Why schools must prepare for surprise Ofsted visits

As the new term starts, so, too, does the new 'shorter, sharper' inspection, with schools getting as little as a day's notice of a visit. Testing times. Sarah Cassidy and Richard Garner report
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The Independent Online

There's no doubt that it will be a massive culture shock for the many schools that have grown accustomed to an inspection regime that has remained virtually unchanged ever since the education watchdog was established in 1992.

The changes have already caused controversy. Critics have lambasted them as "inspection gone soft", because inspectors will spend less time in schools and will no longer observe every teacher in the classroom. Inspection reports will be much shorter, leading to accusations that parents will be less well informed about standards in their children's schools.

However, David Bell, the Chief Inspector of Schools, warns that schools should prepare themselves for the biggest shake-up in the history of inspection. "Coasting" schools in leafy, middle-class areas, with reasonable exam results, may be shocked to find that they fail the new-style inspections, unless they can demonstrate how they have improved. And schools that have failed to tailor their teaching to the needs of different pupil groups, such as boys or ethnic-minority groups, could also find themselves penalised under the new system.

Bell says that the lack of notice of an inspection will ensure that inspectors get a truer picture of schools. He notes that under the current system, which gives schools up to 10 weeks to prepare, "just occasionally, you'd think inspectors are observing a performance rather than a lesson".

David Pover, assistant head teacher at Burgate School in Fordingbridge, Hampshire, is one of only a few hundred teachers who have already been through the new system. Burgate, a popular comprehensive with 950 students, was one of around 100 schools that took part in a pilot scheme, which saw inspectors visit last May. The school was notified of its impending inspection on a Thursday, and a team of six inspectors descended the following Tuesday, spending the next three days at the school.

"It was good - a much better and more collaborative process than the two previous inspections I've been through at the same school," says Pover. "This time, there was much less stress for the staff - only around 60 per cent of the teachers were inspected. Under the old system, everyone would have been seen at least once. In fact, some teachers were disappointed that their lessons weren't inspected!"

For Pover, the process began well before the inspectors arrived, when he and the rest of the senior management team had to complete a self-evaluation form setting out the school's strengths and weaknesses, which then had to be submitted to Ofsted. "We had to be honest and open. There was no point trying to do otherwise. I have heard of one or two schools who tried to elevate their status rather than be candid. When the inspectors arrived, it became obvious that things weren't as rosy as the schools had made out."

Burgate School scored an overall grade of two, meaning that it was judged to be "good", on a scale of "inadequate" to "outstanding". But Pover believes that the impact of the inspection will be long-lasting, and argues that it has already changed the way that the school operates.

"One of the worthwhile things that came out of it was that we realised that we were not doing enough to get our students to think for themselves," he says. "It has taken us into new territory and made us think about how we teach our students. It is obviously not just about passing exams, and we have now introduced a more holistic way of teaching."

George Blanchard, head of Theddlethorpe Primary School near Mablethorpe, Lincolnshire, which also took part in the pilot (and scored a three, or "adequate" ranking), welcomes the reforms. "I'm very much in favour of the new system, because it is less stressful in the lead-up," he says. "The prospect of inspectors coming in at short notice means that schools are going to find it hard to put on a show. There'll be none of that, 'we must put this right, we must put that right', going on beforehand."

Theddlethorpe, with just 90 pupils, was at risk of having very variable standards due to the small number of pupils, Blanchard believes. While the inspectors were happy with the day-to-day management of the school, Theddlethorpe was criticised for its lack of strategic leadership.

"It did identify some areas that the school had to face up to," Blanchard admits. He had been off for two terms following a heart attack, and was required to teach as well as run the school, which, he acknowledges, did make it very difficult to find the time for "strategic leadership".

"They didn't fail the school overall because they took that into account. They were HMIs (Her Majesty's Inspectors) - they were very, very sharp."

The inspectors arrived on the Tuesday evening and had a meeting with the school staff, spent Wednesday inspecting lessons, and then drew up their report on the Thursday.

"In the end, there were some changes to the report," says Blanchard. "They were trying to leave out the fact that I had been away with an illness, but in fact, that helped to put the whole thing in context.

"I was very happy that it was HMI that was in charge of it. I would debate whether some of the contracted teams would come up with the same professional judgement."

Another advantage of the short notice, Blanchard says, is that "you can't cover up things you can't do". He underwent two previous inspections under the old regime - one at Theddlethorpe and one at a larger, 200-pupil primary school. He was happy with the conclusions of the previous inspection at Theddlethorpe, but thinks that the private contractors in charge of the earlier inspection didn't do such a comprehensive job. He would like to see HMI involvement in all school inspections.

Caroline Roberts, head teacher of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School - which was awarded a two ranking - was not actually head at the time of the inspection, but says that staff reacted positively to the new approach. "It was a great improvement on previous inspections," she says. "The school had about a fortnight's warning, so there was not so much pre-planning. And there'll be even less in future.

"The inspection was based on the school's own evaluation. There were four inspectors with a lead inspector, and they spent three days in the school. All in all, it was a good experience."

However, some believe that the changes to Ofsted's school inspection system should have been even more radical. Demos, an independent think tank and research institute that is carrying out a major research project into the future of school inspection, argues that the present system has encouraged schools to "coast" and avoid trying innovative approaches for fear of failure. Its early findings suggest that schools feel disempowered by "a culture in which trying something new can seem an unacceptable risk to their reputation".

But Demos welcomes the shift towards school self-assessment under the new regime, and the focus on the leadership of the school. These are truly radical changes, it says.

Hannah Lownsbrough, one of the Demos project's researchers, admits that some teachers are extremely anxious about the new system, but argues that it is an unavoidable reaction to change. "I think that there is a level of anxiety in the system at any period of change," she says. "That's partly because we have such a conscientious teaching profession that wants to do well. I don't think it should be interpreted as opposition. It's an understandable reaction to change."

The teaching unions have also been concerned about the plans to ask pupils to judge the performance of their teachers. From September, pupils and parents will fill in a questionnaire giving views on their school. The Secondary Heads Association is up in arms over the fact that more schools will be branded as failing. John Dunford, the union's general secretary, says: "If Ofsted raises the bar and more schools start to fail their inspection, inspectors will not be comparing like with like. More failing schools would be an own goal for the government."

Ofsted's David Bell makes no apologies for the fact that the new regime may lead to more schools being classified as failing from September. He maintains that the drive for ever higher educational standards means that it is right to expect more of schools. "We have not made any secret of raising the bar, and I make no apologies for it," he says. "There are good reasons for that. The education system in 2005 is very different from when Ofsted was set up in 1992. We have no quotas [for schools that will fail]. The new system of inspection is capable of capturing the whole range of performance. This is certainly not inspection gone soft."

Bell explains that the new system will continue to look beyond raw examination-results data, and will challenge schools with average results who should be performing better. It will ask "even more searching questions" than the old system did.

"Schools that have sought to be on the path of continuous improvement," he says, "have nothing to fear from the new regime."

Coming to a school near you

How have inspections changed?

They will be shorter - no more than two days - compared with the current five.

The school's self-evaluation will be central to the inspection.

Schools will receive very short notice of an impending inspection - one or two days.

Children's views will be taken into account. Inspectors will spend a great deal of time finding out how children feel about the school.

Inspectors will evaluate a school using a four-point scale: 1 for outstanding; 2 for good; 3 for satisfactory; and 4 for inadequate.

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