Tricks of the new regime
Ofsted has adopted a self-evaluation style for inspections, but the pressure is still on, say heads and governors.Nic Barnard reports
The rumblings have begun. It may be early days, but already headteachers and school governors are starting to ask questions about the Office for Standards in Education's new-style inspections.
The revised inspection framework came into effect with the start of the academic year. School leaders' associations in particular welcomed the emphasis on self-evaluation, and Ofsted promised a less bureaucratic, more supportive approach. For the first time, too, it would look at school leadership as distinct from management.
But early feedback suggests the new framework puts more pressure on heads despite, or perhaps because, of giving them more input.
And unions have been quick to jump on the revelation that the number of schools found to have serious weaknesses or requiring special measures is already up by a third. Is the balance of the new inspections wrong, they ask?
Heads in the first wave of inspections did not have much time to get to grips with the framework, published in late May. By June, they were chewing the end of their pencils over the "brief" new self-evaluation form, known in the trade as form S4, and registered inspectors were carrying out preliminary visits by July.
Those visits turned out to contain quite a lot of the meat. They helped to set the agenda for the subsequent inspections by the full Ofsted team.
Heads say they also seemed to provide most of the material for inspectors'
conclusions on their own leadership.
Ofsted's intention is to take a more practical view of leadership - the vision, strategy and inspiration provided by the head, governors and senior teachers. Ministers are putting a heavy emphasis on strong leadership as the means for driving the next phase of school improvement, but in the past inspections have tended to lump it in with the business of management - the collection of data, development of policies and the smooth administration of the school.
The inspectorate says the main emphasis now will be "effect, rather than just intention", and that judgments must be set in the context of standards in the school as a whole. Ofsted is also interested in the way leadership spreads throughout the school, not just the senior staff.
Certainly, following the pre-inspection discussions, inspectors have been using their classroom observations and discussions with staff and governors to check and cross-reference how school leaders' vision translates into practice.
"Every member of the inspection team needs to gather evidence on leadership in the areas and subjects they are inspecting, and to form a view about their effectiveness.
"The overall judgment about the leadership of a school emerges from team discussions of these views and the evidence on which they are based," Ofsted says.
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said reports from his members suggested they felt more exposed than ever to the inspectors' baleful glare.
"Quite early on we got reports from members who had gone on Ofsted training who said the heightened focus on leadership was in danger of turning school inspection into an inspection of the head," he said.
That criticism seems to have been borne out in practice.
Form S4 is intended to identify a school's strengths and weaknesses to "help to focus inspection effort where it matters most", according to the framework.
Mr Hart said: "Some inspectors are homing in on the weaknesses that have been thrown up by the self-evaluation. Heads are put at a disadvantage because they've been honest.
"This is very worrying given the significant increase in the number of schools going into special measures or serious weaknesses in the first couple of months."
Jeff Holman, the NAHT's assistant secretary (education), said: "There's a perception that the threshold has been raised and it's now more difficult to get even a satisfactory judgment."
Eileen Ross, head of Herbert Morrison school in Lambeth, south London, supported the principles behind the new framework and says she found the experience positive overall. But completing the form took her on-and-off five weeks, partly because she quickly realised it would form the focal point for the whole inspection.
"I felt tremendously burdened, completing the S4," she said.
The inspection itself was a "more friendly, more professional experience than before". The agenda was more open - after the pre-inspection meeting, the registered inspector wrote to outline what she would be focusing on.
Inspectors were more selective, examining less of the school but looking at their chosen areas more thoroughly.
Their approach to leadership was also more hands-on, Mrs Ross found. "They didn't want to see great big policy folders. They wanted to see the practice and the consistency of practice in the school. If they asked me about my expectations of behaviour, they wanted to see how people implemented them."
The burden has fallen on governors too. "In-depth would be an understatement," said Neil Davies, chair of the National Governors'
Inspectors now interview most members of the board, in particular the chairs of its sub-committees. "They want to know if we know about our school and its weaknesses and what we're doing to address them," Mr Davies said.
Governors have been asked about how the head and senior managers monitor the quality of their staff. They are now expected to know and understand the criteria for judging good teaching.
That sharper interrogation pleases John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "Greatly improved - more thorough and better focused," is his verdict.
"Inspectors are starting with a much fuller picture of the quality of work in the school," Mr Dunford said. "That's good, but it means they focus more clearly on areas of potential dissatisfaction. It then becomes more difficult to balance the good and the bad.
"A system that validates a school's self-evaluation is what we should be aiming for."
Heads are sceptical about the idea that less work is involved. Colin Harris, head of Warren Park primary in Havant, south-east Hampshire, is proud of the clutch of accreditations his school has accrued from Investors in People. He expected that these awards would allow inspectors to pass on to other areas. They did, but it did not save any time or effort.
Warren Park was inspected in the first week of September. In looking at leadership, inspectors seemed to want evidence that the head had his finger in every pie.
"It's not good enough to say you leave something to your English manager.
They want to know how it all links up," Mr Harris said.
Heads also seem reluctant to abandon policy folders. The new framework says: "Ofsted remains concerned to minimise the demands that inspections make on schools and neither requires nor expects teachers to engage in extra work of any sort."
But Chris Vincent, head of Charmouth primary in Dorset, a first-term inspectee, said: "If I want to show my school off in the best light, I have to give them as much information as I can."
Ofsted says its own feedback suggests the framework is "settling in well".
If there were weaknesses, a spokeswoman said, it occurred when inspectors failed to link leadership to its impact on standards.
Meanwhile, heads are already devising their own tactics for the S4 form.
Harris gave a copy of it to all his teachers and asked them to fill it out.
He then presented inspectors with an aggregated version.
Mrs Ross, at Herbert Morrison, gave higher grades than she expected from the inspection team. That way, inspectors had to argue grades down instead of the school trying to argue them up.
In other words: "I sexed it up."
Judging from the final report ("very effective with pockets of excellence" and plenty of grade 2s), it worked. Sadly, one suspects the inspectors will soon wise up.