“Ofsted should not inspire us”

So said @steve_munby to a packed hall during the Inspiring Leadership conference last week in Birmingham. He went on to clarify that Ofsted are regulators and have a clear and important purpose in ensuring standards are met by schools but they should not dictate school development plans. That, implied Steve, is what Headteachers get paid for. The strategic direction and the overarching vision that drives a school forward should be the work of school professionals not school regulators.

I agree.


…before I attended the conference I was having a professional chin-wag with @PrimaryHead1 (and it was professional; we didn’t talk about game of thrones, vinyl or what he wanted as a leaving present from his school (he wants money, no gift, just money so he can update his ‘assembly book’ collection-I’ve never heard such nonsense. Trust me, Threshers will do very well that day)). Anyway, we were having a professional conversation and I was saying that what this country needs more than a no notice inspection is a system of education that considers itself RI.

Yes, I said it. Consider yourselves all requiring improvement.

Why do I say this? Not because I’m lonely being an RI head. Not because I’m jealous of all you good and outstanding swines. Not because I have a Govian mind-set that we’re all rubbish until we’ve proved that we’re not completely rubbish. Not because I’m not creative. Not because I’m negative. Not because I don’t think my teachers are good or that my pupils achieve.

No, I think this because sometimes being RI is great. It’s liberating. It focuses the mind and forces you to go back to basics:

  • Make sure the primary experience is brilliant.
  • Get the teaching of English and maths tip top.
  • Make topics fun and interesting.
  • Get children to love learning.
  • Show them that positive behaviour works and is easier than being an aggressive, rude little grumpy boots.
  • Help out the disadvantaged so they have a fighting chance in life.
  • Enable the staff to lead and enjoy the challenge of working hard.

See, easy. Nice and simple ain’t it.

The best thing is that when you’re RI you’re allowed to ignore stuff. Well, I don’t know if you’re actually allowed, but I have, on many occasion, ignored emails, hit delete, replied ‘no’ and told people to just leave me alone. I have freed myself from gubbins and trust me, it feels good.

If it isn’t on ofsted’s ‘what this school needs to do list’ I’m not interested. So far, I seem to be getting away with it too. More importantly, the school is improving and, in case you’re wondering, it’s a nice school to work at and it’s a lovely school to be educated in. We’re not boring. I’m not a SATS dragon. I just want to focus on great teaching, achievement and making the school a really, really, really good school.

Occasionally another head will ask me: how are you preparing for this or that. At this point I normally pop on my shades, put a matchstick between my teeth, smile and say ‘Don’t bother me Daddio, I’m RI’ then I hit the duke box and we all start jiving.

Imagine if we could all do that? British Values curriculum…behave, we’ve got children to teach. An Olympic legacy plan…um no, that’s just silly. Nonsense word phonic test…I think I’ll just get them to read normally thanks.

We wouldn’t have to put up with the reactionary nationwide initiatives that come about because something not good happened to one school somewhere in Britain and the government think the public expects them to make us all do something new so that it doesn’t happen to us. Being RI gives you the strength to pick and choose and be bloody minded – that isn’t going to help raise my standards so I’m not going to do it, sorry.

So my SDP is gleefully littered with Ofsted inspiration. What would Steve say? What will I do when we get judged ‘good’? I don’t know. And that’s why Steve Munby’s speech has made me think. At the moment I am using Ofsted; they are my weapon for getting the school where I want it. What happens when I get there is another issue. I will no longer be able to hide; I’ll have to join in with all the other schools and do as I’m told. More importantly, I’ll have to think for myself and come up with some grand vision for the school that, at the moment, is mysteriously out of my reach.

Hey, maybe I’ll have greater capacity to improve so I can bolt these initiatives and expectations onto my SDP and it will be fine…or maybe that will cause me to take my eye off the ball: I’ve failed to make floor targets but on the other hand the school does now have a solar panel roof.

I want to have grand visions. I want to create a school that is a shining example of 21st century education. I want to go to outstanding and beyond. But I’m scared. I’m scared that just wanting a really good primary school isn’t good enough, and soon I’ll be powerless to stop myself from getting overblown and overstretched.

So please, can we all decide to be RI and get on with teaching and learning? (Sorry Steve)

Ofsted Inspections: Fairly without fear or favour…who are you kidding?


