Waiting for Ofsted

Written by: HTU | Published:

Inspection preparation is now big business in education and a key priority for school leaders. But get it wrong and it can leave staff scared not prepared. Headteacher Update looks at how schools prepare for inspection and offers some vital tips.

Stephanie Day is a young teacher in her second year of teaching. Her school was “satisfactory” at their last inspection and they are expecting a visit any time now.

Every day before the end of last term, rather than channelling her energy into the Christmas play and enjoying the start of her teaching career, she was waiting for Ofsted.

“We’ve been told that they’re bound to inspect all the satisfactory schools in our area over the next couple of months,” Ms Day explained. “Until Wednesday lunchtime every week we’re waiting for the phone call. I just want to get it over with.” 

Her school has been living in anticipation for almost a year now. 

For many schools, and especially those last judged to be “satisfactory” or the new “requires improvement”, Ofsted is an intimidating prospect.

For the education industry, it’s big business. Preparing for Ofsted courses, “mock-steds”, inspection health checks, handbooks and materials all sell well. 

Any online publisher knows that if you have anything with “Ofsted” in the title, the number of clicks is bound to increase. It is clear that many schools are investing in inspection preparation – but is it worth it? 

A development tool

For some schools, engaging with Ofsted preparation has proved to be a beneficial school improvement tool as well as something which helps towards the inspection itself. 

David Baugh, headteacher at Pewithall Primary School in Runcorn, made sure that his school was prepared. The school received outstanding, but had also substantially improved as a result of the preparation process. 

It included senior leadership team training, advice from their School Improvement Partner and some leadership coaching. 

Mr Baugh felt that the coaching, in particular, made a constructive and lasting input: “The leadership coaching was excellent. They helped us to develop our vision and to look at our leadership styles. We used external help to prepare us and found it to be very beneficial, not just for Ofsted but school improvement generally.”

It is perhaps finding the right balance that is essential. Mr Baugh’s senior leadership team was relatively new to the role and needed extra preparation. He continued: “I shared everything with my staff including the inspection handbooks. Teachers knew what good and outstanding looked like and what inspectors would be looking out for. Everyone was kept informed. However, I did try not to mention inspection too often because I didn’t want people to become anxious about it.”

Terling CE Voluntary Aided Primary School near Chelmsford had known they would be inspected and had time to prepare through the support of an external advisor, a local authority advisor and subject interviews for subject leaders.

“We did a huge amount of preparation,” explained headteacher Maria Rumsey. “I do wonder though, is this what it all comes down to? We were judged to be an outstanding school. We are an outstanding school and yet the whole process was exhausting.”

Both Terling and Pewithall are featured as part of Headteacher Update’s third Ofsted core judgements article, published on January 9 and available in the best practice section of this website.

For some headteachers, a pending Ofsted can be anything but a developmental opportunity. David Weston is chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust and has concerns about the impact that waiting for Ofsted can have on styles of leadership and the tactics used.

He explained: “Many senior leaders are in such fear of the negative consequences of a poor Ofsted rating that they feel unable to pass any control over improvements to their staff. These leaders instead focus on a ‘command and control’ approach of compliance, seeking bad practice out and attempting to fix it with pressurised coaching and training.”

Getting the best advice

For Catriona Stewart, headteacher at Kingsmead Primary School in Cheshire, it’s all about being selective. She explained: “We do use private consultants on occasions – those with a track record who have done sterling work for the local authority and whose competence is unassailable. 

“Our use is specific – a maths consultant to assist our development of mathematics with a good reputation as a local authority consultant and lead teacher. People have some very strong specialisms that are invaluable to generalist primary teachers who haven’t had the opportunity for immersion in a subject that a maths consultant has had.”

A “mock-sted” or similar visit from an external advisor can be needed for other reasons. “I know of some new heads of outstanding schools,” Ms Stewart continued, “that haven’t been inspected for years and years who feel there has been some complacency and perhaps the judgement is no longer secure. Someone else, impartial, giving a tough message can leave that head as a supportive leader of a team, all working together to meet the raised expectations, rather than the new person who is resented.”

In the meantime, Ms Day and her school are marking time: “It’s all we’ve been talking about and everything revolves around it. 

“For example, we don’t change displays until Wednesday afternoon so that we know we won’t be half way through them when Ofsted arrives. Even our staff Christmas meal after school is pencilled in to be cancelled if Ofsted have called.”

For Ms Day and others like her, the waiting game continues.

How to prepare properly for Ofsted inspection

Given that a ‘mock-sted’ for a large primary can cost around £2,500 we thought we should offer a few free tips of our own. These have been written following discussions with schools who have had inspections as part of the new Ofsted framework.


Make sure that your marking is formative, regular, includes indications of what pupils should do next and that they have time to read it and respond – marking and feedback is emerging as an area where many schools are identified as needing improvement. 


Behaviour continues to be a big focus but now it is the attitudes to learning that are looked for. Are your pupils enthused by the curriculum? Are they keen to engage with the work in their classroom? 

Pupil Premium

Make sure you have your Education Endowment Foundation Pupil Premium Toolkit to hand and good evidence for why you have chosen the strategies you have – this applies to all children and their progress, but those on the Pupil Premium most of all.

Performance management

Holding teachers to account is vital – you must be seen to demonstrate that you are monitoring, observing and rooting out bad practice. Satisfactory to good and good to great starts with the teaching.

Middle management

Don’t neglect your middle leaders. Leadership is very much about the direction provided throughout the school. 

Teaching assistants

Make sure they are trained, involved in CPD and that there is evidence of good liaison between teaching assistants and class teachers. Try them in different roles within the classroom.

Throughout the school

Make sure that during your preparation everyone is made familiar with what to expect and what your main messages are – triangulation of evidence is important here. Will your teachers make the same comments about performance management that you have and that inspectors can see from your records?

Data, data, data

Make sure you have it all prepared for the last three years and that you can really tell the story of any weak cohorts or dips. Questions can be searching and you can guarantee that those you don’t want to be asked will be. Good luck!

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