Ofsted: Going for outstanding

Written by: Peter Henshaw | Published:
Photograph: St Oswald’s RC Primary School

Barely a week into the new term and headteacher Jeff Brown got the Ofsted call. Here, he describes the two-day inspection and his school’s bid to go from a rating of ‘good’ to one of ‘outstanding’.

We were inspected on September 10 and 11 which was almost five years since our last full inspection in March 2010.

Although we were expecting a visit at some stage over the course of this academic year, it certainly took us by surprise how soon into the year we were seen. Our data was favourable from the previous year end, so we had naively considered that we wouldn’t be a priority for the call – how wrong we were!

Two thoughts crossed my mind as soon as the school office manager passed me the phone in a whisper to say that she thought it might be Ofsted: “Thank goodness I spent a month over the holidays updating the self-evaluation form (SEF) and School Improvement Plan,” and “What about all the year 5 and 6 pupils who are out of school on residential along with two class teachers?”

I only mentioned the second of these thoughts to the lead inspector of course.

A conversation then followed with the inspector as to whether the school wanted to apply for a deferral in respect to all of the potential absences across the next two days and I was signposted to the Ofsted website to look at the reasons in which these can be permitted and given 30 minutes to decide.

There was also a dialogue as to the size of the school, as this varies quite considerably over the course of each academic year depending on numbers in the nursery. We were found to have just 138 full-time equivalent pupils on roll presently so we were just under the threshold for one inspector over the two days.

On finding the deferral guidance, it was quite obvious that it wouldn’t be a possibility to delay our inspection with only 30 pupils out of 138 due to attend the residential. A fleeting conversation between the senior leadership team considered whether the said residential could be postponed. However, it was soon acknowledged that we had to go ahead in the best interests of the children.

Very kindly, a local Catholic school whom I had supported as an associate headteacher allowed us to borrow one of their teachers to attend the residential on the first day and my two experienced key stage 2 teachers spent one day each in school, thus facilitating opportunities for each to be observed across the inspection. That was probably one of the most important decisions to be made in the process.

It did take my breath away the speed with which the inspection took place following on from the initial call, in comparison to having a couple of days to prepare previously.

One thing to note is that we had consciously implemented a brand new website upon re-entering the Ofsted window in light of the current requirements for published information about the school.

The inspector commented early on upon information he had already gained about the school while visiting the site and this again differed from our previous inspection where it had seemed to be a lot more SEF-based.

I had spent a good few weeks over the summer holidays giving the SEF a complete rewrite as I knew that this year’s data could potentially put the school into an “outstanding” bracket, with achievement either in line with or above national figures at the end of reception and years 2 and 6.

Without having a current RAISEOnline, this required working out all percentages of Good Levels of Development, Average Points Scores (APS) and Value Added Scores manually and although this was an arduous task at the time, it proved to be an invaluable resource through the inspection and informative in terms of the writing the School Improvement Plan.

Before the inspection began, the inspector requested that we be ready to produce the reading, writing and maths APS gains over the last 24 months for all vulnerable groups in the school across years 1 to 6.

On the first day, it was straight into school to ensure arrival prior to the inspector’s agreed time in school of 7:55am. Unfortunately, I found that the internet was down in school until 10am in the morning, due to a rare county-wide outage from our service provider. At this point, I was grateful that I had had the foresight to save all relevant data information from our online tracking system electronically, although this no doubt was a challenge for all the teaching staff who had prepared to use ICT as a teaching resource.

At 8:15am our lead inspector met with staff and I was particularly struck that he mentioned having a doctorate in which he had studied the effects of Ofsted inspections on participants, and this really evidenced itself in the way that he conducted the two days. I learned a lot from working alongside him over the inspection and it felt much more of a two-way process than I had experienced five years earlier.

The newly revised framework document from July 2014 was significantly referenced throughout the two days and this struck me as a major difference from 2010 too.

By the time of the performance data meeting with myself at 9:10am, the inspector was fully aware that we were aiming towards “outstanding” across all aspects as an outcome for the end of the two days.

Although it felt like a very bold move to tell the inspector that we were going for the top grading, my advice to schools with a similar data profile is simply to go for it! He informed us from the outset that this grading would depend on us being able to prove that the children consistently enter nursery significantly below national levels while they leave above national levels in year 6, thus demonstrating “outstanding” progress.

I wasn’t concerned about this at the end of key stage 2, knowing that our data headlines for all externally marked tests were either in line with or above/significantly above all national measures for two and three levels of progress – and that we were safely above all floor targets. We could demonstrate APS gains of at least 3.2 for each of the vulnerable groups and many of these groups were coming in at 4 or 5 points on average.

The rest of the first day was spent observing classes and every teacher bar one part-time member of staff was observed once and in most cases at least twice. Almost 80 per cent of lessons were judged as being “outstanding” and all others were at least “good” which was testament to the high calibre of teachers and support staff that we have working across the school.

Classes in the early years received a noticeable number of visits as there is an additional grading for this department in the newly revised framework. The inspector met with all core subject co-ordinators for around 20 minutes each.

All practitioners spoke knowledgeably about the monitoring of their respective areas, and a positive factor seemed to be their understanding of the performance of vulnerable groups across the school. A final debrief for day 1 took place with myself at 5pm and the inspector informed me of what further evidence he needed to see during day 2. At this stage he requested further proof that children enter nursery significantly below national figures.

I was not aware at this point what grading we were looking at, whereas during our last inspection, I knew by the end of the first day that we were most likely looking at a “good” grading overall.

At the start of day 2, I focused on our governors, holding a meeting prior to their interview with the inspector just to recap the various monitoring activities they had been involved in across the year, and their awareness of school strengths and areas for development. It was also an opportune moment to go through the interpretation of RAISEOnline with our trained governor.

At 9am, a meeting took place with the school advisor which I was not privy to. She also provided us with a copy of the “Lancashire Health School Information Profile”, which served to provide the inspector with some of the information he was looking for in terms of on-entry challenges faced within our locality, alongside anonymised lists of each child’s additional needs (showing that 70 per cent of all children required support for a variety of reasons).

The inspector also listened to selected children read and held a meeting with members of the School Council. Further positive lesson observations took place during the course of the second day.

A big emphasis during this inspection was placed on book scrutiny – fortunately we had held back a sample of all the books from the previous year to be able to demonstrate progress, as that would have been impossible to prove in books that were 11-days-old.

Five years ago, I declined the opportunity of carrying out a paired observation with the inspector after having heard the negative experiences of peers during their inspections. However, the inspector indicated this time that if we were to achieve the “outstanding”, I would need to carry this out with him to validate judgements. I’m really glad that I did, as I found this to be one of the most rewarding parts of the process from a professional development point of view.

Other evidence was requested at various points across the inspection including the single central record, safeguarding record-keeping, health and safety policies, and appraisal documentation. A leadership and management meeting took place for an hour in the afternoon where there was a big focus on standards of teaching over time, the monitoring of this and where the inspector could evidence Spiritual, Moral Social and Cultural Education across the school.

To hear in the final feedback session that the school had moved up in five years from “good” to “outstanding” across all aspects was undoubtedly my career highlight of 18 years and incredibly satisfying for all the stakeholders who had played such a vital role in the school’s success over time. The hardest part of the process was trying to keep the inspection outcome confidential, while wanting to shout out the result from the rooftops! To achieve “outstanding” very much fits with the school’s mission statement of “Nihil Satis Nisi Optimum – Only the best will do”.

  • Jeff Brown is headteacher at St Oswald’s RC Primary School in Accrington.

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