Perhaps an unwanted Christmas present, but on December 23 another set of Ofsted guidance documents was released. The new School Inspection Handbook and Subsidiary Guidance, implemented in January, do not represent an entirely new framework, but there are some significant changes in them that schools should take notice of.
Increased guidance on expectations around behaviour was anticipated following Sir Michael Wilshaw’s “Unlucky Child” speech. Schools will be expected to be dealing with all the low-level irritants, such as late arrival at class, not having the right equipment and challenges to school uniform policy. Perhaps harder to deal with is ensuring you meet Ofsted’s expectations around attitudes. Pupils must be ready and willing to learn and demonstrate enthusiasm and concentration.
Alongside changes to behaviour we can see the emerging and increasing importance of assessment during the Early Years Foundation Stage. A whole section has been added in the Subsidiary Guidance in advance of the focus on benchmarking pupils from their entry into schools. The importance of progress is reflected in the additional footnotes and is further confirmed by the schools we spoke to about their recent Ofsted inspections.
Introducing the schools
The three schools we spoke to have all received an “outstanding” judgement for their overall effectiveness and achievement. They have also all been inspected since January 2014 and therefore have witnessed first-hand any slightly different emphasis following on from the release of the new documents.
It was a challenge to find schools judged to be outstanding. The daily issue of new reports mostly includes schools that require improvement with some judged to be “good” and then the very rare event, a school judged to be outstanding. Two of the schools interviewed are infant schools.
Bidbury Infant School in Havant has an above average number of pupils with SEN and 176 pupils altogether. Its previous Ofsted inspection had been good and Jackie Jones, the headteacher, was delighted when this was augmented on January 10 to outstanding.
Herringthorpe Infant School in Rotherham had also previously been judged good. Although, the number of Pupil Premium children is average, it has more than the usual number of pupils from minority ethnic groups. At 283 pupils altogether, it is larger than your average infant school.
The primary is a small school in Herefordshire. Much Marcle CE Primary School is a voluntary-aided school with 96 pupils. The last inspection, five years ago, had seen them judged as good.
Gathering evidence about achievement
Unsurprisingly, RAISEonline came in as the first and most pivotal document in the early stages of the schools’ inspections. Inspectors are already armed with this and keen to explore any conclusions they have been brewing.
All our schools were prepared. At Bidbury, Ms Jones explained: “We had already prepared our comprehensive data pack which includes information about the different groups in our school. It covers their achievement, attainment and progress.”
This particular document was not produced just for Ofsted. Every July, Ms Jones prepares the pack which is then shared with governors at an early stage. She continued: “We had it ready for the inspectors as soon as they came in the door. We start with the average point scores (APS) and then drill down into the individual data.”
Meanwhile, Lynne Pepper, headteacher at Herringthorpe, felt that the inspectors were slightly less interested in APS and more interested in the individual achievement of pupils: “They were more concerned to see that individuals had at least reached what was expected of them. I had a report that showed this. We have electronic mapping and that proved to be really beneficial. I could quickly demonstrate that almost every child made at least expected progress.”
Herringthorpe had previously been involved in Assessment for Learning initiatives and Ms Pepper felt that this helped them demonstrate how key assessment was in their lessons. She explained: “They were impressed with the questions that the teachers asked and how they used this to move learning on.”
Inspectors didn’t look at the children’s books until the second day and Ms Pepper had kept some topic books from 2012 so that they could see that the same high standards had been maintained over time. The school’s involvement in a large number of moderation exercises and having teachers with responsibility for moderation outside the school, helped the headteacher to feel positive: “They wanted us to prove that our assessments were accurate. We were confident that they were.”
Pupil progress meetings seem now to be a normal part of school life and two of our schools discussed having these termly. At Much Marcle headteacher Lorna Harrison felt it important that all staff attend them: “This gives everyone a useful insight into all the children in the school,” she told us.
RAISEonline told the inspectors a story but they were all keen to explore this further and gave the schools every opportunity to provide their own assessment information to either support or challenge what RAISE was saying.
Ms Pepper felt encouraged to enter into a dialogue: “The conversation began with RAISEonline but the inspectors were keen for us to show them what we could provide as evidence that achievement is outstanding. They acknowledged that RAISE online provides only part of the picture.”
From the initial meeting that focused on the data, the inspectors then wanted to see evidence of the results they could see on paper in the classrooms and through the conversations with pupils and teachers.
Ms Harrison felt very strongly that their inspector was checking everything: “He was certainly intent on triangulating the information, and would have quadrangled it if there were such a thing. He really checked the evidence. If I said something he wanted to see what the school council had to say and the teachers.”
