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School inspections for subject leaders – What is Ofsted looking for?

Anthony David considers the knock-on effects of COVID on Ofsted’s workload, and the resulting implications for subject leads…

  • School inspections for subject leaders – What is Ofsted looking for?

At the risk of stating the obvious, the last two academic years have been extraordinary. During this period, Ofsted wisely suspended most of its inspections so that schools could focus on managing their education provision amid unique circumstances.

Secondary schools in particular felt the full force of the pandemic and continue to do so now, with one in 10 students testing positive for COVID at the time of writing.

However, there was always going to come a point when inspection had to resume. Whilst there’s an argument to be made that restarting inspections during the 2021/22 academic year feels too early, there are pressures on Ofsted to get back into schools – not least the rapid decline in the number of settings inspected by the regulator over the last four academic years:

  • 2017/18 – 6,890
  • 2018/19 – 5,560
  • 2019/20 – 3,250
  • 2020/21 – 1,345

Coinciding with this has been a marked increase in Ofsted’s workload, most notably in December 2020 with the announcement that Ofsted would resume its inspections of Outstanding schools. That commitment alone has increased its inspection load by around 20%.

A slow restart

Ofsted has, however, attached a couple of caveats. It’s pledged to inspect those Outstanding schools by 2026, giving them five years to complete the task, and has been clear that the current round of inspections isn’t a ‘return to normal’, but will gradually ramp up over time.

The risk from Ofsted’s perspective, though, is that a slow restart will only grow that inspection backlog even further. Given that there are currently 24,360 state schools in England and 2,345 private schools, plus all those colleges, pre-school nurseries, LAs and childcare settings, it’s easy to see why Ofsted might be keen to get its inspectors back on the road.

As a department leader, then, what do you and your team need to be preparing yourselves for in terms of inspection?

COVID adjustments

The opening question from any inspection team is likely to be, ‘How did you adjust learning during the lockdown periods, and what impact has that had on standards?’ What the inspector will want to know is the rationale behind the decisions you made, what specific adjustments you made and the impact these subsequently had on learning.

Beyond that, you can expect to be asked how you resourced your subject and how you’ve been making use of any available ‘keep up’ funding (the term ‘catch up’ now no longer being used by the government).

Another key area of inspection will be remote learning. If your school, or a bubble within your school, has forced a return to remote learning, don’t think that there will be no inspection. Paragraph 16 of the updated inspection handbook makes it clear that not only will an inspection continue, but that inspectors may even join remote lessons.

It’s also worth being aware of the type of grant your school will have received, and what will have been delegated to your department. The approach the government has taken is to incrementally increase support, rather than presenting one sole flagship proposal (as was previously suggested by former recovery tsar, Sir Kevan Collins).

Three recovery packages were announced in June 2020, February 2021 and June 2021. These were variously called the ‘Catch up premium’ (£650 million), ‘Recovery premium’ (£302 million) and ‘Summer schools funding’ (£200 million), and ‘Tutoring programme’ (split into three amounts of £218 million, £215 million and £579 million), plus ‘CPD’ (£184 million to support early career teachers and national professional qualifications such as the NPQML).

It’s a complicated mix of funding, adding up to a total of £2.3 billion. This might seem like a significant amount, but less than half of it was directed at schools, and overall it falls well short of the £15 billion originally put forward as the minimal funding required to support a full recovery in education.

Regardless of these big numbers, what you’ll be asked about is how you’ve used your percentage and what impact you intend to see from it.

How to prepare for two-day inspections

At the very start of the two-day inspection, your leadership team will agree with the Ofsted team the lines of enquiry. You can be certain that the English, maths and science departments will all be inspected, but beyond that, there’s no guarantee that all other subject areas will be subject to inspection.

Should you be called upon to meet with the inspectors, carefully consider what material you take with you, and be advised that the meeting will be short. There won’t be the time for the inspectors to wade through folders of information, so what they’ll be looking to for is a confident and clear awareness of your subject that you can quickly back up with evidence from learning.

There are plenty of articles out there with advice on evidencing the three I’s – namely ‘intent’, ‘implementation’ and ‘impact’. However, the first two are arguably desk exercises, which can essentially be summed up as ‘What do I intend to cover, and what will it look like?’ It’s impact that will be the main priority at the meeting, so this is where you’ll need to focus your evidence.

Triangulation of evidence

That said, there will be a second opportunity to meet the inspection team if you’re called in to conduct a work scrutiny with the leadership team. Typically, a school’s departmental heads and leadership team will be invited to join at least the lead inspector to look at children’s recorded

Depending on how large your setting is, this will usually involve scrutinising learning across a faculty or department. It won’t examine a random selection of books, but rather form a deeper review across a wider range, with inspectors looking for progress and appropriate differentiation.

Above all, inspectors will want to see evidence of children knowing more than they did at the start of a particular unit or topic and a clear sequence to their learning. This is part of the triangulation of evidence, where they’re looking to see that what you intend to be taught is being delivered sequentially across your department.

Pupil voice has, rightly, grown in significance in recent years. How you collect student opinions and thoughts will therefore now form part of your discussion. The bottom line here is that if you appropriately seek your students views, they will value that process. It should be a genuinely useful process, not a token one, with the feedback you receive leading to actions that students should be able to quantify. One simple way of doing this can be to display in your department a ‘You said, we did’ board.

What Ofsted won’t do

How Ofsted judges learning is based on a triangulation of evidence – books, pupils and teaching – with the result that they won’t provide feedback on any one specific teacher or lesson.

This might prove to be frustrating for you personally, but it’s been Ofsted practice for several years now. The rationale behind it is that Ofsted seeks to report on quality of learning as a whole, of which teaching is just a part.

Equally, there’s now no expectation from Ofsted as to what planning ought to look like, or how you should assess internally. On the plus side, this relieves some of the personal pressure on you, so stay focused on your evidence and that potential meeting.

It’s unfortunate that for many, Ofsted inspections remain a cause for high anxiety. However, if you’re sufficiently well prepared, they can present an opportunity for you to really fly, and celebrate the successes of your students – particularly when the last two academic years are taken into account.

Anthony David is an executive headteacher

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