Ten things I gained from my swim in the Ofsted waters

Back in November 2021 my school faced an Ofsted visit. Considering Ofsted had called to visit in the days pre-lockdown1, and been told that we were extremely low in numbers due to Covid-19, we knew it was coming.

I had experienced Ofsted twice before this visit. The first one was a early years inspection in between my University years at my mum’s business, a children’s nursery. It was the worse of the three, mainly because they arrive in the morning (no pre-warning!) and then literally sit in the room with you for a long period of time whilst you go about your business playing with the babies, feeding them, getting them down for naps – whilst a continuous stream of questions rained on you. It was a high level of scrutiny. It was a successful inspection, but as an introduction to Ofsted for a wannabe teacher, it was probably not ideal.

My second experience was at my last school. There was, as per the old framework, a feeling of intense stress with the impending arrival. Lots of well-intentioned changes taking place, their arrival met with a late night of marking books and creating lesson plans, followed by a sense of crushing disappointment where I didn’t even see an inspector for the whole day, let alone have any part of my lesson watched (and those lesson plans which took hours remained in carefully colour-coded plastic wallets).

Roll on 2021, with a new framework, a focus on curriculum (the reason I became a HoD) and the choices leaders make. Based on in school department deep dives (a really useful process which helped to prepare me for the real thing and reflect on how we needed to improve – not the same as Mocksted!) I felt that middle leaders, and particularly department leads, were the focus of this new framework. And as a Head of English, I knew they were coming for me. BUT I did no extra preparation for their impending visit. No changes, no data analysis, no lesson plans. Just carrying on with considering how we could be better day-in-day-out, for the sake of no-one from Ofsted, and just for the kids.

They came, they saw, we … did well, I suppose. If you want to know what was said about the department in the report, I’ve put a snippet at the bottom of the blog. Overall it was a healthy process, one that sought to check that all the dots were joined up. This is the best analogy I can use and have used since when I’ve spoken to other schools and their leaders about the process. They were checking that everything joined up – was what the head said true at a whole school level, was what I said true at a department level? Do the classrooms, students, teachers, speak of the same things that I said at the start of the day? Or was I just lying and talking nonsense? I think that’s a fair process. I talked about the journey we had been on in the department and where we were on that journey (obviously not at the end, whoever thinks the curriculum is finished doesn’t understand it) and he just checked that this was all in order.

Below are 10 things I took from the process which might be useful, and, hopefully, reassuring, to those who know it is coming!

1. No need to drown in paperwork

So this one does come with a slight caveat, but I would definitely say that there was no expectation to arrive with folders of paperwork. In fact, I wasn’t asked for a single thing to look at. There is literally no need to have paperwork ready, and if someone tells you you need to have lots to show them … they’re lying.

However, a caveat to all of this: I did arrive with some paperwork, but it was entirely my own choice. I took my curriculum maps, which are in the resource folder I give to all the members of my team at the start of the year (see contents in image below). This was just as a point of reference so I could talk through sequencing, and I found it a useful prop to have on hand. I did not use a single other document though.

2. They aren’t looking for buzz words (or are they?)

Another point which comes with a caveat, but, essentially, they aren’t working through a series of educational buzzwords, and expecting for you to parrot them back. The only word that I was expecting to be said and was indeed said was intent. The rest were formed as questions which sparked an interesting discussion; but on reflection, they could have just said “talk to me about [insert jargon here]” … because that was the intention. I don’t think this is to intentionally trick people – it’s because these things are important, and do form the foundations of a strong department, but it’s about the conversation around curriculum rather than whether you know what the words mean.

Some examples? I wasn’t told to “talk about sequencing” but instead I was told to “Pick a unit in your curriculum and talk about why you have included it and why it’s at that point, how it builds on previous units and leads on to the next ones” – or words to that effect. In other words, justify how you have sequenced your units of work. It’s a better way to be asked it, and I thought it was a great question – but it does take a really strong knowledge of what you’re setting out to do, and why everything is included, to answer it competently. For example “we teach that there because we always have” is not the answer they’re looking for. Another example of lack of buzz words was “How do you know your students are making progress throughout this curriculum” which is really asking about assessment and progress, without the word being used.

