Would you like to be a fly-on-the-wall at your own Ofsted inspection? Paul Williamson, assistant head of Greenbank High School, shares the insights he gained from doing just that

For many teachers an Ofsted inspection is largely a black-box process being viewed primarily in terms of its input and output characteristics. The most recent incarnation of the inspectorial system has made it somewhat less inquisitorial and has moved it toward a quality assurance model. But what really happens between the collecting of evidence and the announcement of the judgements is for the majority of teachers still shrouded in mystery. This is curious in the context of modern school management practices, where greater transparency and openness are expected.

Of course, one could always train as an inspector and gain the insights into the process that way, but this would be rather difficult to combine with a full-time teaching career and, in any case, it would be impossible to see how the process is enacted in one’s own institution.

At least, that was the case until a recent pilot project in the north-west that allowed a school representative to join the Ofsted inspection team.

This article reports on my experience as the nominated representative during an inspection of our school in December 2007 and considers the implications of this experience as a professional development opportunity.

Taking part in the inspection
My head chose me as the representative because a large part of my work related to CPD and I worked extensively in classroom observation for a variety of purposes at the school. Familiarity with the inspection schedule is a pre-requisite, so I added this and other Ofsted guidance documents to my reading list for the weekend prior to the inspection.

The stated aims of the pilot were to:

  • engage the school more closely in the inspection process through a carefully identified role in shadowing and supporting the collection of evidence
  • involve a senior manager or governor as a representative of the school in observing some team meetings in order that he/she has a stronger understanding of the issues underpinning the inspection judgements
  • ensure that the school has a much clearer understanding of the inspection process and why judgements have been reached, and what exactly needs to be done to bring about improvement for the school.

The activities I was directly involved in included attending and observing the inspection team meetings as they came to their corporate judgements, joint classroom observations, including offering feedback as required, and acting as a conduit between the team and the school when asked to facilitate the production of evidence.

I was not invited to observe meetings with teaching colleagues, governors or pupils where my presence was deemed inappropriate due to a potential conflict of interest or a possibility of affecting the responses. A timetable of sessions I would be directly involved in was set out at the beginning. In the event, I undertook additional shared observation of classroom work as this proved to be particularly useful for understanding how the team saw different lesson strategies.

I was interested to discover the conditions under which the involvement of the representative could be discontinued. This would happen should there be any diminution of the team’s efficiency or any attempt to interfere in or influence the direction of the inspection, breaching confidentiality or the code of conduct for inspectors. Clearly then, there was a mechanism for the team to extricate themselves from a representative who did not grasp the parameters of their role.

While my senior colleagues seemed keen for me to act as representative, I was not so sure. Having a toe in the Ofsted camp, while still undertaking my own role as a member of the SLT (as CPD coordinator and ICT manager among other things) seemed a pretty uncomfortable position to be in.

Joining a team of four inspectors, getting to know them and taking part in a complex and intense process, which was largely completed in two days, was instructive. My fears were quickly allayed when, having spent a little time with the team, it became clear that they were very focused on doing a thorough job despite time pressure.

A range of insights
The two days were over very quickly – but they generated a rich array of experiences and insights. The team’s final judgements, albeit framed within their own guidelines, were remarkably accurate and in some cases insightful.

  • The way in which the evidence was collected was highly structured and yet there was still room for it to be reviewed, debated, and pretty rigorously challenged.  I was surprised at the way that judgements were generated on what academically speaking was a small sample, and yet time and again, based on my own long term experience of the school concurred with their judgements.
  • The school self-evaluation form (SEF), which is the first port of call for a lead inspector, is the pivotal document in framing the direction of the inspection process. To produce an effective SEF, a school needs to ensure its staff are involved in an effective and systematic process of self-evaluation and review at all levels. Whatever, the judgements and gradings you suggest in the SEF make sure they are supported by plenty of good and easily accessible evidence. This in itself channels the work of the inspection team toward confirming and validating your self-evaluations.
  • The pressure of time lay heavily on the team as they had to work quickly and efficiently and the days were long and intense. Also notable was the way in which they had to follow the criteria used for making judgements very precisely. In many instances it was clear that their decisions on judgements and gradings were taken with a clear glance over their collective shoulder as to how their own work would be viewed by Ofsted’s own quality assurance systems.
  • Progress in core subjects, for which there was ample contextual data, was paramount. Not only did it largely decide the overall grading, it affected judgements in a range of criteria which on the face of it were grading other aspects of the schools work. While I had to concur with the final gradings, it was evident that underachievement in one of the core subjects had a disproportionate influence on the final judgements.
  • When jointly observing lessons with an inspector, you really need to understand and use the Ofsted lesson observation and grading schedule. It was with some trepidation that I gave my views when asked to say what I thought about a particular lesson, eg strengths, weaknesses and possible grade. Equally these types of joint observation engender something of an emotional rollercoaster. For example, one of inspectors applauded a lesson that reached a brilliant climax, but this caused me stress in watching a colleague who was not doing so well. This lesson also only just managed to bring the grading into the satisfactory standard. I came away from the process with a much better focused understanding of what Ofsted currently consider a good lesson to be, and why; something that I can use in my own professional life.
  • Being nominally in both camps was at times disquieting. For example, at one moment I would be fielding searching questions from an inspector shortly before listening to a discussion on the evidence that I was, at least in part, responsible for generating. Despite my avowed status as an observer, it was also evident that some aspects of my position gave rise to role conflicts that needed to be dealt with carefully.
  • One of my conerns was that some innovations and strengths of the school that are not central to the team’s focus tended to get swamped by the avalanche of information and lack of time. For example, an innovative virtual learning environment system we had developed did not figure strongly despite being a significant tool for progressing teaching and learning and community engagement. 

The lasting impression left by the team who worked on our inspection was that they were astute, highly professional and if needed, could be brutally honest. By the end of the second day some of my colleagues were convinced that I was suffering from a form of the Stockholm syndrome and developing a loyalty to my hostage takers, as I openly concurred with so many of the judgements the team made even when in my colleagues eyes they ‘made no sense.’

Benefits for the CPD coordinator
It is one thing to read documents about the how and wherefore of school inspections but an insight into the process from the inside is a powerful tool for developing understanding. For a CPD coordinator it has particular benefits:

i. It encourages you to develop an outsider stance and adopt a more critical eye for your own organisation, something which is often difficult when you have so much of your professional life invested in it.

ii. It validates the process by which judgements are made and invests one with a stronger commitment to address issues raised. For me, at least, it is now less about their targets and more about our targets.

iii. It sharpens perceptions on how to move forward because there is no running away from the collated evidence you see as the discussion proceeds. 

iv. It can be professionally powerful as, for me at least, it can change the concept of the Ofsted inspector from them to a fellow professional doing a tough job. This change in perception has a particular resonance when internalising any criticisms they may have made and accepting that action needs to be taken.

Opening the black box and peering into it has shed light on the process. This has been a useful professional development experience for one person, and the insights gained have been shared with colleagues. This has assisted the school in refocusing its efforts toward further improvement by validating the process and so adding currency to the judgements and recommendations.