Is it the beginning of the end for Ofsted (and should we rejoice in its demise)?


With the publication of yet another version of Ofsted’s Guidance for the Inspection of Schools just prior to the summer break (when the people who are most likely to be affected by it are at their most vulnerable), I was heartened to read Tom Sherrington’s (aka headguruteacher) response to it. He explained the changes in the framework in layman terms and also showed agreement of Sean Hartford’s vision that the best way to prepare for an Ofsted inspection is to run a “good school.” However, a number of recent social media observations coupled with actions from the DfE and Ofsted itself have raised me to question as to whether this institution, that teachers of my age have grown up with, is past its sell-by date?

For as long as I can remember, Ofsted has been a Voldermort-like word that has evoked nothing but fear and contempt from everyone who seemed to utter its name. A positive inspection could mean up to five years of breathing space, a negative one, well, we don’t even like to talk about what life could be like after the number 3 or 4 darkened your door! However, have schools and school leaders been complicit in making the judgements of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate more weighty than they should have been? After all, numerous judgements (and arguably more important ones) are placed upon schools on a daily basis. The opinion of students and parents, that of the local community which the school serves and the outcomes gained for students (not just examination grades but the character and well-being) are but a few of the ways that we, as teachers, use to measure our school’s success. Arguably, they are judgements which happen on a far more regular basis and with much more rigor, yet they pale into insignificance when the team of five HMIs descend on the school for their two day visit. The ones whose outcome is decided by your Data Dashboard, much before their Deathstar ominously approaches the coned area on the staff car park at 7.45am the morning of that first day.


Ofsted as the bogeyman

Those poor Ofsted inspectors, hated by all for simply doing their job. Why, oh why, is this so? Teachers near and far look down with indignation upon these soulless ones who have chosen to turn away from the light. We should not forget that they too are mere mortals. Before casting our own prejudiced judgements, maybe we should try to see things with a different perspective? Perhaps these inspectors joined the ranks with a view to helping people, making a difference to schools or challenging what they believed was a flawed inspection system? All of which some feel you can only do from the inside. Even if you are in utter disagreement with all of this, please hold on to your fear and loathing for a little longer. Consider the thought that, if you are a leader of strong moral fibre and running a good* school, then does life change following the verdict? In some cases it may be so but in most the answer is probably not. Having had experience of numerous inspections with a variety of outcomes in my career, I look back and see what a waste of energy it was being angry and feeling wounded at judgements which never actually changed the way I worked as a classroom practitioner, or for that matter, as a senior leader. What has made me modify and refine my practice is self-reflection and the reflection of the teams that I have worked with, a tool that teachers and schools themselves use on a daily basis, as is the nature of our vocation.

Equally, what I have been unfortunate enough to observe is that of some leaders in schools, local authorities and private companies using the threat of the “O” word as a vehicle to drive their own personal agendas forward (sometimes well intentioned, if not misguided). A complete misinterpretation of the Guidance for Inspection some years ago laid the foundation for schools across the country to adopt a corporate three and four part lesson approach in every classroom (I don’t disagree that this works for some teachers but I do feel that it should be a choice). As well as many other ludicrously disenchanting concepts of what Ofsted want to seeremember showing “progress every 20 minutes? It seems that the fear of Ofsted (much like the threat of sending me to the naughty girls’ home that my parents used on me as a child) is enough to terrify most teachers into submission and the acceptance of ridiculously inhibiting practices without question. In addition to this, do those leading schools feel that the mention of this supreme being serves not only to admonish them from the guilt of how they treat staff but also from the responsibility of their actions? It saddens me that people would choose to use scare mongering folklore to introduce ideas rather than being transparent about their intentions. Perhaps it is their own fear and lack of confidence to question “the powers that be” which fuels it? After all, as a senior leader a single mistake made could cost you your job, your pension or more importantly, your sanity!

Life after Ofsted

Having worked in schools who have been on the receiving end of both good and bad Ofsted reports, life after the inspection changes very little for most teachers. In my previous school, over monitoring, endless red tape, continual lesson observations were the norm. We received a “good” judgement in our 2009 inspection which was well-deserved because of the dedication teachers showed to the deprived community that the school served. This was achieved despite of all the bureaucracy that was enforced upon us. Following the judgement did our lives get any easier? No. In fact, the monitoring and box ticking worsened, in the head’s unreasonable and unattainable (based on data) desire to become outstanding. In the summer term of 2012 the school was inspected again under what was the “new framework”, this time staff thought they were to receive a requires improvement judgement, which became inadequate when the report was published based on the data of a particularly bad year group at that time. This was incredibly near-sighted as the year group in question were a blip on what had been a four year upward trend (and one which is still improving) but nontheless the devastating judgement was cast for the world to see. A judgement which marred my colleagues and friends, the children they taught and the community they served. As I no longer worked there, I could only offer a sympathetic ear to their front-line stories of disbelief and despair, my words of support and encouragement being a futile attempt to offer any solace. In the short term, the reality of the result for the school was incredibly personal, it affected the professional self-esteem of staff as well as their personal well-being. It left a community reeling and the hundreds of hard working young people who were currently studying there wondering what they had done wrong. However, did this judgement actually change anything? Well, just as the sky didn’t fall in for Chicken Little, neither did it for the staff and students. There wasn’t any more lesson observations, monitoring or box ticking that could be done because they were already being monitored within an inch of their lives before “the visit”, so that didn’t increase. They already did as many meetings and after school clubs/classes as was physically possible so there wasn’t any more hours left in the day to beat themselves any further about their failings in the eyes of the inspectors. The staff just kept plugging away and working as hard as they’d done before, knowing that their actions made a difference to the lives of the children that they taught. The head reassured the students and staff that it wasn’t their fault and they should carry on regardless, which they all dutifully did.

My current school suffered a similar judgement, moving from a 2 at our previous inspection to a 3 in 2013. The approaches of the two headteachers in question could not have been more different to the way the schools had been run but both of them believed in staying true to their principles and working for the greater good. Incidentally, both have since come out the other side, having been deemed “good” in their most recent inspections.


A poor judgement at the hands of Ofsted does offer a number of opportunities for unscrupulous HMI trained individuals. In the aftermath of requires improvement or worse, local authorities are all too eager to enforce the services of such characters on schools in an effort to drive up standards and wave that magic wand. These people seem to descend on the school equipped with a tool bag of quick fixes and this is what the inspectors will want to see, which, as we know, is all smoke and mirrors. Quite often, the findings of the inspection report tends to fit with the data in a school’s RAISE, with very little else proving to matter. I do like to think that there are a number of consultants who believe in the greater good and genuinely want to help, however, to accept a payment of up to £600 per day from schools whose funds are bleeding out should be grounds for their morals to be questioned, should it not?


Following our requiring improvement grade and in an effort to further understand the basis on which inspection judgements were made, my current school sent both myself and another senior leadership colleague on an Everything but badged course ran by an ex-HMI. The premise of this course was to train us in the dark arts so that we would be fully equipped to beat Ofsted at its own game for a princely sum. It was certainly a revelation, giving me both reassurance and support for what I already knew. In turn, fueling my synicism further and making my righteous indignation more prevalent than before. The HMI started the training with the disclaimer that all thoughts were his own not those of the agencies for which he served. This was quickly followed by a number of anti-Ofsted fuelled headlines filled with the usual angry rhetoric from disgruntled headteachers arguing that judgements made by inspection teams were driven purely by the data. He explained that it was our job over the following days to decide whether or not those claims bore any truth. Within the first two hours of the course, the members of the group were in unanimous agreement that data was in fact the only factor on which a school’s judgement was placed (which we already knew but was now being confirmed by someone “in the know”). It also reminded me of the old adage: all that glitters is not gold. We had gone looking for a quick fix and paid the price, walking away with a handful of magic beans and gaining no further knowledge to beat the system. It did reaffirm our belief of staying true to our principles, trusting in our staff and students and knowing that once the data was more positive we would come from under our black cloud.

The danger of the data

The key message from our two-day insight into the life of a HMI was it’s all about the data. If your data suggested your school was outstanding, it gave carte blanche for whatever practices you saw fit, if your data said you were requiring improvement then even the sight of miracles in front of them would do little to change inspectors’ minds. Herein lies the reason why so many schools go to unethical measures to get students to pass exams, leaving those schools who work on a more moral high-ground at odds with the system. The greater the emphasis given test data above everything else, the more likely schools are to place their efforts on this as their end goal rather than the lifelong learning and character education of the children in their care. Thankfully, the government does seem to be aware of this and is taking steps to address it, although, with their love of league tables and performance related statistics perhaps their stance is questionable? Could it be that Nicky Morgan’s continual orations about importance of the arts and character development are just platitudes in a sea of “good GCSEs”, Progress 8 and “coasting” school measures?

Casting aspersions on itself

I was glad to read that Ofsted itself is cracking down on those inspectors who contribute to school “mocksteds” in exchange for princely sums of money. The DfE will also be challenging the schools that spend chunks of their budgets on these pointless exercises. This is more disheartening. Rather than holding these schools to account, they should be looking at why senior leadership teams are desperate enough to spend ridiculous amounts of money from an ever-shinking budget in the hope of keep the wolves at bay, rather than on provision for the students. Arguably the government should be creating a supportive, co-operative environment which nurtures excellence for all. This doesn’t mean a lack of accountability, this means more opportunity for the experts, who are doing the job day-in-day-out, to challenge and improve each other’s practice through school to school support. James Croft in Tuesday’s edition of TES observed that “even the DfE has given up on the Ofsted reform“, adding further support for the argument that Ofsted has become a dinosaur on the verge of extinction. Nicky Morgan herself, who has less eloquently sold the definition of “coasting schools” to the general public, is posing her own threat to this outdated and antiquated body by giving further credence to threshold figures (albeit flawed ones). An increase in performance measures will see the need for inspectors become redundant as schools will be judged solely on the data they produce. Ironically, most teachers believe that data has been the starting point (and overwhelming judgemental factor) for inspections over the last few years anyway, so Ofsted itself seems to have been complicit in its own demise.

Could the removal of Ofsted mean taking the humanity out of school inspections?

I’ve used this blog to shine a light on the irrelavance of the judgement that Ofsted makes on schools and to cast aspersions on the very institution of Her Majesty’s School Inspectorate itself. However, it is with a furrowed brow (in utter bemusement at myself) that I now argue for their input into the quality assurance of school provision. Admittedly, I am not at the point where I have decided what form that would take, I only know that the current system doesn’t work. I do however feel that an impartial body can offer perspective and sometimes an opposing point of view is good for headteachers to reflect on. That’s where we, in schools have gone wrong, we’ve taken advice and given it more credibility than it deserves.

Taking an inspection at face value and moving forward from it

An Ofsted inspection for many schools becomes an overwhelming and overarching judgement, with parental bodies and leadership teams placing emphasis on little else. Rather than using it among a number of resouces to form a balanced and reflective approach to continually improve our evolving education system, it has become our nemesis, but it is one of our own creation. So what can we do to address this? Is it right to place more emphasis on the scores on the doors and less on these humans who can be variable in their observations? Could this be a fatal error on our behalf? Are we to become even greater slaves to the data? Surely life after levels has given us the opportunity to become free of this burden to an extent? Perhaps we need to change our perspective, to be less afraid of the outcome and in turn more open to hearing the inspectors’ recommendations? As Tom so very elegantly put it, the best way to prepare for an Ofsted inspection is to be a “good” school. In essence, keep doing the right thing and don’t make knee-jerk reactions to a bad set of results or a shift in goal posts. As I alluded to before, the practice of *good schools doesn’t change based on a damning or resounding judgement and life for teachers in those schools remains the same regardless. In the schools where the practices do change in the wake of an inspection then perhaps they needed to or maybe the leadership of those schools needed to consider a change their approach? It’s evolution not revolution that is needed for continual improvement, an organic and supportive process driven by a person-centred approach. In the same way that removal of lesson judgements has been a welcome epiphany for staff, enabling them to better digest feedback about their teaching and therefore improving students’ learning, the removal of gradings for school inspections could mean a more collaborative and effective approach for all. It is up to us at the chalk face to make it happen.

*good in the moral sense of the word not the Ofsted grade

Why doesn’t personalised learning apply to staff as well as students?


As we start our well-deserved summer break, most of us are too delirious with excitement to reflect on the year that has just concluded let alone look ahead to the one that lies before us. However, if we don’t look at the past with a critical eye then how can we improve the provision for the future?
I’ve always felt like a square peg in a round hole, I’ve never been one of those teachers that can teach to a formulaic plan of starter, exploration, consolidation, plenary, check progress every 15 seconds, etc… I’ve just done what works for me, practised it and hopefully, improved my provision over time. Working in a school where the approach is very corporate (every child must experience the same diet in every classroom across every subject) can prove difficult and disheartening for teachers who like to approach their teaching as I do, who enjoy the challenge of taking a risk or two in their learning environment to give the students the most purposeful experience possible. I can understand why schools do it; teaching can be variable and how can we as senior leaders, ensure that the children in our care get the best chances in life through the education we provide for them? This is where leadership teams must be brave and apply the same logic to their staff as they do their students – personalised learning for everyone. Thankfully, for the last four years I’ve been at a school that has shared my vision for creativity and encouraged a unique approach to teaching and learning. It is a place that has also felt like the square peg; putting the well-being and character development of students and staff at the heart of its ethos when everyone around us seemed to putting league tables and performance before anything else. That’s not to say that results are not important, we all know the importance of a good education; GCSE grades and A levels can mean opportunity for some students. We owe this to the children in our care but not at the cost of their mental health or personal happiness.
Balance is imperative. At times, it can feel like a difficult and lonely journey, being a solitary voice in a sea of bureaucracy and hoop jumping but it is then when leaders must follow a moral compass in order to ride out the storm. Hopefully, teachers are beginning to realise that the tide is turning, ethos goes beyond any political agenda and more schools are working out that education has to be the constant in the various tumultuous seas in which it sits. A recent experience of Ofsted also reiterated this sentiment. The inspection itself felt more of a helpful process focused around dialogue than in previous visits.
It is heartening to work with like minds and realise that we are not alone. The internet makes this search for kindred spirits much easier, networking with schools and individuals from all over the globe who not just share but also challenge our beliefs can only prove to strengthen our provision for students in the long run. One of the individuals I have been lucky enough to work with is Martin Robinson, author of the fabulous Trivium: 21c. The work he has done with our staff has been invaluable in provoking discussion about the importance of a good education, which has turned into proactive approaches by staff to develop the ideas of the trivium. His visits have enabled us as to challenge staff attitudes and develop opportunities to keep the conversations, and in turn improvement going.

Where do we start?

With staff development, the premise that no teacher ever comes into school wanting to do a bad job must always be the starting point. Furthermore, it must be a continual source of reference when, at times, senior leaders become frustrated. It is important to remember that, leaders in schools are in these positions because they possess a certain amount of personal ambition and aptitude; have had a certain amount of good fortune (or not at times) and happenstance. Not all teachers share our drive, this too is ok. Too many headteachers become angry with staff who do not work in their way rather than encouraging those staff to achieve the best that they are capable of. When this frustration creeps in it’s important to keep sight of the Harper Lee quote:

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

What might seem reasonable and achievable to an accomplished classroom practitioner and highly respected senior leader on £50000 a year, may be completely unreasonable or unachievable to classroom teacher paid half that amount with half as much free time.
I promised that as I moved up through the ranks I would never lose sight of what life was like at the chalk face teaching 22 periods out of 25 a week, doing countless duties,  running numerous extra-curricular activities and still having the passion and desire to support the school trip in what should be your holidays. This is where we start, looking at those staff who go above and beyond every single day. They may not be the best classroom practitioners but their heart is in everything they do. It’s our duty as school leaders to support and develop these staff in a way that encourages them to take chances and learn from mistakes whilst continuing to nurture their enthusiasm and passion. No one would disagree that the character students build and lessons they learn from extra-curricular experience is equally if not more-so beneficial than any amazing lesson on Pythagoras’ Theorem. This is why CPD must be purposeful, thoughtful, useful and inspiring.

Trusting staff to identify their own areas for development

I’m a messy cook, I know this. The end product of my cooking tastes great but the carnage left in my wake is heartbreaking for the clean up team afterwards. Over time I’ve tried to get more efficient at tidying as I go along to limit the aftermath (which I have done) but I know it’s something I continually need to work on. However, when my partner tells me how messy I am and what a bombsite the kitchen is, you can guarantee that the next time I do cook (which may be some time in the distant future) I use every pan I can, welding a variety of culinary delights onto the metalware as I do! Most people are naturally reflective and know their weaknesses without someone from above pointing this out so what about using this process of self-reflection to plan staff CPD which can be then linked into their appraisal targets thus setting something which is much more valuable to everyone than a coerced box ticking exercise that’s not looked at until the following year when either jubilation or disappointment ensues?

Another thing people don’t like is criticism. We have to accept it but we tend to be more willing if it comes from someone we respect, a friend or perhaps our equal. Hierarchical criticism can sometimes make staff feel like their card is marked. So would it not make sense to group staff with peers and respected colleagues getting one another to be critical friends thus taking the judgement out of the conversation and helping them all move forward together?

Balancing the differing needs of everyone with the needs of the whole school

Leadership teams should look at what everyone needs to know and this must be on the CPD calendar but they shouldn’t clog up teachers’ time with unnecessary INSET. The best gift you can give to a teacher is time and the promise of protecting that time for the purpose of whatever it is that colleague needs to work on. Leadership teams need to look at the talent that is in front of them and how precious their time is. What is the point in making the best teacher on your staff go to yet another INSET on questioning when they’ve already led the last two of them?! Being brave enough to make the right choices for their students and staff is another responsibility of a concientious leadership team. It is always worthwhile asking: Will this be something that will make a difference? Is this something that is purposeful and sustainable or is this jumping on the next government initiative?

Stay true to your core principles and beliefs. No one knows your school better than you and your staff do.

Education…is a painful, continual and difficult work to be done in kindness, by watching, by warning: by praise, but above all, by example.

John Ruskin

The litmus test must always be Is this right for our students and staff? If it’s not then don’t do it. You can put money on the fact that just at the point when you’ve got everyone using and applying the latest buzz word so that it’ll be burgeoisie, the next initiative/acronym will be beating down the door ready to bemuse and demoralise staff and students alike. A term that literary editors use when casting a critical eye over a piece of writing is be sure to KISS it (keep it simple stupid – harsh but effective). If personal development is simple for the staff involved, they are much more likely to engage with the programme rather than avoid it!



Dialogue is important

Conversation (in person not electronically) is key in delivering purposeful and personalised CPD that will be useful for your school. Dialogue is at the heart of this. Listening to what staff are saying, hearing their criticism and responding to it is just as important as getting the SLT message across. A lot of the time, a global overview and experience means that senior leaders do know better but this is not always the case so it is vital that the conversations you have with staff are professional dialogues not monologues. This not only strengthens relationships with individuals but helps to build your credibility and trust among the entire staff body.

Another term that editors use is show don’t tell. Our role as leaders is to illuminate the way, it is not to enforce my way or the highway expectations that teachers couldn’t ever dream of meeting. Coaching is an excellent way to do this. Not all staff are coaches but spotting the naturals in your school and using them to work with colleagues is one of the most effective ways of implementing sustainable change. Be aware that this change takes time, it is not something that happens overnight so stick with it!

Positive communication is important. Think about how your interactions make staff feel, are you building them up or knocking them down? We’d never let the latter happen to a child in our care and yet sometimes some senior leaders are guilty of doing this to staff.

Rome wasn’t built in a day

Blanket CPD complemented by blanket monitoring the following week will ensure that everyone in the school is using Bloom’s or doing their DUMTUMs. However, teachers will be doing so without an understanding of why they are doing it and whether or not teachers mechanically going through the motions is actually having a positive impact on the students will be questionable. That is why the continual conversation is key. It is why personalised CPD, just like personalised learning, takes time, determination and lots of effort at a senior management level. Remember, the biggest mixed ability group you’ll ever come across is in your staffroom (if your school is lucky enough to still have one). True understanding for everyone will take place at different paces and to different depths but this can only happen through continual conversation and perseverance from everyone. Harnessing the intrinsic motivation of each and every one of the staff along the way is a great vehicle for embedding practice. The only way to do this is by enabling appraisal and CPD to be a journey taken together with every member of staff rather than a legislature that is enforced on them. Our business is the business of people, building character and developing future generations to come. You can’t place performance targets on something as unique and beautiful as the human soul so why do the government and, in turn school leaders even try?