A positive inspection report is widely regarded as a must-have for many parents looking for the best school for their child. But this Q&A with a Lead Ofsted Inspector calls into question how much store parents should set by reports when an ‘outstanding’ verdict might be past its sell-by-date and Parent View, Ofsted’s online parent feedback portal, is open to abuse.
With 14 years experience as a Lead Ofsted Inspector in primary schools and over 40 years experience as a teacher and headteacher, this interview offers an insider’s view of the inspection process. It helps parents spot weaknesses in the system and offers up useful tips and key questions for parents to ask in order to carry out their own school inspection and make an informed choice.
This is an anonymous interview as our interviewee is still actively working as a Lead Inspector.
Q When leading an Ofsted Inspection, what is the single most important thing you are looking for?
A We are not looking for one thing. Every school is different. We prepare for an inspection in advance by looking at the latest RAISEonline report (the school and pupil performance data) and the school’s own self-evaluation report. This research helps us identify issues that we need to look out for during the inspection.
The minute you walk in the door you get a feeling for the school. The welcome you get is very important. All inspectors arrive before the school day begins and most ask for a brief tour of the school. You get a first impression when you walk around of whether the school is tidy, the quality of resources and pupils’ work and the size of classrooms.
The most important information we are given comes from the school's own data and whether it shows evidence of good or better leadership. We are looking to see pupil progress across the board: the achievement of the most able pupils, pupils in receipt of Pupil Premium, children with English as a second language and children with special educational needs. Schools have a requirement under Ofsted to meet the needs of all pupils and progress for children of all levels is key.
Q Can you ever get a true picture of a school in two days?
A You'd be surprised; we are very quick and rigorous and we do a lot of preparation before we arrive at the school. We look closely at the school website and work very closely with the headteacher in advance of our visit. We have to be very focused from the outset: know the questions we want to ask. We gather together all our findings and the results of our meetings throughout the day and we touch base with the headteacher at breaktime, lunchtime and a longer meeting at the end of the first and second day.
Q The critics say that a two-day inspection can only ever be a snapshot of a school not a true picture. Do you agree?
A It's not just a snapshot. Yes even weak or nervous teachers can sometimes do a good or even outstanding lesson on inspection day but we are looking for how well pupils are learning rather than judging any particular style of teaching. So we look at pupils’ books and how well they learn in lessons and perform over time.
Q What sets an outstanding school out from the rest?
A It's a feeling of mutual respect where pupils can flourish and thrive and are eager to learn. It's not about high results but very good progress, where everyone is working in a ‘can do’, supportive culture and there is excellence in everything. You can tell when children and their work is valued and well presented. Outstanding does not only equate to the most able pupils and high academic achievement. It is a mixture of excellent leadership, very good progress and achievement at every level.
Q What should parents really be looking for when choosing a school for their child and reading Ofsted reports?
A I can't believe anyone would send their child to a school on the basis of just reading an Ofsted Inspection report. The school might have been inspected anything up to seven years ago and in that time there might have been a new head or any number of big changes.
I don't like to say it's a flawed system but it's subjective in some ways and often the report is out of date and therefore you cannot set great store by it. Choosing a school for your child is a hugely important process and parents need to spend time, not just 30 minutes at an Open Day. Get an appointment to talk to the head, take a tour of the school and attend as many school events as possible to make an honest self-evaluation.
Read the Ofsted report and think of questions that will draw out the strengths and weaknesses and areas for development but also look at the environment: Is it safe? Is it welcoming? Is there a rich learning environment? Can you see what children are learning? Are children well behaved? How does the school communicate what the children will be learning each term? Is there a weekly newsletter?
Also take a close look at the school’s website. Read the mission statement, the school's aims and objectives, their learning policy and ask about their curriculum. Is it skills based, hands-on, or just content driven? Are they focused on learning for life? Is the school a learning community?"
Q What about Parent View, is it an independent resource that parents can rely upon?
A Don't set too much store by Parent View, it is open to abuse and people do abuse it. All it takes is for one or two parents to talk in the playground and deliberately say they don't agree with any of the statements because they have fallen out with a head and it skews the results. For example, with only a few responses, it can lead to 80% saying they would recommend the school to a friend but 20% would not. In my opinion the written questionnaire was much better because it allowed parents a chance to write their comments.
Q Is too much emphasis put on assessments and performance data in schools today and not enough on preparing children for life in the real world?
A I don't think there can ever be too much emphasis on formative assessments. Without assessment, you can't plan the next steps in a child's learning. There is a difference between tests and assessments; whether you believe in summative assessments (end of year tests) or not, there is value in formative assessment (day to day) and in the end everyone needs to be tested to make sure they have understood what they have learned and can use their knowledge independently.
Whatever you do in life there is always a testing point. For example, you wouldn't be allowed to pass a driving test without first passing a theory test. It is best to help children to develop a positive attitude and take tests in their stride. That is good preparation for life in general. Some preparation at home and at school is a good thing but not so that the test situation is blown out of all proportion. Parents and the school should work together to make sure that children give any test their best shot. Neither school nor home should allow testing to get out of hand and stress pupils so much that they do badly instead of their best.
Q What do you think is the biggest challenge that schools are currently facing?
A The new Primary National Curriculum has meant the goalposts have been moved, more is expected and standards have gone up, but as of September we are moving to assessment without levels. The new system is designed to ensure that children have a breadth and depth of knowledge and children must demonstrate that they have mastered the material they have been taught. However individual schools have been given the responsibility to develop their own assessment systems. This will be challenging for schools and it won't be easy for inspectors either.
In the past we could track pupils’ progress from entry to Year 6 fairly easily but now schools will be using a variety of different assessment methods and measures. It will take a year or two for the new curriculum to bed down and for schools to work out if their scheme of assessment works or if it needs to change.
Q If you could spend more time on an Ofsted Inspection, what would you focus your attention on and why?
A If I could spend more time, it would be to look at more lessons across the curriculum rather than just English and Maths. The core subjects are mostly all we have time for. We look at PE because of the sports funding but it would be good to see more learning in other subjects.
I would also like to spend more time talking to staff, parents and children, it would all help to provide more secure evidence of our findings. However, as of September it has been suggested that inspections of good or better schools will take place over just one day but that they will occur more often than is now the case. This will obviously give inspectors less time to collect evidence on which to base secure judgements.
Q And finally, what does every school need to succeed?
A An excellent leader. If you have a poor leader, even with all the money in the world, it won't make the right difference.