3. They want to know everyone is getting a good deal

And I mean the students, not the teachers (although there were some questions around staff wellbeing, so I suppose that might be a focus too!). There was a definite line of enquiry into how we set students, and then whether our curriculum is aimed at all students, and made accessible to all students. For example, the HMI I spoke to was a previous Head of English, so was familiar with the majority of texts we taught. We teach Animal Farm in the run up to Christmas in Y7 and whilst this may create some debate/criticism, I firmly believe it is the right decision for our students and context. And I was able to explain why the choice was made, and he was happy with my response.

This then created a discussion as to whether we teach the text to all of our students. I had to be honest (because he might speak to our older students and some didn’t study it historically) and explain that the text was phased in, initially taught to the higher sets, but for the past three years has been a text everyone has studied. He asked why that decision was made. I explained the reasons why (some were to do with having enough texts for the whole year group, etc), and how we want everyone to access the same literature, the same cultural capital, the same knowledge – but that the path of getting there might be different for some. The conversation then moved on. I’m not sure it would have done so if I had said that we keep the ‘high level literature’ for the top sets.

4. Your intent is really the decisions you make

I think it’s pretty easy to spout out an intent that everyone has learnt verbatim to keep an inspector happy. But the reality is that with curriculum, your intent should be evident in all of the decisions you have made and the journey you have been on. There was a phase of the conversation where he was getting to grips with the intent (not just happy with hearing me spout it out, obviously, which is good, because I obviously added a little *spice* to the phrasing on our documents) and just asking follow up questions to what I had said. How might your curriculum be considered broad? How does it help students to navigate the world? Sort of thing – these aren’t exact questions because to be frank, I can’t remember the exact follow up ones – but this is the vibe – your intent essentially isn’t all they’re interested in.

It’s about the actual decisions made in ensuring the intent gets implemented, and also how far you are along in that journey of implementing that intent. Nothing is as simple as How do you implement that intent? But instead they pick up on specific elements of what you’ve said and want concrete examples within the curriculum. Yet again, knowing what is being taught and when, and why, allows you to fully handle this conversation.

5. Understanding your curriculum sequence is key

This is a bit like the structure question for AQA English language – what happens when and why – is really what they want to know. There were questions over sequencing both in terms of knowledge and actual texts/units – how does one thing lead to another? Why is that placed there? How does the knowledge in Y9 build on the knowledge gained in Y8 … and how does it prepare them for Y10? Again, these aren’t the exact wording of the questions but these are the things I explained based on the open questions asked. There were questions asked across the school about how knowledge had been sequenced, and so a lack of knowledge within a curriculum would limit the ability to respond to this question.

If something in your curriculum isn’t designed to build on something that has already happened, or if the start of your curriculum doesn’t allow a foundation for what is to come, this is something to think about. Because, the way things held together as a narrative was definitely something we returned to a few times when considering different things (like knowledge, assessment, progress or whatever).

6. No need to discuss data (or impact?)

I know for certain that there was not a single specific data outcome mentioned in the entire conversation. The only number he asked for was our A Level uptake (and that’s probably because I had said it was something I wanted to improve, rather than it being a pre-decided agenda). I didn’t need any historical A Level or GCSE data. Since the inspection, people have suggested that might be because of CAGs. But I’m not so sure. At the end of the day, they know the data and it’s not really a test of whether you know the data. The impact of the curriculum decisions was not hugely discussed either. I briefly commented on the impact of knowledge being a focus over the past 4 years, and how we now have students at GCSE who don’t ask us what a simile/metaphor/enjambment/verb is… at an anecdotal level, that’s evidence of impact, I suppose.

In reality he was looking for impact when he went to the department to speak to students, and when he later spoke to the English teachers he had watched. This was where he gauged if my comments on limited marking/assessment points were having the desired impact; this is where he checked if students really were retaining knowledge; this is where he saw if the level of consistency I claimed we were at was actually happening. (Note – thankfully he did, but, if I had bent the truth slightly in my conversation, I have zero doubt he would have caught me out.)

