Why sharing tales of Ofsted inspections is a fool’s errand

Every Ofsted inspection is looking for something different - schools should be wary of shifting their focus after hearing stories of what’s happened elsewhere

Fool's errand

What are Ofsted focusing on at the moment in their inspections? I bet you know the answer: it’s the broader curriculum. Except, when my school was inspected six months ago, barely a mention was made of it. We know that they’re consulting on a new framework that focuses on curriculum, but in schools being inspected this academic year, there’s no guarantee that it will be a thread.

The trouble is, any school that’s “in the window” is so determined to find out how it can best be prepared that we focus on the anecdotal stories of what inspectors are focused on. It’s even become a bit of a trade.

Any time a group of headteachers gets together, you can guarantee that any recent recipient of a visit from the inspectorate will be grilled about their experience. What were they looking for? Did they spend long in lessons? What questions did they ask?

The problem is, every inspection is inevitably unique. It’s one of the greatest challenges of the system and one that, frankly, even Ofsted would have to concede is a problem. If every school is different, and inspection teams differ, then it is impossible to have a perfect consistency.

But given that challenge, it’s a fool’s errand to try to use other schools’ experiences of Ofsted to prepare for your own. Only the inspection handbook can be your guide and, even then, you would hope that – for short inspections, in particular – your own context will affect the focus.

Thinking about meetings I’ve been at in the past year, I’ve heard that inspectors are looking for differentiation for children with special needs, they’re looking for evidence of feedback having an impact on learning, they’re looking at safeguarding for pupils in local authority care, they’re checking that maths schemes are being supplemented with other reasoning work – the list is endless.

In truth, we none of us know anyone else’s school well enough to comprehend why an inspector might have had such a focus. Looking back on my own inspections, I could reasonably have told other school leaders that they were “looking at” all manner of things, from safeguarding to foreign languages, from the quality of middle leadership to the standards of writing in foundation subjects.

The reality, of course, is that all of those elements were selected for focus in my various inspections because they were relevant to the context of the school. What we lack when someone else tells us “what they’re looking for”, is the rationale of why they chose to look at such things.

One school in my authority reported that their inspection had been heavily focused on the progress of disadvantaged pupils. Suddenly, around the table everyone was sharing the evidence they collect in their own school to hold this particular wolf from the door. A headteacher would have been forgiven for thinking that they should go back to their school and introduce endless new forms, databases and scrutiny tasks to ensure that every base was covered.

In truth, the reason that particular school’s inspection had been so focused on that area was the poor progress of their disadvantaged pupils.

That’s why I worry when we see an increased sharing of experiences from inspections. If, every time a headteacher hears “what they’re looking for”, it leads to a change in their own school in an effort to be better prepared, then there’s every chance that something else – more relevant to their own school – could get missed.

The new framework will certainly bring some changes that will already take up schools’ attention; let’s not add to the list by trying to fix everyone else’s problems, too.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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