• Ofsted inspections are characterised by the detailed framework and handbooks which set out the inspection procedures.
• Inspectors use words precisely to ensure consistency of judgements.
• Schools that wish to be judged as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted must understand the grade descriptors from the handbook and present a coherent argument supported by valid and reliable evidence.
• Schools should learn from inspectors’ ability to make firm judgements based on sufficient evidence.
Although it is increasingly unlikely that Ofsted will have resumed its inspection programme in January 2021, as is scheduled at the time of writing, and perhaps not within the current academic year, inspections will return, and schools need to continue with monitoring and evaluation. I am not so foolish as to think this gives schools lots of spare time. Even without a global pandemic, schools are busy. Nevertheless, I wanted to explain some essential points about Ofsted and how it operates that may be helpful.
The political context
Clearly, any government must hold schools to account for the quality of education they provide, and all countries have inspection regimes. The Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) was created by the Education Act 1992, and began inspecting in September 1993. Ofsted is just 27 years old! The reports written by independent inspection teams and published by Ofsted are made public, and the inspections are carried out according to a national framework to ensure consistency across the country.
The framework and handbooks
Before the creation of Ofsted, Ministers had criticised HMI reports for lack of clarity, and it was evident that without very tight criteria, unleashing ‘teams’ of new inspectors on schools would result in chaos. Therefore, and it is crucial to understand this, reports were highly standardised to follow a single framework with the same main headings. Schools were initially graded on a seven-point scale from ‘excellent’ (1) to ‘very poor’ (7), and the handbook included evaluation criteria with descriptors of what ‘good’ (3) and ‘satisfactory’ (4) would mean in all aspects of school life to be judged. This system of building up broad judgements from individual criteria, for Ofsted the grade ‘descriptors’, was much copied.
What is a good school?
A ‘good’ school is one that matches the grade descriptors for ‘good’ in the Ofsted handbook. These change in response to the political imperative, e.g. from the education secretary or from HMCI, as happened with Amanda Spielman. Schools must keep abreast of these changes in their self-evaluation procedures and their self-evaluation statement (SES). The ‘Form – Self-evaluation statement’ in the Toolkit provides a template for the SES aligned with the framework introduced in September 2019.
Using precise vocabulary
If schools in different settings serving widely varying communities are to be evaluated commonly and fairly, inspectors must understand the instructions in the handbook in precisely the same way. How do inspectors define the following: intent, implement, impact?
• Intent is about more than an aim or part of the mission statement, it is about giving all your attention to something.
• Implementation is the act of putting a plan into action or of starting to use something.
• Impact is about having a powerful effect on a situation or person, especially relating to something new.
Note the emphasis on new initiatives. While it will be excellent for some schools to correctly claim that they have been providing a superb curriculum for many years, Ofsted wants schools to consider their research and respond to it.
Where a new word or phrase is introduced, it is normal to define it. The best example of this from the current handbook is ‘cultural capital’.
‘It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’
Respect for evidence and connectedness
One of the first acts of Amanda Spielman as HMCI was to commission research into the place of the curriculum in schools. The purpose was to ensure that Ofsted could assess the quality of education in a ‘valid’ and ‘reliable’ way and, very importantly, in a limited time, since inspection time is a cost on the public purse.
‘Validity’, for an Ofsted inspector, means the extent to which judgements assess what they are supposed to, and that they are worthwhile.
‘Reliability’ means the extent to which two or more assessments/judgements of something, using different types of evidence, reach the same conclusion.
‘Connectedness’ brings ‘validity’ and ‘reliability’ together in a proactive way by planning the evidence route from an inspection hypothesis to the handbook judgement. The inspector charged with leading this will plan to examine a range of complementary evidence, such as discussions with subject leaders and scrutiny of visual evidence, for example, in-class displays, the school website, and observation of lessons when she or he will talk to the children about their work.
Plumping as ‘reaching a firm judgement’
As well as 'pleasantly rounded’, the word ‘plump’ means ‘to vote for one person at an election when you could vote for two or more’, and hence ‘to make a clear choice or judgement’. Being an Ofsted inspector teaches one very quickly the ability to reach a conclusion based on the evidence you have against a set of criteria.
Anyone who has had to prize a policy or a plan or a scheme of work from the hand of a school leader, will know about the difficulty they have in letting go of the evidence and reaching a final decision. The Ofsted methodology does not allow prevarication and schools could learn from this.
To ensure that you do not omit any judgements, have a colleague listen to your report and tick off the descriptors as you make your judgements.
Imagine the lead inspector chairing the final team meeting: ‘Is this a “good” school or, does it “require improvement”? Because the headteacher and governors are sitting outside waiting for feedback!’
Use the item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:
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