Does a disappointing Ofsted lose its impact over time? I don’t think so. 

27/04/22

A couple of months ago, I reviewed most Ofsted Primary phase reports published from late October 2021 through to early December 2021. I chose to ignore the Overall Effectiveness grade and read the other parts of the report before trying to ascertain what the OE grade would be. In most cases, I was wrong. In nearly all of those that I got wrong there was a plethora of positive comments about how safe the children were, how caring the staff were, how inspiring the leadership was and how committed and enthusiastic the governing body was. The stumbling block that kept cropping up again and again was that the school had not developed the curriculum as well as expected. Another striking issue was the limited comment made on the work of the school during the pandemic. This seemed a remarkable omission bearing in mind that I know nearly all Primary schools gave their full attention to developing, implementing and supporting home learning and ensuring that their families were coping with stresses and strains of home schooling. 

In all the reports I read there was one that really stood out. A southern based Primary School that had fallen two grades where pupils and parents were happy, pupils with SEND achieve well, the school is well led, pupils are kept safe and interestingly experience a broad curriculum. Yep, you’ve guessed it the curriculum plans were at an early stage of development. The report gave no indication how this ‘failing’ was impacting significantly on their academic outcomes.  

So, I contacted a former HMI colleague to discuss the report’s failings. We decided to reach out to the Headteacher to see if she would be interested in a virtual chat to discuss her Ofsted experience. That meeting took place in early April.  

Despite the gap of eight months the manner of the inspection was still hurting. The Headteacher explained that the school had moved on but the response from many parents and carers who wrote to Ofsted and their MP about ‘Ofsted getting it wrong’ was something positive that will stay with her to the end of her career. Sadly, some of the poor practice within the inspection will also. 

I was keen to try and uncover the evidence sources and the way these were evaluated because the report was pitifully short of detail. This was something the Headteacher tried to pursue during the team meetings, but the evidence sources were restricted to what the inspectors had gathered and considered. Additional evidence identified at the team meetings by the Headteacher appeared to be off limits.  

As our discussion developed, I became concerned about the actual inspection practice, in effect, how inspectors individually and jointly treated the Headteacher, the staff and the governors.  

The Headteacher recalls the arrival of the inspection team. They stood in a V formation in the entrance area with the Lead Inspector at the front. They were less than cordial and some seemed agitated. This inspection was their first since Ofsted began inspecting again after the lockdown and it was showing from the first engagement. What struck the Headteacher during the first hour was how little they appeared to know about the school. It is on a split site with a three mile gap between the two buildings. This was going to affect the early plans made in terms of visiting classrooms, and at least one inspector was not happy. The Headteacher raised this concern with the Lead Inspector who offered assurance but this didn’t dispel the sense that not all inspectors were as well briefed as they ought to be. 

It was only later in the inspection that the Headteacher realised that nearly all of the inspection team were in fact Lead Inspectors and needed to be successfully ‘signed off’ during the inspection by a visiting HMI undertaking a quality assurance visit. This appeared to explain why there was professional disappointment at not knowing about the split site; they all believed that under their leadership the ‘split site’ issue would never have been missed. 

During the initial face to face discussions between the Headteacher and the Lead Inspector it was clear that the pandemic was a sort of ‘no-go area’. The school was rightly proud of their efforts in providing a meaningful home schooling experience since March 2020 and the way it reached out to vulnerable children and vulnerable families. It was made clear this was not to be part of the inspection focus because it wasn’t in the Ofsted Framework. This approach suggested to the Headteacher that few of her inspection team were actually Headteachers of a school during the pandemic. A quick review of their very brief CVs, supplied by Ofsted, and some subtle quizzing during conversations, confirmed this. There was awareness of the challenges Headteachers had faced but no real sense of the operational challenges and the moral imperative to reach out and support. 

As the inspection progressed it became clear that the school would be downgraded. The invitation to the Headteacher to join the team meetings at the end of each day were in effect opportunities to observe rather than engage. It was at this point that the professional rivalry between inspectors was revealed. There was a level of uncertainty about what the HMI quality assuring the process would think about their work and there was some self-preservation going on whereby each one wanted to show how ‘robust and on message’ they were. The Headteacher felt this would be judged as a positive by Ofsted. 

The most appalling element was the length of the team meetings. One ended at 8.30pm! This is truly awful. I wanted to ask if the Headteacher had a family and whether she had children, and who was caring for them during the inspection, but I didn’t want to be seen to be prying. It does suggest that there was uncertainty amongst the inspection team about the interpretation of the Framework in a ‘post pandemic world’ and that they were overly concerned about the ‘signing off’ process. 

I remain positive about inspection as a mechanism for school improvement, but I am increasingly concerned about the current approach. The off the record conversations I have with current inspectors and HMI reveal deep unease with the narrow focus and the lack of reliability in the evidence gathering and therefore the evaluations that are undertaken. I know that I am swimming against the tide, but I am old enough to know that things do change over time. 

The inspection experience highlighted problems relating to the credibility of the inspectors, their lack of recent operational experience, the professional manner of some and the apparent lack of empathy. These are issues that should always be the focus of quality assurance visits but the pandemic, the drive for greater focus on the curriculum and the need to quickly sign-off inspectors appear to have got in the way of some more basic requirements.  

The many parents, carers and governors who wrote to Ofsted were directed to the formal complaints’ process. There is such little confidence in this system that many chose to support the school rather than draw out the agony, with little hope of a change of judgement. 

The conversation with the Headteacher lasted about 45 minutes. We could have gone on for longer. She is getting on with leading the school and trying to manage the high Covid rates. Her school is oversubscribed, is still loved by the pupils and parents/carers. She is unconvinced Ofsted is a mechanism for improvement and although has led an Outstanding school she never wants to be an inspector. 

I continue to read Ofsted reports. They are formulaic and dull. They are unable to convey the lived experience of children, staff, governors and the wider community because they are saddled with an expectation that they will be pithy while covering statutory reporting requirements. In too many instances the text does not support the grade; one of the most damning statements from any quality assuring HMI, in my day. 

I am not suggesting that all Ofsted experiences are like this one but sadly they are not isolated incidents. It is hardly surprising that today’s news that a high proportion of existing Headteachers want to leave the profession when some face inspections that seem unfair, poorly conducted and don’t report on what is important. 

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13 May: Russell Harvey - view Russell's previous appearance 20 May: Raksha Pattni - view Raksha's previous appearance 27 May: Prof Colin Diamond  3 June: Neil Jurd  10 June: Sam Strickland  17 June: Catherine McLeod  26 June: Sameena Choudry ...

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