in for a couple of days; the children are here for seven years."
See Ask an Inspector, p51.
THE CHANGING FACE OF INSPECTIONS
Ofsted introduced a system of "light touch" inspections in September 2005.
Schools are now inspected every three years instead of every six, and inspection reports are shorter, as is the inspection itself.
To counter concern that schools were making a special effort for an inspection, Ofsted also moved to short-notice visits, a few days instead of several months.
The self-evaluation form now forms the basis of an inspection, and schools are encouraged to keep them updated, although it is not compulsory to fill in the form.
Before September 2005, Ofsted ranked schools in seven categories. In 2004-05, the last year under the old system, 26 per cent of secondaries and 19 per cent of primaries were ranked excellent or very good; 44 per cent of secondaries and 49 per cent of primaries were ranked good; 23 per cent of secondaries and 27 per cent of primaries were ranked satisfactory; and 7 per cent of secondaries and 4 per cent of primaries were ranked unsatisfactory, poor or very poor.
From September 2005, a system of four rankings was introduced. In 2005-06, 11 per cent of schools were classed as outstanding; 48 per cent good; 34 per cent satisfactory, and 8 per cent inadequate.