Mike Sheridan: Confessions of an Ofsted inspector

They're hated by the teaching profession yet rarely defend themselves in public. So what's it like being an Ofsted inspector? Richard Garner meets one

They stalk the corridors of schools, striking fear into the hearts of even the most senior teachers. They are the Ofsted school inspectors – but until now their voice has seldom been heard.

In a rare interview, one of the education standards watchdog's most senior inspectors has given The Independent an insight into the nature of his work, which under the regime of new head Sir Michael Wilshaw is about to become a whole lot tougher for schools.

As a former primary school headteacher, Mike Sheridan can speak with the voice of experience about the impact an Ofsted inspection can have on staff. "It's quite terrifying," he admits. A poacher-turned-gamekeeper, he now heads one of the watchdog's teams and can carry out anything up to 33 inspections each term.

He immediately rejects the image often put forward at teachers' union conferences of Ofsted acting as "bully boys" bringing a reign of terror to schools. The inspection, he says, will usually start with a telephone call to the headteacher 48 hours ahead. With a day to go, he contacts them directly.

"We'll go through the data on the school and make sure everything is as accurate as we think it is," he says. "Hopefully the headteacher will be able to challenge anything that could be wrong." They then go through the issues that need to be looked at when the inspection starts.

But before he heads for the school gates, he goes online to search for candid comments by parents – usually focusing on the controversial forum ParentView, where mums and dads can post comments anonymously about their child's school.

The website has angered teachers, who claim there is no accountability – or even any way of telling if the user is really a parent at all. They claim that ParentView, and other sites like it, are open to abuse by people with an axe to grind. But for an Ofsted inspector it is a useful guide to the problems they may encounter on their visit.

When he arrives at the school, he immediately gives out 100 questionnaires to pupils (parents are often sent these ahead of time too). The children's comments are not treated as gospel, but the survey almost always earns a 100 per cent response. "The information can be quite telling," Mr Sheridan says. "You get some traits in there which lead to interesting discussions. Parents' views are taken very seriously."

He will then schedule a meeting with the teaching staff. "It is a very stressful time for schools, and we know that, and we do everything we can to make it as simple as possible," he says. "When I was a headteacher, you had six weeks' warning of an inspection – I can remember waiting by the telephone when you thought it was about time you were going to get the call."

He continues: "The teaching profession is a real mixture of people. Most teachers – almost all teachers – are incredibly passionate about what they do. They are working incredibly hard and they do deliver – not all do it absolutely right, though.

"What I say is that when we're making judgements about teaching and learning, we're not making judgements about individual teachers. It would be madness to do that in a 20-minute slot. Teaching a satisfactory lesson for 25 minutes doesn't make you a satisfactory teacher."

Mr Sheridan is not alone in making the transfer from teaching to inspecting. The majority of full-time inspectors, or HMIs, have been heads or senior managers of schools, or have worked in senior positions within local education authorities.

About 40 per cent of inspectors, who are recruited from all walks of life and were once dubbed by teachers' leaders "the butchers, the bakers and candlestick makers", are still teaching. One in five are heads.

During the course of the day, Mr Sheridan will make six or seven lesson observations, before returning the next day to complete the inspection. Almost all the teachers will be observed at some point.

He will then withdraw with his team and spend anything up to an hour and a half talking through their judgements with the head, who can challenge the findings – an important process, he says, as it "adds to the transparency of the inspection".

In the five years since he joined Ofsted, Mr Sheridan cannot recall any of his team's judgements being challenged by a school. But the inspection system is braced for major change, with Sir Michael Wilshaw due to unveil his blueprint for the future in the next couple of weeks.

His controversial proposals include the introduction of "no notice" inspections, replacing the "satisfactory" rating with "requires improvement", and failing schools which fail to lift themselves out of that category within three inspections.

In effect, the new regime states that if you are not a good school you could be on the road to failure. It will also place restrictions on the number of schools rated as "outstanding", making it more difficult to qualify.

Ofsted, Mr Sheridan says, has to work "without fear or favour". But will that be possible under the new regime? "We have ways of making things work," he says. "Whatever comes out of the consultation we will work with it."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Recruitment Genius: HR Advisor

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our Client has been the leader ...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us