7. Know your department well at any given moment

What I mean by this is, expect them to ask you what is being taught that day, and for you to know the answer to that. Obviously, everyone gets the “call” and can to some extent fake this. “Tomorrow, when Ofsted come, I want everyone to be teaching Macbeth 2.2” – I can’t bear any of this. If the consistency is already in place, none of this needs to happen. The reality is, also, that I think they can see through this facade. Imagine walking into a classroom, looking at a book where students have notes up to 4.3 but suddenly today they’re back on the murder scene. Then another classroom all of the notes being on language paper 1 and suddenly you’re watching some analysis of Macbeth. Your knowledge of what’s going on in each classroom on any average lesson will make this part of the Ofsted day much easier.

As we walked over to the classroom, he asked what I expected to see. I explained that half of Y10 were being taught, along with half of Y9. He asked what Y10 were doing. I explained that they were studying A Christmas Carol, and from my recent learning walks and corridor chats everyone was reading stave 2, moving through Scrooge’s memories. This is what he saw. I explained the pedagogical principles we have within our department (nothing too revolutionary) – drill questions start every lesson, some form of modelling (even if annotating texts), and students completing some form of either deliberate or independent practice. This is what he saw. These conversations meant he knew what he was looking for, and what I believed was happening. Luckily, it was!

8. Students never lie

That’s it for my next point. They can’t be prepped (they’re chosen at random) and they will tell the truth when asked (mainly because they’re so nervous being the *chosen one* but also because kids are naive to the whole process and its intentions.)

An expample of this is one conversation I stayed in with a group of Y10 students. Students were asked about the questions at the start of the lesson – what were they made up of? Students explained it was a mixture of things – what they had done recently, over the term, sometimes things as far back as Y7. He then asked how long students had been doing these questions for, was it today, in Y10…? Students said that they had started lessons this way since Y7 (which is correct, for English, but it has not been a whole school approach necessarily). They were then asked if they were helpful – one student explained that it helps them to remember key things, like quotations, events, terminology. The student was asked to give an example of this from the first term, and the student gave a quotation from ‘Bayonet Charge’, studied in September (we were inspected in November). None of this could have been staged. More crucially, none of it contradicted what I had told him that morning.

9. Flexibility is key

Whether they are testing the school’s ability to crisis manage, or whether they really don’t care what they disrupt, there is not doubt about one thing: Ofsted wait for no-one. Essentially, although we were meant to meet at certain times, this was often thrown off. Although they were only meant to observe English in P2, he changed his mind and wanted to return to discuss more after break (when I was teaching, which was fine, apparently, he could then come into my lesson and see if I was teaching stave 2, too. I was). Even though he had at one point suggested doing some sort of book look with me later in the afternoon, that got changed/cancelled/was never going to actually happen.

This is what created the exhaustion when it was all over. It wasn’t really the nuts and bolts of what was happening, but the feeling that everything was constantly changing. I like my routines, timetables, to know what needs to happen and when. I’m not privy to whether this was happening at a larger scale, but at a deep dive level, what I thought the plan had been quickly got left and things got changed. It’s spontaneous and immediate and certainly will ensure that no stone is left unturned. But obviously it can also be stressful!

10. It wasn’t actually that bad.

Seriously. I actually enjoyed the process itself. I thought it was thorough, meticulous, collaborative, in the best possible way. I want to know how to improve my department, but I also wanted to know that we were on the right track. I ended the first day feeling like we had done a good job of showing what we were doing and how we were doing it. I felt like we had done a lot of hard work from a lot of people considerable justice.

However, I am aware that experiences of course change based on who you get more than anything else. I felt the inspector I spent time with was fair, knowledgable, and wanted to ensure I was telling the truth. That’s okay, surely? I’m not (and I have never been) anti-Ofsted. There needs to be something in place to hold schools accountable, to be sure that kids are being treated and taught in the right way. But, like anyone else in teaching, the thought of them coming created waves of panic, nausea, and excitement in equal measure. Either way, I ended the process relatively unscathed, and we got a good result as a department. I’m happy with what was mentioned in the report and it wasn’t all that bad really.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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