When you’re all told to attend a whole staff briefing at 3:20, you know something is up. And sure enough, it was: last Monday we were informed that Ofsted would be in the very next day. You could hear awkward gulps in the near-silence of the staff-room as we anxiously awaited details.
Our last Ofsted had come 4 years ago, and I vividly remembered it as a stressful period. But there’s a lot of talk about how Ofsted have changed and are now showing a more humane side. So did we find this to be true?
Laid out on our staffroom coffee table was a recent issue of the TES with the headline, “Teaching loses its fear of Ofsted the bogeyman.” Just in the nick of time, I thought. But we’ve all heard horror stories of Ofsted, haven’t we? And teachers do obsess about what Ofsted will be on the hunt for: they say they’re looking for this, but really they’re looking for that etc.
I have to say I had a lot of respect for our Head of School as he calmly told us to teach as normal, and that the inspection days would be “business as usual”. He said he was proud of us for the work we did and this was just an opportunity to show this to outsiders. No hammers were handed out to smash out the “emergency Ofsted lesson plans.”
This briefing already had a very different feel from when Ofsted visited before. At that time, we were told the school was staying open very late and there was quite a lot of soft pressure on teachers to put in silly hours. Now, we were told the school would not be opening late and we were discouraged from martyring ourselves for the cause. I managed to finish work at around 21:30 on both eves of Ofsted, when previously I’d stayed up well beyond this.
Of course, a calmer SLT doesn’t necessarily mean Ofsted has changed. To a large extent they were more confident because they’d been getting ready for this very event for the last few years. The expression used a lot was ‘Ofsted Ready’: SEN and PP folders to hand, SEFs and SDPs completed, VA crunched. More importantly, I’m sure they’d argue, they’d put a huge amount of effort into raising the standards of teaching at the school.
Will this be the case at all schools? No. Lots of teachers will still be having stressful times with Ofsted, and often this will have little to do with the teacher’s competence or preparation, but everything to do with the general leadership, organisation and routines at their school. An Ofsted inspection is very much of a school, and individual teachers should resist taking negative feedback too personally. I was simply fortunate to be working at my school in this situation.
When it’s too late
When it dawns on you that Ofsted might be in on any of your lessons the very next day, your first reaction is, of course, “Oh sh*t.” It’s nice of leadership to say “business as normal” but you wonder whether your ‘normal’ is enough – and how it’s now too late to change it. Is the behaviour in my classes OK? Have I gotten the students into good habits? Will Ofsted like the particular colour palette of marking we’ve gone for (or is that so Spring/Summer 2016?)? I’m prone to feverishly double-checking, and to preparing contingency plans for unlikely but potentially disastrous events (‘What if the students finish everything in ten minutes and I’m just standing there in awkward silence?’) I was certainly appreciative of my colleagues being supportive and willing to help out with resources.
Fortunately at our school we had already been expected to keep a fairly up-to-date ‘teaching file’ with the standard document for each class: seating plans, IEPs, attainment data from SIMs. Putting these together hadn’t been everybody’s favourite task at the start of the autumn term, but we were glad to have them now. We hadn’t had them the previous inspection, and there had been quite a frenzy of activity at the photocopiers.
From scrutiny to snapshot
From a teacher’s point of view, by far the most noticeable change with Ofsted was in lesson observations. In the last inspection we knew there was a chance we’d receive an in-depth, high-scrutiny lesson observation with full feedback and a final judgement on that lesson. Lots of teachers dreaded receiving these final judgements. At lunch the staffroom had been a tense place, where some teachers came in confessing to having received ‘Inadequate’ or ‘Requires Improvement’, feeling like failures who had let down their friends. Proud but inconsiderate colleagues burst in declaring how great their ‘Outstanding’ lesson went (and how little they had planned for it).
This time, things were very different. We knew that we would not be receiving individual judgements, and observations were generally shorter – more ‘snapshots’ than full-on, blood and guts dissections. It’s still quite an exhausting and nerve-testing experience, teaching with one eye on the door, waiting for the knock. In one lesson I taught I got to ten minutes to the end and I’d already breathed a sigh of relief, thinking “Phew, they definitely won’t come in now, right at the end.” But they did.
I’ve talked to a few teachers who are a bit miffed that Ofsted didn’t see more of them. But the same happened last time. It’s a bit like being on The Great British Bake Off, if you’ve just put hours and hours into the showstopper, but in the end they only nibble on one scone. Yes, the scone is lovely, but have you seen what I’ve done with the pistachio and raspberry eclairs?..
What did the students think?
I asked my Year 9 form for their view of the two days. Students were in typical disagreement about whether teachers “act differently” with observers just around the corner. One student shrugged and explained why Ofsted wasn’t a big deal for any of them: “It can’t give us any new information because we already know what our school is like, and we’re going to know that better than a few adults who visit for a couple of days.”
But my favourite comment was this one. A student had suspicions about what he’d seen in the corridors. He said, “I saw one of the inspectors with sheets of paper and they waited until there were students coming and they intentionally dropped some sheets of paper. They were testing whether students were nice enough to pick it up.” I asked him if he was nice and picked up the paper. He said, “No, not when it was a trick like that.”
Ultimately I didn’t feel like Ofsted were out to trick us, out to get us. Members of SLT at my school have said they found they were given a more reasonable timeframe and set of instructions to prepare for meetings. Teachers on the whole found the threat of observations a little less terrifying. I concur that the ‘bogeyman’ reputation of Ofsted is slowly being shed.
But have I simply found myself at the right school, at the right time? Feel free to add your own experiences of Ofsted below.
On a final note, I was very proud to hear that my SLT had referred Ofsted to some Happy Teacher survey results. Do you think your school would benefit from collecting your views? Spread the word about us at your school! Perhaps one day Ofsted will be able to get a picture of the teacher’s experience of any school in the country before they even get there.
[Image credit to Theilr]