It’s always the same. You know it’s coming, yet it’s always a surprise.
“PHONE…! Ofsted!!!” A member of the office staff hurries in. They look startled and announce that Ofsted’s on the phone, their voice several octaves higher than usual.
There then follows 20 seconds or so of a dreamlike state, where my brain struggles to compute this massive thing that’s happening on some otherwise idle Tuesday RIGHT NOW. And so it begins.
I’ve now had three inspections as a headteacher: two full Section 5 inspections and another just recently which was a ‘light touch’ single day, single inspector Section 8 inspection. All have been different experiences, and all have ended well. I don’t believe we, as schools, should be obsessing over our next inspection, but nor do I think we should allow ourselves to be entirely unprepared.
I’m of the belief that you need to plan and control your inspection process, lest it end up controlling you. Or worse still, spiral out of control and end badly. Here, then, is my advice on preparing for and then managing, your next inspection. Beginning with…
BEFORE THE CALL
1. Don’t obsess over Ofsted
A fellow headteacher once said to me, “I’d like to make the curriculum more exciting, but I could have Ofsted in 18 months and we’ve got to prepare.” Why? Has Ofsted ever told us to spend months, or even years, preparing for our next inspection? Ofsted wants children to do well at school, and so do we! If we run our schools well, and if children achieve, then Ofsted will be perfectly happy.
2. Don’t do things ‘for Ofsted’
Many get caught up in doing what we think Ofsted wants us to do. Schools can get so busy creating a safeguarding paper trail that they forget to actually keep children safe . Safeguarding does involve lots of paperwork, but our chief goal must be to create a culture of safety, not please Ofsted. Get it right, and we succeed at both. Get it wrong, and we leave children in danger.
3. Understand the criteria
Ofsted’s school inspection handbook is a public document every headteacher should read cover to cover. Many schools unfortunately fixate on the wording of the judgment statements, but these aren’t the most important parts. The crucial bits for headteachers are the bullet points that precede those judgements, as these explain exactly what an inspector will inspect and the evidence they’ll be looking for.
4. Tell a coherent story
You must complete a succinct self- evaluation form that tells the story of the school accurately, coherently and honestly. Start by explaining your school’s context and any special provision or aspect of the student population you need the inspector to understand. Then write your SEF using the same area headings as those in the Ofsted handbook.
5. Annotate your IDSR
Ofsted’s inspection data summary report (see tinyurl.com/ofsted-idsr for the DfE’s guidance) is the only data your inspector will have looked at before visiting your school, and rightly or wrongly, that’s the data that matters most to them. Take time to fully understand the data in the report and prepare arguments for any weak spots.
We found it useful to digitally annotate our school’s IDSR by adding pop-up comment boxes beside the relevant data, which is easy to do on a PDF document. This helps your governors understand said data and provides leaders with helpful prompts when meeting with inspectors. At our last full inspection we sent these annotations to the inspector after our initial phone call, thereby answering many of their questions before they even arrived, and allowing more inspection time for the things we wanted to celebrate.
6. Create an ‘Ofsted readiness plan’
That period of time between the lunchtime phone call and the start of the inspection is crucial, so plan in advance what you’ll use it for. Ahead of our latest inspection I had an ‘Ofsted readiness plan’ pinned to my noticeboard, reminding me of all the things that needed to happen that afternoon in order for the school to be ready for inspection – I’ve reproduced mine at the end of this article. If you just follow your plan, everything that needs to happen will get done.
WHEN YOU GET THE CALL
7. Declare your position
The initial phone call will centre on practicalities. Most inspectors will have decided on their preliminary inspection trails by the time they call you, so make sure you ask what these are and prepare to counter them. If you’ve studied your IDSR and know your data, they shouldn’t come as a surprise. At this point I like to make my position clear.
Ahead of our latest Section 8 inspection, I told the inspector I wanted the school to be considered for an early Section 5, as we felt we had tipped over into Outstanding. Telling the inspector your position lets them know you’ll be managing the inspection alongside them – not just letting it ‘happen to you’.
8. Agree the party line
The first thing I do when I get off the phone with the inspector is arrange a meeting with the SLT during the afternoon to discuss the data and evidence we’ll need to counter the inspection trails. We’ll also read through the SEF, ensuring everyone understands the key messages, and then allocate SLT members to each teacher, who’ll go and check their classrooms and plans for the following day to ensure there are no surprises.
9. Speak the inspector’s language
When training as an Ofsted inspector myself, what struck me most was the pace at which an inspector has to get through their tasks and the discipline needed to keep to time. You might want to tell the inspector about your fabulous dance or art provision, but unless they’re asking about the arts curriculum they’re unlikely to be interested.
Section 8 inspections are intense. Where a Section 5 looks at everything, a Section 8 will focus on your biggest weakness. Reading the Ofsted handbook with your weakest area in mind will give you an indication of what the inspection will look like. Don’t worry about folders of evidence – Ofsted don’t want to see these now, especially on a Section 8. Just know where your school’s evidence is and stick to the point.
10. Get your safeguarding right
There’s no excuse for messing up on safeguarding during an inspection, and no flexibility – fail this and you fail the inspection. Make sure your Single Central Record is up-to-date, has no gaps and is regularly checked. Your statutory policies and school safeguarding procedures and practices should be clear and understood by all staff. Inspectors want to know that everything practicable is being done to keep children safe, not just that you have a piece of paper that says to.
ON THE DAY
11. Rogue inspector? Call Sean!
Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director, Eduction can be found regularly tweeting about the inspection process as @HarfordSean. At a meeting I attended last year, he said that if we ever felt an inspector was straying dangerously away from their remit, school leaders should tweet him for clarification.
On my recent Section 8 inspection, the inspector made some rather strange requests about risk assessments being pinned to the wall next to sand and water trays in EYFS. Thinking that this was a bit dubious, I duly tweeted Sean for clarification.
True to his word, within five minutes he had asked me to send him a direct message providing details, and scarcely 10 minutes after that the office phone rang with a message for the inspector to “Call HMI HQ immediately.” 15 minutes later, the inspector appeared at my door and apologised for suggesting that her own opinion was Ofsted policy.
12. Stick to your guns
Often an inspector will prod a headteacher to see if they’ll stick to their guns when pushed or simply concede that they’re wrong. There’s no point being delusional – if your data clearly says one thing, it’s hard to argue the opposite – but don’t be bullied into giving up on a point too easily.
Don’t be rude or aggressive, but ask the inspector “What evidence would you like me to show you to convince you that I’m right?” Ofsted isn’t some all seeing eye. The inspector will be constantly shifting their opinion as the inspection proceeds, so keep providing evidence if you think they’ve got the wrong end of the stick.
13. Be honest
I’ve never seen a school leader come unstuck by telling the truth. I’ve seen many come unstuck by trying to hide things. During one inspection when I was a shadow inspector, I was told that the previous year’s EYFS data had been ‘lost’ by an outgoing teacher. When I pressed the current EYFS teacher on this, they eventually admitted that they did have it, but had been told to say they didn’t. The look on the head’s face when, after their repeated denials of its existence, I placed a copy of it on the table was priceless – and unnecessary.
Don’t lie. It’ll end badly.
14. It’s not over until it’s over
An inspector might say they want to be heading home by 4pm, but that doesn’t have to be the case. During our recent Section 8 we were still arguing with the inspector as to whether the school should have an early Section 5 (and therefore be eligible to be judged Outstanding in the future) at 6pm. We lost that argument, but it didn’t stop us providing evidence until the very last minute.
15. Push for positive tweaks
A week or so after the inspection you’ll receive a draft letter or report, depending on whether you had a Section 8 or Section 5. If the inspector described your curriculum as ‘Outstanding’ on the day, but the report has it as ‘excellent’, ask that this be changed. These little tweaks might seem trivial, but you’ll have to live with this report for the next three to five years, so it may as well be right.
THE OFSTED READINESS PLAN
Receive phone call; send note around classes asking for brief meeting in staffroom at 1pm to share trails
Arrange afternoon supply cover for SLT
Notify chair of governors, LA and SIA and arrange their meetings with the lead inspector
Brief staff and request following day’s timetables
Call all governors and request 6pm meeting
SLT meeting – discuss trails, consider likely questions and evidence needed; Read through SEF and IDSR and check everyone understands key data/evidence
Hold whole school assembly – remind the children what champions look like!
HT and SBM meet with safeguarding governor to check single central record and other key documents
SLT meet individually with teachers to calm nerves, check learning environments and talk through following day’s lessons
Governors’ meeting – share Ofsted trails and check who’s available to meet with inspector (ideally three or four members); Discuss IDSR, in-school data, SEF and SDP, along with performance of vulnerable groups
Send everyone home