Achieving Ofsted outstanding for Quality of Teaching

Written by: HTU | Published:

Quality of teaching is key to a positive inspection outcome. In the second of our series focusing on Ofsted's four core indicators, Suzanne O’Connell speaks to four schools who have been graded outstanding for their teaching quality

Without outstanding teaching you cannot have outstanding effectiveness. It was in July that the announcement came that the quality of teaching was to be even more closely linked to a school’s overall judgement. 

The point was made by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector, that if a school is to be outstanding and expected to work in partnership with others, then the quality of teaching it shares must be outstanding too.

The new School Inspection Handbook (September 2013) has brought with it some subtle, and some not so subtle, changes to inspection practice. Perhaps one of its strongest messages is that it doesn’t matter what teaching method is used: “Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of teaching or show preference towards a specific lesson structure.” Teaching just has to be effective rather than following a set format.

Another strong message reflects what we can expect from the new primary curriculum – an emphasis on “knowledge”. During lesson observations inspectors will be looking for evidence of growth in knowledge. Pupils must “acquire knowledge” in the grade descriptor for “achievements of pupils at the school”, and teachers and other adults should “authoritatively impart knowledge”. 

Inspectors began using the new handbook during their inspections in the autumn term. The schools we spoke to had all been inspected in the first few weeks of the new handbook being applied. We wanted to know not only what made the quality of their teaching so exceptional, but also how our schools found the new requirements in practice.

Introducing the schools

Bedfield CE Voluntary Controlled Primary School is a small school in Suffolk with an average number of pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium. Its headteacher, Jill Overbury, was not expecting an inspection but the school was targeted as part of the focused inspection of schools in Suffolk. The school had been judged to be outstanding in 2009. 

Holy Trinity CE Infant School is another small school, this time in Nottinghamshire. It was judged to be good in its last inspection in 2008. Headteacher Kathryn Thompson was delighted that the school improved its grading to outstanding in September.

Rachel Wallace has been in post as headteacher at Brabins Endowed Primary School in Lancashire for just over a year. Brabins already had an outstanding judgement from their previous inspection and, as a new head, Ms Wallace was understandably anxious to maintain the high standards. 

Wingate Infants’ School in County Durham has an above average number of pupils who are entitled to the Pupil Premium. Marie-Louise Binks is also the headteacher of another local school and a National Leader of Education. Both schools had recently had an inspection which gave her a real opportunity to compare inspection styles. 

Collecting the evidence

All the headteachers took the opportunity of observing with the inspectors and giving feedback. Ms Wallace at Brabins, felt that this was a key aspect of the inspection. Demonstrate that your judgement is accurate and inspectors will trust your judgements over time, as she explained: “I think if your findings agree with the inspector’s then they are more likely to trust your other judgements in your self-evaluation form.” 

Ms Overbury at Bedfield experienced the importance of the bigger picture when it comes to staff performance. Although on the day, an outstanding teacher performed a good lesson, Ms Overbury was able to demonstrate to inspectors from previous records that this teacher normally taught outstanding lessons.

She explained: “I provided my records of previous joint observations and although he didn’t observe another lesson he looked at the books and talked to the children. He agreed the teacher was outstanding.”

At Wingate Infants, Ms Binks felt that the inspection delved much deeper and there was a real emphasis on the whole picture.

She explained: “Observing teaching on the day was just a part of it, they really wanted to see outcomes and what happened as a result of the teaching. The previous inspection had focused more on our planning. This one was very impact-based.”

The schools contributing to this article are all small schools and, in the majority of cases, the teaching of the headteacher was inspected as well. This places added pressure on the head. 

It also means that inspectors are likely to get to know the children, the teachers and their classes more closely than perhaps in an inspection of a larger school. This can blur the distinction between the collection of evidence for different judgements.

Having much greater prominence in this inspection was the scrutiny of children’s work. Ms Wallace describes what happened at Brabins: “They spent more time looking at children’s books and a lot of the evidence seemed to come from this. They wanted to see high-quality work and that this was sustained over time. 

“Our inspector was also looking at the level at which children were working. For example, that children in reception were working to a year 1 standard.”

Ms Overbury agrees about the focus on books: “The inspector was interested in evidence over time. The learning and marking were central.”

Ms Binks added: “The book scrutiny was incredibly important. They wanted to see the week-to-week progress and looked at the quality of the spelling, grammar and marking.”

Inspectors are looking for sustained performance. If the teaching is not good then this will be reflected in the children’s work. Inspectors selected the books for themselves rather than asking for a selection from school staff: “Our inspector often had a root around in the classrooms,” explained Ms Wallace. “She said that if she couldn’t find something then she would ask for it.”

Teaching assistants were given a more prominent role and inspectors investigated their contribution and the training and development they had had. Ms Binks is keen to recognise the contribution that support staff made to the inspection in other ways too.

“It was only 11 days into the new school year. The inspector was very impressed by how quickly and well the learning environment had been put together. Our support staff had made a major contribution to this.”

