It has been more than 10 years since I left the teaching profession but I still remember the cold shudder that the word Ofsted used to provoke in myself and my colleagues in education.
In my two years of teaching at a Wellingborough school I never experienced the delights of a government inspection – other than the obligatory ones for NQTs (Newly Qualified Teachers) – but the stories told by fellow teachers still lingered around the corridors and in the fabric of the place’s history.
And this term, arguably, inspections for schools have become tougher.
As Ofsted announced on its website: “All schools inspected by Ofsted must, at a minimum, be judged as ‘good’ to be good enough for our children... Ofsted is raising the bar for school inspections.”
From September, key changes were brought in so that in order to be judged ‘outstanding’, schools must have ‘outstanding’ teaching. As well as this, a new rating of ‘requires improvement’ has been brought in to replace the former ‘satisfactory’ grade. As Ofsted puts it: “Satisfactory should never have been more than a staging post on a school’s journey towards providing a good or outstanding education for all children.”
The notice given for Ofsted visits is also now a simple telephone call to the school the afternoon before an inspection so that “inspectors will see schools as they really are while giving headteachers and governors the opportunity to be present at the inspection.”
But what do Northamptonshire schools think about Ofsted? We spoke to two local headteachers to find out.
William Thallon is headteacher at Wrenn School, Wellingborough, which has recently been inspected under the new framework.
At the top of the school’s most recent report, readers are told that in its previous inspection the school was rated ‘satisfactory’ (grade 3) but in the latest inspection it ‘requires improvement’ (also grade 3).
Proud of the fact the percentage of children at the school gaining five or more A* to C grades at GCSE (including English and maths) has shot up to 59 per cent from 40 per cent at the time of the last inspection in 2009, Mr Thallon is concerned about the impression this new Ofsted rating will give of a school which has, in fact, improved.
He said: “We were one of the first schools to be inspected under the new framework and our results have gone up a lot since the last inspection. We thought that with 59 per cent we could do better than a grade three, but the framework has got tougher. I’m in favour of raising standards but we caught the wrong end of it as one of the first schools to be inspected under the new regime.
“Now there is no ‘satisfactory,’ it is ‘requires improvement’ and for anyone who doesn’t understand education that sounds awful, it sounds like ‘special measures’ which is two grades below that.
“Even though we are doing a lot better than three years ago, it sounds worse.”
He continued: “We have got over it and the Ofsted inspection made some useful points for us to improve which we intend to act upon. Even if Ofsted hadn’t come in we would have wanted to improve some more.”
Ofsted’s new short-notice inspections make things more difficult for the inspectors themselves, according to Mr Thallon.
He said: “They should be able to turn up and see a school just as it is but in fact it causes them more problems than it does for us as they had to have a copy of the school timetable for that day and found it difficult to co-ordinate activities. I did not think the inspection was as thorough as it was in the past as they did not have the same period of time. Before, they had two days to study our paperwork but this time they did not have as much time to look at it in detail.”
Chris Whelan, headteacher at Croyland Nursery School in Wellingborough, said she felt having to adhere to three forms of inspection – a schools inspection, one for ‘early years’ (as the school has additional fee-paying provision for young children) and an inspection for their children’s centre – meant that they are somewhat “over-inspected.”
She said: “I would say it is a discussion we have had with every Ofsted that we are very much over-inspected. We seem to have an inspection almost every year and that gives me some concern about the use of public funding really, that is something we have spoken to Ofsted inspectors about.”
She continued: “There does seem to be a tendency to focus on data which actually is sometimes detrimental to the whole of children and young people’s development.
“I don’t think any head will dismiss the use of data, no head wants children and young people not to achieve well, but we also want them to be rounded people who function in society. Along with parents, we are creating the citizens of the future.”
According to Ofsted, the revised inspection arrangements followed a comprehensive consultation which received more than 5,000 responses from teachers, headteachers, parents, carers and governors.
Launching the new inspection framework, chief Ofsted inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said: “I make no apology for introducing an inspection framework that raises expectations and focuses on the importance of teaching. The new short-notice inspections allow inspectors to see schools as they really are. Schools judged ‘requires improvement’ will receive strong support from Ofsted to help them get to ‘good’.
“We know inspections are crucial in driving better performance. Showing the need for improvement is often the spur that brings about change. I want Ofsted to be giving the right support to the schools that need it. Her Majesty’s inspectors will spend more time doing inspection and improvement work locally and they will be supported by eight new regional directors, each responsible for learning and improvement in their respective areas.’