Headteacher Kim Sparling shares her school’s experience of the revised reduced tariff inspection, and explains why she found it less stressful than the previous framework

Ofsted states that about 30% of schools will now receive a reduced tariff inspection (RTI), generally a one-day inspection. We had not been inspected for over four and a half years, so we knew a visit was imminent. Having gleaned what I could from information about the pilot RTIs during the summer term of 2007, I had warned staff that this inspection would be very different from the one in March 2003. No longer an extensive team of inspectors ‘infesting’ the school for a whole week, nor the two-month advance warning notice. Instead, it was likely to be one inspector for one day, most teachers would not have a lesson observation, and a provisional judgement about the school would be made based on the school’s SEF and statistical data before the inspection date. As a school we had ensured that our SEF fully reflected what we were doing. During the last school year our school improvement partner had complimented us on our SEF and had agreed with our overall judgement of ourselves as ‘outstanding’. In autumn 2007 we were in the process of updating our SEF. At leadership team meetings we chose to revise one section each week, only being hampered by the delay in the issuing of Fischer Family Trust data and RAISEonline data for 2007. Ironically I was in a meeting with our SIP to discuss school targets for 2009 when ‘the’ Ofsted phone call came. The first call was from an admin assistant from the inspection team. She told me that we were to be inspected later that week and that it was to be an RTI. She gave me the names of the inspectors and the email address and password to access the team’s website. She advised me that we should run off their generic information about the inspection. As it happened we were doing our weekly alterations to the SEF. We agreed a time that day by which we would exit it so that it could be ‘frozen’ for the inspection. We also agreed on a mutually convenient time for the lead inspector to ring me later that day. The admin assistant also warned me that I would need to have a staff timetable for the day, a staff list and the SDP available for the inspection team. I was also told to inform the chair of governors and get a letter out to parents informing them of the inspection, together with the parental questionnaire.

Sorting out practicalities
The phone calls with the lead inspector later that day and the next centred on practicalities – emailing the latest SIP report and a list of school priorities, what he would want access to (governor minutes, any evaluations we had undertaken, etc) and the time of the inspection telephone call the day before the inspection, known as the ‘preliminary discussion’.

By the end of day two I had also received a list of questions which were to form part of the preliminary discussion. I was asked specifically to identify two examples of exemplary elements in personal development and wellbeing, teaching and learning, curriculum, care, guidance and support and leadership and management. As we have two specialisms, I was also asked to identify two areas of outstanding specialist status impact in each of them. I reflected on these requests believing that lots of outstanding elements were highlighted in our SEF– it was a case of deciding which ones I would highlight as the most exemplary. Day three dawned with an early phone call from the inspector to tell us that RAISEonline had gone live that morning with KS4 data (we had been checking daily in recent weeks to ensure that we were fully familiar with this data). What timing!

Searching discussions
The preliminary discussion later on in day three was searching and lasted 90 minutes, covering most of the questions received the previous day. The inspector outlined what he wanted to see on the day: two lessons to be set aside to visit KS4 English and maths lessons, one lesson to meet three groups of students from KS3, KS4 and KS5, and face-to-face meetings with the heads of English and mathematics, the head of sixth form, the SENCO and a parent governor, as well as meeting with me as headteacher.

In addition to earlier requested documentation we were asked to provide risk assessments, logs of racist/bullying incidents, annual review documents, policies on disability equality, health and safety and race equality, maps of the school, leadership team structure, as well as any other documentation which we wished to provide. We chose to provide a full analysis of lesson observations 2006-07. Later that afternoon the pre-inspection briefing arrived. This was a five-page document telling us the provisional judgements which the team had reached on the basis of the SEF, FFT and RAISEonline data and our telephone discussions.

Achievement and standards
On the inspection day, the lead inspector was in school by 7.45am. The many phone calls prior to the inspection day had given me an insight into the areas which were going to be under special scrutiny.

As RAISEonline data had become available the day before the inspection I knew that I had to be fully conversant with its implications. As headteacher you are left in no doubt that Section 3, (‘achievement and standards’) is the most important section of the SEF. You need to get ‘outstanding’ here to get ‘outstanding’ overall. It was my responsibility to ensure that I could convince the inspection team that what we said about the school in this section was secure. The two inspectors visited many classrooms during their two hours of lesson observation, staying anything from five to 40 minutes, and they clearly ‘judged’ the lessons even though no formal feedback was provided. In fairness to the team they asked me to point out any sensitive staff (eg capability procedures, personal difficulties) so that they could avoid them. The inspection day ended with 30 minutes of verbal feedback to me as headteacher and one governor at 5pm. Although the final report is not presented in the same format, the content of the verbal feedback was very similar to it. We were told to expect a draft report to check for accuracy within a week and a final report within two weeks.

Making comparisons
After the final report is received, the school is invited to complete a short online questionnaire about the inspection. One of the questions compares RTI with the previous inspection framework, asking if ‘this model reduced stress and bureaucracy’. I had to agree that it did. Most staff did not see the inspection team, no one had a full lesson observation and as it only lasted one day we didn’t have a week of stressed teachers.

While few teachers enjoyed the previous intense inspection experience, many remarked that they felt ‘left out’ this time. It was necessary to stress to staff the fact that schools are now expected to inspect themselves and that an RTI is like putting a skewer in a cake to test if it is done. So was it ‘light touch’? I think the answer is ‘yes’ – for everyone except the headteacher. The focus of the inspection falls on the headteacher – do you and your leadership team run the school well, does your SEF accurately reflect your school? The many pre-discussions are interrogations of the headteacher. It is important that you answer all questions convincingly. You do not need to ‘prepare’ for the inspection, nor are staff asked to prepare any extra material, eg lesson plans. With the current inspection regime the inspectors look at everyday school documentation.

A better form of inspection
Is it a better form of inspection? Undoubtedly yes. For schools that are able to undertake effective self-evaluation, this form of inspection just checks that you do indeed know what is happening and what measures are being taken to improve. It should not be necessary to ‘waste’ public money on expensive old-style inspections. The RTI is certainly not a ‘soft option’. The inspection team have a good picture of the school in advance of their arrival from looking at FFT and RAISEonline data, as well as reading the school SEF.

The SEF is a crucial document. It is the school’s opportunity to summarise what it is about, to highlight successes but also to outline what actions are being taken to impact on developmental areas. I had wondered how wise it was to point out ‘weaknesses’ to the inspectors via the SEF as makes it easier for the inspection team to focus on those areas. However, I don’t believe you disadvantage the school if you can demonstrate what actions you are taking to improve. It would seem to be a risky strategy to ‘hide’ weaknesses – this would lead the inspection team to downgrade ‘leadership and management’ if you can’t recognise and act on weaknesses.

A source close to the DCSF has hinted that the pilot RTIs won’t continue and that schools which currently warrant an RTI will simply get a desk-based evaluation. If this proves to be true I will applaud that new direction in inspection.