'Do away with the high stakes': Headteacher critiques Ofsted inspections framework

Published by Andrew Clowes on January 4th 2022, 10:10am

Writing for The Leaders Council, Hey with Zion Primary School headteacher Andrew Clowes highlights how the Ofsted inspections framework could be reformed for the benefit of all.

I am expecting an Ofsted inspection in 2022.

It might be next week; it might be next year. My school is in “the window”.

I am unusual in that I look forward to inspections and usually enjoy them. An inspection gives a headteacher a chance to show off their work, one professional to another. I anticipate them in the same way a sports player looks forward to the big matches with higher stakes involved. I encourage the children to approach exams in the same way, to look upon them as opportunities to show off how good they are.

When the inspection comes, I shall receive a telephone call and a 90-minute interview that day. The inspector[s] will visit the next day, asking me and other staff about the ways the school works. They will observe lessons alongside me and check whether they agree with my judgement of them. They will talk with parents and pupils. Hopefully they will tell me we are still graded “good”, and we can carry on for a few more years.

They may say that they think we might be better or worse than “good” and return soon with more inspectors to find out.

They will write a report which will be publicised via the school website. On it will be some “next steps” for us to work on.

I have never met an Ofsted inspector for whom I have not had the highest regard. The ones in my experience have been intelligent, honourable and thorough; understanding and very astute.

Some other headteachers will report differently, but I speak of my experience.

I shall now raise the hackles of Ofsted and most headteachers in the next two sentences. Ofsted is not working as efficiently as it could. There should be at least a tenfold increase in the number of Ofsted inspections of schools.

It could be done without any extra cost to the public purse.

Ofsted inspections are currently too high stakes. The visits are too infrequent, so the information Ofsted holds and to which parents have access is often out of date. There is a sense of unsureness from schools of what exactly Ofsted wants; it changes over time and there is a perception it might vary according to the individual inspector. A misleading mythology exists, hence Ofsted intermittently publishes “myth buster” blogs. These would not be needed if there were better and more frequent contact between Ofsted and schools. Communication of message would be clearer.

As a young teacher, who had previously worked in a bank, one of the things I loved about teaching was that my boss was not routinely overseeing my work. In the bank, my office manager was always there. In the classroom, my headteacher was usually not.

So, we would have “Lesson Observations”. Each term there would be a formal lesson observation, with grade and feedback given. The grades have generally gone now, but to all intents and purposes the experience remains the same. The more occasional the lesson observation is, and the fewer other factors are taken into account, the higher stakes it can feel. There is a fear by teachers that unwarranted assumptions are made that this is the standard of teaching all the time.

So, teachers prepare the lesson more thoroughly and sometimes to an unsustainable degree to make the hour go well. It becomes an artificial and stressful event.

It can still be derailed by unpredictable things which can just happen in a primary school classroom. A child may be upset because their pet budgie died the night before; or there was a disturbance in their house with police involvement; or something upsetting has happened to a child on a personal level and is so similar to the storyline in the class text that a quick change of lesson plan is required. These are real things that happen, and teachers have to adapt to. The findings from the one-off lesson observation are not always generalisable.

Headteachers have learned to use more and regular means of monitoring the quality of learning: we talk with pupils, we look at exercise books, we use standardised tests. We talk, evaluate and plan with the subject leaders. We know not to put too much emphasis on one off lesson observations.

The more occasional the lesson observation, the higher stakes it feels. It is the same with an Ofsted inspection.

There is an uneasy relationship between Ofsted and schools, for all sorts of reasons and this is such a shame. We have a publicly funded body of highly trained and experienced professionals, and we should ask: is this really the best use of them?

My last school inspection was in July 2017, and at the end of it, as for all schools at the end of their inspection report, were written “next steps” for us. A lot has happened since 2016/17. If Ofsted providing next steps for schools is a good thing to do, [and I think it is], then it is not optimal that schools should wait so long between visits.

Can we increase the support Ofsted gives schools without it costing the public purse anything extra, and without it creating an overload of stress to schools?

Yes. Easily. Merge the work that local authorities do with what Ofsted does.

Schools are accountable in many, many ways. To market forces; to parents; to school governors; to the local authority; in many primary schools, to the churches, who have their own inspection system; and to Ofsted, who visit every four-to-six years on average.

My local authority, Oldham, appoints senior headteachers and consultants to visit the town’s schools each term. They quality-assure the work going on, write reports to the local authority and work with headteachers to develop the schools. Some excellent things happen for children on account of this work. Yet the information is not shared with Ofsted until inspection time, when the existence of such work rather than the detail of it is shared.

It would be the easiest thing for central government/Ofsted to certify school improvement partners such as these, or the local authorities who appoint them, and the information gathered could be shared with Ofsted [and parents via the school website]. This could be in lieu of the high stakes, every few years inspections whose reports become out of date some time before they are renewed.

It might seem counter intuitive to suggest that extra inspections could reduce stress for school staff, but it could. The regularity of visit - the presence rather than the distance of Ofsted - could do away with myths that exist around what Ofsted want. Schools would know. They could have their own relationship with their Ofsted approved inspector, as they do now with their “school improvement partner”.

There would be a reduction in workload [and costs to schools] via reduced attendance at briefings from consultants acting as communication intermediaries between Ofsted and schools. Next steps required of schools by Ofsted would be up to date. So would be information to parents.

As a society, it makes sense that we wait a few years between general elections. They are major events. We should not need to wait so long between check-ups on individual schools.

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Authored By

Andrew Clowes
Headteacher at Hey With Zion Primary School
January 4th 2022, 10:10am

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