Data: When the inspector calls

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: iStock

When Ofsted inspection looms, results and data can be make or break for schools. However, the removal of levels has left schools trying to find a new way to assess student attainment and demonstrate school improvement. Chris Smith offers some advice

Ofsted inspections: one of the biggest milestones in school life for staff and senior leadership. Always at the back of teachers' minds, school inspections are intended to assess the overall landscape of an institution, and see where the successes (and weaknesses) lie.

For those schools trying to reach the highest standards, inspection is always the final hurdle to determine how far they have come, and trying to ensure standards are maintained in the run up to a potential inspection can be a real challenge.

Even for those schools which have been rated as “outstanding" in the past, the pressure never eases. No headteacher wants to see those high standards slip.

How healthy is your data?

Giving your data a regular health check-up might sound basic, but it is amazing how many schools leave data analysis to the last minute. Realistically, headteachers probably only have about four hours of working time to prepare for an inspection. So it is a really good idea to make sure that you have all your data up-to-date and that you have looked at the significant areas likely to be of interest prior to Ofsted arriving.

I would recommend doing this on a half-termly basis, so you are keeping a regular tab on what is going on within your school and how this is reflected in its data.

While clearly this is an advantage so that you are not caught out when you get the call, it also means you are constantly in tune with the requirements of your school, and can more effectively manage your staff accordingly.

Try holding regular moderation meetings to ensure that all staff are taking the same approach in terms of how they mark, ensuring a consistent approach.

Don't let poor data-management fester malignantly in the background – be proactive in making sure all levels of staff are vigilant on keeping their data in the best possible shape.

Be data-rich, information-rich

Approximately 25 to 30 per cent of schools end up in either the “requires improvement" category or have to take special measures of some kind to improve standards after their Ofsted inspection. This can be a disaster for a school. One of the major factors which can fail a school is when it has inadequate, disorganised data, or data that is poor and where the headteacher cannot fully explain why it is poor.

For instance, it may be that your school looks like it is doing very well in maths, but that when you look at the data you discover that it is only the boys that are achieving good results, and that perhaps the girls are not doing so well.

If Ofsted notices that, and a headteacher had not, this could lead to some very awkward discussions about their inadequate interpretation of the results. Many schools are data-rich, but information-poor. Ensuring that you know what your data is actually telling you is key to a successful inspection.

Reflect on your data, does your data reflect?

Take the time to try to see what your data will look like from an outside perspective. Ask someone else (such as another member of your leadership team) to take a look at your data reports and see what patterns they think have emerged.

If they struggle to see any patterns, then the Ofsted inspectors will too. Cherry-pick the key data to tailor your reports to answer Ofsted's questions, rather than overloading them with data, which can be confusing.

Make sure you are asking questions about what it is you are hoping for your data to reflect about your school, and compare that with the patterns in the results. Self-analysis is crucial to not only a successful Ofsted inspection, but a successful school.

The whole purpose of Ofsted is to see how well a school knows itself. Even if one school's results are not as high achieving as another's, if both schools are able to demonstrate an in depth knowledge of its children – why their level of attainment is where it is – and Ofsted can see from the classroom that their data reflects this, then both schools will be on track to achieving “outstanding" status.

Connect with parents

Sparking up a dialogue between the school and the family is an excellent way for headteachers to ensure that they always have a good idea of why a certain child/group is exhibiting a certain difficulty or challenge with a subject.

Of course, it is impossible for headteachers to know all their children intimately, or all of their individual needs. However, by hosting regular meetings with class leaders, and asking teachers to highlight the children exhibiting unusual behaviour or results, the class data will become more than simply numbers on a screen.

The more frequently this can be done the better, as when Ofsted announce its arrival there is usually not enough time to prepare. Knowing which of those children or groups are likely to be a cause for concern is key to a successful inspection.

However, encouraging your staff to engage with the parents and create a level of openness is imperative for making your data more than just numbers, but instead a comprehensive outline of the student's strengths, weaknesses, and the processes that have been put in place to ensure that they progress.

Get on the same page

A key concern for all headteachers today, is the impact that the removal of levels will have in terms of placing children in the wider context of national attainment. Whereas before it was easy to know what a Level 4 meant to a child leaving in year 6, from now on levelling will become far more subjective. However, look at this as an opportunity – rather than fixing on the number of children achieving a certain level, you are free to focus on their progress.

Ensure that all your staff are “on the same page" when it comes to inputting their data into whatever system your school chooses for monitoring assessment. It is important to have a school-wide consistency in terms of data-management, however you choose to approach assessing attainment. Tailor your data collection and analysis to suit different groups, such as SEN or gifted and talented. By segregating your data it becomes more manageable, and easier to see trends emerge.

It is also important to remember that the reports you create will need to be adapted for different audiences. For example a report designed for middle managers will need to include different information to that of school governors or Ofsted's version of that report.

Data analysis tools

If an Ofsted inspector were to notice a discrepancy between literacy attainment in girls from one class to the next, it is important for the headteacher to already be well-informed, so they can address the issue. However, patterns such as these can be difficult to identify manually.

Using the example of unusual literacy scores, with data analysis software it is possible for the headteacher to be in a position to acknowledge the results, as well as compare them to the data from previous years.

They could additionally show examples of what the results have been from intervention programmes which may have been undertaken by a specific group.

All of this combined means that the headteacher is able to reclaim control over those results. In this way, potentially damaging results can be turned into an opportunity to demonstrate a superior level of control over school data, and shows inspectors how the school is taking the appropriate steps to implement positive change and academic progress.


Schools need to assess their children, Ofsted needs to assess schools. Without due care and attention spent on evaluating the productivity on both sides of the fence, the system cannot be the well-oiled machine it needs to be.

Fundamentally, it is the teachers who are going to make or break the school's success at Ofsted: both in terms of how well they teach and how much progress children are making in their classes, and how that can be evidenced. However, when a teacher knows where their pupils' strengths and weaknesses lie, and can map their progress over time from their data, they can begin to fill the gaps in their children's knowledge and feel more at ease when the inspector calls.

  • Chris Smith is head of education technology at Essex Education Services, part of Essex County Council, and has led the development of its Target Tracker pupil progress tracking software.

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