At Holy Trinity, Ms Thompson describes a rigorous inspection where the collection of evidence from a number of sources was used to back up the data they found.

“She scrutinised work in books, on the walls and asked pupils about the school. She talked to subject leaders and took into account the parents’ views on the standard of teaching. These all confirmed the above district and above national data results for the past several years in reading, writing and maths.”

At Holy Trinity, the inspector observed phonics sessions across the school and a guided reading session with the year 2 pupils. She also questioned the pupils about their reading habits. At Bedfield, the inspectors observed a teaching assistant listening to a child read and was interested in the comments that she made. 

There are some advantages to being a small school, Ms Overbury explained: “The inspector had to be based in the library. Children kept coming in and out and disturbing him. I apologised but he said it wasn’t a problem, he was just pleased to see how well it was used.”

Impressing the inspectors

All our schools had glowing reports across all the judgements, but we were interested in what the inspectors seemed to be most impressed with in relation to the quality of teaching. 

What was evident throughout our interviews was how important sustainability was and the length of time during which teaching had been outstanding: “It was the quality of pupils’ work over time that impressed them,” explained Ms Wallace. “Not just one class at any one time.”

Ms Overbury made a similar comment about inspection at Bedfield: “It’s not performance on the day, they want to see that it’s happening over time. It’s got to be consistent and sustainable.”

Marking is a key factor emerging in inspections. It is noticeable that where schools do have weaknesses to work on, marking quite often appears to be one of them. 

At Bedfield it is a strength: “Our marking was particularly good. We have what we call ‘Feedback Friday’ when the children can focus on the comments that have been made. 

“We don’t correct their work as such, we highlight mistakes in different colours depending on whether it is a grammar, spelling or other form of error.

“The children have iPads and iTouches so they can check their spelling themselves. They have to find out what’s wrong. We encourage them to write comments back in answer to any comments that the teacher makes.”

Teachers having a good subject knowledge and the creative curriculum were considered to be strengths at Holy Trinity: “The inspector liked it that pupils were asked what they want to learn while offering them opportunities to practise the necessary skills for the next stage in their education.”

At Bedfield, the reflective nature of the teachers came across as a strength: “I think the inspector liked the way that the teachers could discuss their lessons,” explained Ms Overbury.

“They could identify what needed changing. As a small school I share everything with my staff and we have many conversations about assessment, expectations, targets. They know the language and can talk knowledgeably.”

Ms Binks was pleased to see that it was not just about literacy and numeracy: “Our inspector was impressed by the breadth of our curriculum and the way we use our environment. Our school has many children living in disadvantaged circumstances. We need to take them out and enrich their experiences.”

A different inspection

Although the majority of the September 2013 inspection regime is the same as last year, there are some notable changes to the handbook, as we have already mentioned. Had schools noticed these changes in the inspectors’ practice? 

“There is much more of a focus on learning,” explained Ms Overbury, “They’re not requesting detailed lesson plans but they want teachers to be authoritative and to be knowledgeable. It’s about how teachers impart their knowledge to the children and how secure they are in what they’re teaching.”

Ms Wallace noticed a real focus on the child and what they were doing: “It was whether the children were engaged – were they applying their skills?” 

Ms Binks similarly noted the heightened emphasis on learning and on the more able: “They wanted to see the progress the children were making from entry. That’s not always easy when you have pupils for only three years. We have portfolios for our children in which they complete a piece of writing three times a year. This was very useful for showing the progress made.”

Ms Thompson noticed there was a real emphasis on different groups: “The inspector focused on the progress of all groups of pupils, SEN and higher attainers. She wanted to see that we have high expectations for them. Our ambitions are aspirational.”

She also noticed that governors were questioned more rigorously about how they monitored the work of the school. 

Ms Wallace identified the heightened importance of schools tracking and monitoring progress closely: “There was an emphasis on looking for accelerated progress. We had done quite a bit of work on this as a school and we have developed our own approach alongside using the Lancashire tracking system.”

One important point to note from Bedfield’s inspection was that the inspector approached the subject of children’s attitudes to difference such as transgender and same-sex couples, prejudice-based bullying and harassment. Fortunately they had begun work on Benjamin Britten’s centenary, so the children were already familiar with some of the questions the inspector raised and were able to respond confidently. 

Last thought

What came out strongly from all our schools is just how much more difficult it would be to paper over the cracks in this inspection. Schools that focus on managing the inspection process rather than getting down to the business of school improvement will struggle. The quality of teaching is not about pulling off that miraculous Ofsted-ready lesson, but about getting it right all year round. 

  • Suzanne O’Connell is an education writer and former primary school headteacher.

Ofsted Outstanding Series

This is the second of four article Headteacher Update is publishing focused on how to achieve outstanding in each of Ofsted's four core judgements: the achievement of pupils, the quality of teaching, the behaviour and safety of pupils and the quality of leadership and management.

Previously published is our focus on the Behaviour and Safety judgement, which can be viewed at

Articles focusing on pupil achievement and leadership and management will be published in the new year.

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