It is hard trying to run an organisation whilst simultaneously trying to improve it: this is made doubly hard when you are doing so in an open environment. When you are constantly made aware of the unpopularity  of your decisions  by the very people whom you are trying to improve or trying to make improvements for. It really doesn’t help then, when the people above you behave in a way that makes you wish you could put them on the naughty step until they’re sorry – voicing their opinions which seem to contradict previous agreements, or putting pressure on you to change course. So no wonder that Wilshaw is ‘spitting blood’ over some of Gove’s alleged words and actions against Ofsted.

Poor Wilshaw, I thought, that really has the potential to ruin your weekend. Then I read another quote from Wilshaw about Ofsted: ‘As long as we exist we will do the job fairly, without fear or favour’. And at this point I had to laugh at the sheer self-pitying and self-indulgent notion of this statement. How about you, Sir Michael, consider those F words from the perspective of the people who are at the mercy of your blunt instrument of torture improvement.


Is Ofsted fair? I am the first to agree that schools need support and validation from an independent and external body in order to help improve achievement for all children in the country. But is the current system fair? No. A system cannot be described as being fair when it lacks a key ingredient for fairness: consistency.

I strive for consistency. I truly believe that it is the key for sustained school improvement. Find out what works and do it well. If you apply this to any aspect of school life it will have a positive impact right across the school. Yet it is impossible to apply this to Ofsted. Having recently heard a Head who is in the middle of their training to be an inspector, I was alarmed when he said the following:

‘The entire focus was on how to fill in the evaluation forms: you don’t write a judgmental statement down unless you can back it up with evidence. You have to be able to have a chain of evidence that backs up the reason behind your judgement.’

That sounds ok doesn’t it…but he continued:

‘We then saw examples of a lesson and we had to evaluate it as if we were carrying out an inspection. Around the trainees in the room, our judgement on the quality of teaching varied from inadequate to good. I suggested that this was something we should probably discuss but was told the variety in judgements did not matter…all that mattered was that we each could refer to evidence behind our judgements. It didn’t matter what we thought only that we could argue it.’

How is that fair? How can a school’s inspection result being mainly determined by the lead inspector’s whim and own personal interpretation of what the school ought to be doing be a fair system through which to judge the quality of education across the country?

Without Fear

Is it any wonder that schools fear Ofsted? When it is so transparently clear that schools are not judged in a consistent or fair manner you can’t blame schools for living Monday to Wednesday 2:00pm in a state of fear. How can you prepare for something when you have no idea what tangent the inspection will go off on? Is the lead an early year’s specialist, a data obsessive (which normally means they can only interpret data if it’s presented in a way they like), someone who has judged the school before entering, someone who values PE above everything else, someone who prefers a particular teaching method? There is no consistency in what individual inspectors are looking for or think, so, schools cannot trust the teams entering their school.

I appreciate that every school is different but that doesn’t mean inspections should vary so wildly. Inspections should be focused on the consistent effectiveness of schools over time. They should gather information and work with the leadership team to find out how good the school is based on agreed national expectations (no data myths) and against the school’s contextual information. We would all know where we stand and we would all be able to welcome Ofsted into our schools.

Without Favour

Actually the idea that Ofsted aren’t doing anyone any favours isn’t wildly inaccurate – but that’s probably not what Wilshaw was inferring. (I get it Mike, and you have my permission to charge into every free school like a massive bull in a tiny china shop and go knock yourself out.) I want to love Ofsted. In my particular experience I got the result the school needed in order to help get everyone on board with my improvement plan.  But the inspection itself was a truly horrendous experience that did nothing to suggest that Ofsted are robust bastions of education. Instead I felt that it was a hoop, a barbed wired hoop being held by an ignorant bully, which I had to squeeze my school through in order to get on with improving my school. That is not right.

So I support Wilshaw’s rhetoric of ‘fairness without fear and without favour’ but after he’s got to the bottom of his gripes with Gove – he’s still got a long way to go.

How many pupils does it take to get inadequate?


I’ve just had an HMI visit. It wasn’t an official 6 weeks after Ofsted visit; it was one out of the three support visits that any requires improvement school is entitled to before the next full inspection.

I dictated the day and had telephone conversations and emails with my inspector who just asked me to make sure that the day was useful to me. ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘nothing that I see will trigger an inspection’ (except safeguarding issues such as, oh I don’t know, a child leaving your premises and being missing for an hour) ‘and nothing that I recommend needs to be obeyed-it’s just some extra help’.

Now, I could have sent him to areas of the school that I know we’ve improved with the aim of getting some validation. But in all seriousness: why waste an opportunity! No, I welcome the challenge and advice. Plus I genuinely, one hundred percent respect this particular inspector- he is painfully astute at times and his approach is purely supportive to the point that I  may be developing a serious man-crush.

It was a tough old day. He did see some ropey lessons and worse he saw them with me meaning I had to say it as I saw it (or at least how I knew he saw it) in order to make sure he didn’t back out of his agreement not to trigger a full section 5. But by the end of the day he was left assured that we were ‘on the right track’.

Lesson observations: they got more abuse on twitter than Michael Gove at an NUT rally. The main grudge seems to be: don’t judge me as a teacher based on one lesson – and if you’re talking purely ofsted that one lesson becomes 20 minutes of a lesson. I understand the frustrations felt by teachers and have written about it before with the main thrust of my argument being a good SLT should not judge the quality of teaching on an observation but through a variety of evidence.

Take my handsome challenging HMI inspector. He saw lessons that could be judged inadequate but after looking at books and planning and talking to my middle leaders he was satisfied that the lesson did not reflect the day to day quality of teaching. So I was pleased because overall he was satisfied that my claims of school improvement were not just hot air and he was pleased because I was able to come out and say a lesson was inadequate.

Inadequate. It is such a horribly loaded word that has no supporting features whatsoever. When uttered all it does is break people. But we are all going to have to grit our teeth and accept the fact that it is part of the fabric of school improvement. It hurts – no, in fact it stings. It smarts more than the public humiliation of defecating into your swimming trunks after belly-flopping off the top diving board (er…I imagine). And the immediate response is denial or trying to nonchalantly shrug it off as unimportant but you can’t accept the fact that everyone can see poo dripping down your leg as you get out of the pool someone believes that you just taught really badly.

20 minutes. That really gets on people’s nerves. Can you really judge a lesson to be inadequate after only 20 minutes? Look at it from a different perspective: in 20 minutes worth of a lesson, learning didn’t occur. Does that still sound harsh? Probably. Well get a load of this: it may be because in 20 minutes worth of lesson, learning didn’t occur for some pupils. What? I know. It’s tough. But I watched three children on the carpet (subtly) do nothing for ten minutes. They didn’t engage, they didn’t really answer any questions and then when they went off to do their work they didn’t really know what to do. I looked in their book and they were doing the same work as everyone else. Plus, the teacher didn’t go near them-they stayed with the SEN group-it’s as if those three children had gone unnoticed under the radar. But it’s only three pupils! How many pupils does it take to get inadequate? (In other words: how low are your expectations?)

In 20 minutes, that will get you an inadequate. Why? Not because three children in 20 minutes didn’t make progress at a significant rate; but because the teacher did nothing about it. Now, this is why a lesson observation should only be part of the process. Planning over time, work in books over time might show great learning over time for those pupils and all the others. If it does: great you are a good+ teacher. However, if planning over time shows you don’t cater for those pupils’ needs, if work in books show no progress or clear differentiation and assessment is either static or inaccurate then what I saw in those 20 minutes starts to take on more serious connotations.

As a school leader I try really, really hard to make sure my staff understand that lesson observations offer a snapshot: give me a way in. If they tally with planning, work in books, assessments and progress then it gives me an overall assessment of the value for money of your teaching over time. If it doesn’t tally (lesson was awful:  everything else fine; lesson was great: everything else ain’t) then it gives me somewhere to start supporting you. HMI saw that this was the case and left saying, ok I saw some not great stuff in lessons but I think those lessons were anomalies and all other evidence suggests that teaching and achievement is improving.

However this still leaves us with a conundrum: could a school get ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ if ofsted only saw requires improvement or inadequate lessons? Truly good and better schools will have all the other evidence to suggest that they are indeed good or better. And even the best teachers can mess up a lesson or even lessons (because remember, how many pupils have to not make progress to form a poor judgement). It is also possible (in terms of probability) that in one school at one given point in time, every teacher in the school will deliver inadequate lessons (one or more pupils not making visible progress in a twenty minutes time frame) throughout the day. But if EVERYTHING else indicates the contrary, will ofsted’s overall judgement overrule this fact? Will we ever read an outstanding ofsted report that reads: ‘the inspectors observed 15 lessons over one day and all were judged to be inadequate: the quality of teaching and achievement in this school is outstanding’?

I don’t know..but it sounds like a bloody good challenge!