Outstanding achievement practice
All aspects of all the schools were outstanding and the achievement judgement reflected this. However, each school had its own particular features that the inspectors were particularly impressed with. At Much Marcle, Ms Harrison was clear: “Every one of our children makes good or outstanding progress and we can prove it.”
A shared responsibility for achievement is a feature of all the schools and a theme appearing in other inspections. Whereas performance-related pay could lead to a very narrow interpretation of a class teacher’s role, this was being deliberately avoided in the schools interviewed.
At Bidbury, flexibility is a priority. “We have an intervention plan which we adapt flexibly as need arises,” explained Ms Jones, “We are open plan and we have used this to our advantage. Our support and intervention is not set in stone. Where a need emerges we can quickly draft in the support. There is a shared feeling of responsibility for everything. All our teachers have responsibility for the progress of all our pupils in the school.”
This flexibility is reflected in the deployment of the learning support assistants (LSAs) who, rather than being attached to a year group, are deployed as and when necessary.
“We move them around,” Ms Jones continued. “For example, we have one LSA who targets speech and language development. We use expertise where it is needed.”
At Herringthorpe, Ms Pepper feels that the inspectors were particularly impressed by the progress of their Pupil Premium children: “In some cases they are doing better than our non-Pupil Premium,” said Ms Pepper. “We don’t assume that our Pupil Premium children are going to be less able – far from it. For example, we have a higher level teaching assistant with a real interest in maths. She runs a group for the more able and this includes some Pupil Premium children too.”
Overall responsibility for Pupil Premium children at Herringthorpe is down to the deputy headteacher, who took on this role once the Reading Recovery teacher left and couldn’t be replaced. This has worked well for the school. Ms Pepper added: “The inspectors talked a lot about the fact that every one of our groups makes outstanding progress.”
Differences in inspection
For all three schools it was five years since they had had an inspection. For them, there were many differences in the way that the inspection was conducted. Most remarked upon was the amount of dialogue that took place with inspectors. Ms Pepper really enjoyed the opportunity to talk about her school: “They arrived at 8am and from that moment on we were kept in the loop. They were very professional and we had some very valuable discussions. They knew their stuff.”
The schools were impressed by the professional and considerate approach taken by inspectors while also being aware that no stone would be left unturned. Ms Harrison said: “It was a tighter and more focused inspection. It’s been my third at this school and that was the impression I got. I felt it was very searching. You wouldn’t have been able to hide anything even if you’d wanted to. Before I had felt that achieving outstanding was a bit of a snapshot. This inspection convinced me otherwise.”
Ms Jones said: “Overall we felt it was a very inclusive experience. We were updated almost hourly and felt really involved. They spent a lot more time talking to children in the classrooms, during guided reading, before school and after school, in the hall and in the playground.”
Dialogue might have been a key feature but paper work wasn’t far behind, as Ms Jones points out: “They wrote everything down. They were constantly writing and they definitely followed the handbook. We tried to make their job easier by having the answers ready.”
Ms Harrison was interested to note how the inspector quizzed her reception teacher about a particular year 3 cohort: “This year 3 have a different profile to our other year groups. The inspectors wanted to know what the teacher had noticed about them on entry.
“I thought this was rather unusual given that we were talking about five years ago – when she first started teaching in fact. All our teachers are involved in the progress meetings so she was able to talk about this particular group knowledgeably.”
Ms Pepper noticed that the guidance on teaching style and lesson observations outlined in the Ofsted documents was being followed closely: “They didn’t seem interested in teaching style at all. They just wanted to see that children were making progress in the lesson. They also seemed to focus a lot on the more able.”
Two types of advice came from our headteachers. On the one hand being prepared was vital, as Ms Jones was keen to emphasise: “Preparation is key. Use the guidance materials, the inspectors do and follow it closely. They do everything by the book. Tell the story of your school and if there are any anomalies, explain them. Be honest and don’t try to hide things, because they will find you out.”
Ms Pepper had found it useful to take a look at other schools’ Ofsted reports: “You can see trends emerging, like the emphasis on marking and feedback. I would take this to our staff meetings and share it with everyone. It provided a useful focus.”
On the other hand, it’s not all about Ofsted. Ms Harrison was keen to stress that although they had prepared, this wasn’t their key driver for improvement: “It’s important that your school improvement is for the benefit of the school and not just for inspection purposes. We had kept an eye on the framework and how it was changing but when it came to the phone call we didn’t spend lots of time on last-minute preparation. We were ready and happy for inspectors to see us as we are.”
- Suzanne O’Connell is an education writer and former primary school headteacher.
Previously published articles in this series can be found online: