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Ofsted mythbusting: dispelling the rumours around inspection

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Sean Harford, Ofsted’s National Director for Schools corrects some misunderstandings about Ofsted’s requirements.

I’ve been delighted with the feedback from many parts of the sector on our ‘mythbusting’ document, which we updated in March 2015.

We were determined to dispel some fairly common misunderstandings of what we expect when inspecting a school or college and we were keen to curb unnecessary workload pressures on teachers. It’s been one of the most viewed Ofsted documents on GOV.UK over the last few months so we know there is a real appetite for this kind of information.

Acting on feedback

In May, I was heartened to hear more endorsement for the document at a lively session with a great group of education bloggers (all teachers or headteachers). I agreed with a valid point raised about the interpretation of data in small primary schools, so we’ll be adding some points about that soon.

Honest discussions like this, directly with those we inspect, are invaluable and I look forward to many more opportunities. By the way, thanks to @imagineinquiry for your account of the session – ‘very nice’ indeed!

What we don’t expect

Going back to the short document; it contains simple facts such as how we do not require schools to show us individual or previous lesson plans, details of the pay grade of individual teachers, and evidence for inspection beyond that set out in the inspection handbook.

Contrary to some rumours, we don’t expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders. We also don’t expect the performance and pupil-tracking data and school or college self-evaluations to be presented in a specific format. And something we’ve often mentioned, but I’ll repeat here, we absolutely do not grade individual lessons.

Working with leadership

There are two things that I’d particularly like to stress:

First, leadership teams need to justify their practices around marking, pupil feedback and lesson planning, observation and grading on their own merits. They should not be citing Ofsted as the reason for doing these things.

Secondly, the best leaders and practitioners do not ask themselves, “What do I need to do to get a good Ofsted judgement?” Rather, they should think about what they need to do to ensure that every child or young person in their school or college gets a decent education and the chance to fulfil their potential.

Over to you

If you haven’t seen it already, I urge you to read the mythbusting document and share it with your colleagues. And we’d be very interested to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

You can also keep up to date by signing up for email alerts from this blog, and follow Sean on Twitter and Ofsted on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by David Didau posted on

    As ever, the information cascading down from the top of Ofsted is exactly what school leaders and teachers want to hear. The trouble, as ever, is the distrust felt of individual inspectors and inspection teams. Everyone has heard stories - and probably has a store of their own experiences -of 'rogue' inspectors. The feeling is that whatever Sean says, there are those who either from willful ideological differences, well-intentioned ignorance or a combination of both, simply inspect schools in whatever ways they please with little or no sense of accountability. Until school leaders can see evidence that inspectors are publicly and determinedly held to account for poor judgments, it will also seem like too great a risk to ignore the perception of 'what Ofsted want', just in case you get an iffy inspector.

    My advice would be to insist that all meetings and discussions that take place as part of an inspectionare recorded, and a sample are listened to. That way school leaders could have faith that some of the outlandish and extraordinary comments made by a minority of inspectors can be acted on.

  2. Comment by Brian Walton @oldprimaryhead1 posted on

    I like David's idea about the recording of conversations. A logistical headache but having heard a thousand and one accounts of horrible 'conversations', especially in more vulnerable schools, I would welcome that safeguard. It's a shame that trust is at this point but it would make many inspectors think about the 'language' they use in sessions and it would help the data checking element in later complaints. It would also give Ofsted a great chance to regulate off-piste inspectors who have helped fuel the fear over the myths.

  3. Comment by Paul posted on

    Amongst the things you should be looking at is staff turnover.
    At my kids' school 40 teachers left last year and about the same are going this year.
    I don't think it's a coincidence that the previous head was determined to 'drive up standards' and regularly blogged that he was carrying out regular mocksteads and, effectively, driving the staff into the ground.
    This was not even a 'failing' school but with this sort of turnover it won't be long before it is!

  4. Comment by Clare Fletcher posted on

    Thank goodness for a clear steer from the top. By taking inspections in-house, rigorous retraining for OIs, comprehensive QA plus closer scrutiny of complaints and inspections feedback, we all hope the spectre that is currently Ofsted, will become a more trusted and reliable tool from September. With more practitioners encouraged to participate as OIs it feels like Ofsted is finally listening to and taking action on the issues identified over many years. Let's hope it won't be too many more before the system gains credibility again and is seen as a valuable professional, external 'health check' done in partnership with a schools' leaders. I am hopeful the tide is turning with these improved ideas and a renewed strategy of proportional inspection from September and I hope schools can start to trust the process. More great heads should sign up- if only for the excellent CPD opportunities presented.

  5. Comment by Emma Ann Hardy posted on

    Whilst I celebrate the work being done on the “myth busting” document to address misconceptions I fear that it won’t have the impact needed whilst schools remain terrified of Ofsted. The only way to remove this fear is to remove the “cliff edge” of inspection verdicts.

    Ofsted, in my opinion, should be focused on school improvement and not walk away after making judgements that destroy schools. I accept that it is this government that are making the consequences so damaging to education. However, as an independent organisation it would be good to see some fight-back on this issue and a development of Ofsted as a “critical friend” rather than judge and jury. One thing Ofsted could do is remove judgements altogether.

    I agree with all the comments above from David and Brian about recording conversations. Because the dire consequences of “failing Ofsted” are driving much of the nonsense in some schools Ofsted judgements have to be infallible. There is no room for error or border line judgements. Nobody's perfect but there could be a perfect, transparent appeals process.

    I've argued many times before that Ofsted’s mass influence could be used as a force for good…in some cases. I’m sure we can all accept that a high staff turnover disrupts children’s education. If Ofsted did look at staff turnover, sickness rates, number of supply teachers used, exit interviews and staff questionnaires it would help them develop a clear picture of morale in the school. I refuse to accept that a school that treats teachers badly should ever be described as “outstanding.”

    Credit where it’s due, this blog, the meetings, the debates, the increased openness and levels of communication are all positive moves forward. By communicating rather than assuming, by listening and then acting on this, I can remain optimistic that this is a first step towards improvement.

  6. Comment by Andy Lutwyche posted on

    All the noises emanating from Sean and others are great, but on the ground it seems that there are some "rogues", "rogues" that will hopefully be exposed when inspection is taken in-house, although that can't be guaranteed obviously. Recording every conversation is a nice idea but practically impossible (move away from the mic) and as long as Wilshaw heads the organisation few will trust that Ofsted is not a device to force through government policy, especially when ministers refer to Ofsted in such terms. A large proportion of many teachers' work lives is taken up with producing evidence for inspection which nobody can disagree takes precious time away from actually doing the job of educating young people; a certain amount of this is acceptable to an extent but the balance is currently completely wrong, partly because livelihoods are in the balance every time an inspector walks through the door. Ofsted can produce as many "myth busting documents" and say what they like on social media/in the national media, but the perception of the government funded body's usefulness is beyond repair to people in schools I'm afraid.

  7. Comment by Educational Rights Alliande posted on

    Ofsted needs to improve its approach to inclusivity and equality in our schools in respect of SEN and disability as a matter of urgency. There is a legal imperative for this under the Equality Act which obliges all public bodies to pay sure regard to their duties under the Equality Act in all their functions. It is far from clear how Ofsted are meeting this obligation.

    We hear often that all teachers should be teachers of SEN. Is it not time that all inspectors become inspectors of SEN? These pupils account for approximately 20% of our school population and yet Ofsted reports show scant regard for their inclusion in every day school life.

    Only this week, national press reported how one child had been asked to remove a hearing aid so he looked 'nice' on a school photo. This request, and the response of the 'outstanding' school, was wrong on so many levels. Ofsted reports about disruptive behaviour which make no mention of SEN are similarly wrong. Both represent a 'normalising' culture which is damaging to diversity and inclusion.

    Indeed, our recent blog post told a similar story of 'outstanding-ness' and disregard

    Too often parents of children with SEND find that 'outstanding' schools can actually be the least inclusive despite the extensive legal obligations which exist to protect their children's educational rights. Why? No school should be outstanding if it isn't aware of, and doesn't comply with, basic legal requirements. All Ofsted inspectors should know what they are and should be able to question schools on them. Just as they keenly question schools on the gifted and talented or the pointless pursuit of Ofsted's 'outstanding' attendance percentages.

    The fact is that if teachers and heads do not get quality SEND training and teachers become inspectors and inspectors do not get this training, then nothing will change and pupils with SEND will continue to be failed in a discriminatory and illegal fashion.

    So, senior Ofsted leaders, look to yourselves first? How good is your SEND knowledge? How much do you know about the Equality Act and inclusion. Let's start there.

  8. Comment by @theprimaryhead posted on

    There are some highly positive developments mapped out in the myth busting document and it certainly shows a willingness, on the part of Ofsted, to evolve, which should be duly acknowledged.
    I think it's only natural (not right and certainly a shame) that it will take school leaders a long time to trust that the guidance will be adhered to by each and every inspector.
    However, I wonder if a more radical approach is needed in order to develop a robust, fair, trusted and fair system of school checking. I would be looking at a more differentiated model of inspection for different category of schools. One that allows for inspectors to gain a fuller understanding of a school's context before they start judging against fixed and external criteria. If the overall process was more fluid then measures such as recording conversations between leaders and inspectors may not become seen as necessary by those at the pointy end of ofsted's stick.

  9. Comment by Cherrylkd posted on

    As David Didau has pointed out there continues to be a feeling of mistrust surrounding Ofsted. I welcome his idea of recording conversations. This might prevent some of the problems from emerging. Inspectors are not beyond criticism and they do make mistakes at times. We are all operating in an era of mistrust at the moment. Teachers are not trusted by the DfE and Ofsted are feared and mistrusted by teachers. Parents are bewildered and have little idea of the truth about schools and education standards.
    It would be helpful if Ofsted introduced a standard where leaders were marked down if they introduced fads such as triple marking solely for the purpose of 'Ofsted want to see it'. Time consuming fads that have no impact for the children should be stopped.
    Meanwhile, I agree with Emma. The fact that Sean and Mike before him, are willing to hold meetings with teachers and find out what is really going on in the classroom with Ofsted is a step in the right direction. The best they can do is shout loudly about the things they do want to see and make sure all leaders understand.
    Where a rogue inspector is found I wonder if it could be made easier for schools to lodge a complaint. I have heard that some schools actually fear the process of complaint.
    Meanwhile, talking is good.

  10. Comment by Sean Harford posted on

    Really encouraging to see so many constructive comments already – do keep them coming. Some very interesting points here, and as the comments keep coming I’ll be looking to address some of the issues they raise in future blog posts. In the meantime, we’ll be posting next week about how we’ll be changing the way we inspect from September 2015, so watch this space or subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a post.

  11. Comment by Philip Wilkes posted on

    Nice to see these changes are going to happen. Colleges are guided by what OFSTED want more than consent rating on provision and getting the structure and teaching right. We need to have a chance to work from the bottom up getting lesson plans organised and linked with schemes of work so anyone with the technical knowledge can teach that lesson. By doing this the programme is more organised and frees up your time to consentrate on learners and improving teaching and learning. If the provision is good the statistics will reflect that. Provision,organisation, monitoring, in this order. Get these right and Exellent results are a given

  12. Comment by Philip Wilkes posted on

    Sorry about the predictive tex errors

  13. Comment by Naureen Khalid posted on

    These initiatives, the myth busting, the meetings and now this blog are a very welcome development. So, thank you. I agree with David that there are some rogue inspectors out there. Hopefully with inspections being brought in house now they will gradually disappear. We must also admit that some of the blame lies on us. SLT do need to accept some of the blame for creating fear. Governors must question heads and SLT when consultants are brought in to carry out mocksteds. I wish there was someway you could patent/copyright the phrase,"Ofsted expect this"! There is one more myth I'd really like you to bust! That's the one about the draft report. Many heads are not letting governors see the draft report or reveal the judgement saying that if governors who couldn't make the briefing see it the judgement will be withdrawn. I've even heard of it being kept from the Chair of Governors! Governors would really appreciate it if Ofsted could make it clear that the GB is entitled to know the judgement and read the draft report (obviously the need for confidentiality has to be made clear).

  14. Comment by AnnieT posted on

    Dear Sean,
    I really appreciate that you are listening to the profession. I feel optimistic about the future for Ofsted is supporting school improvement.
    I have experienced Ofsted inspections in three secondary schools as both classroom teacher and head of department. In my first two inspections we had very professional and open inspection teams. They put the staff at ease (well as much as you can be put at ease in an inspection) and were genuinely constructive in their interactions with the staff. We knew that because of our exam results (around 40% 5A*-Cs) that the best case scenario for our school was a “Satisfactory” grade and were resigned to this despite the praise we received for our teaching, leadership and safeguarding. The community our school served faces many challenges and under that framework we felt that the judgement was a reflection of our intake than the work done at the school.
    In my most recent inspection the inspectors were again professional and pleasant, but did not seem to be as thorough in their inspection as teams I’d encountered before. In this school our results are better (around the 70% mark) but the teaching, leadership and safeguarding are of far lower quality than in my first school, due to our middle class intake. During the inspection many tricks and games were played to hide failings from the inspectors. For example, classes and teachers were removed from the timetable given to the inspectors, established teachers were told to pretend to be either NQTs or supply teachers and unmarked books were purposefully removed from classrooms. Children and staff were rehearsed for months in advance of the inspection on what they should say to inspectors. The whole inspection felt like a game of hide and seek. When the “good” report came out, many staff, parents and students knew that the judgements and comments hid many truths about the school and the SLT took it as carte blanche to continue their ineffective and at times damaging strategies. This school does “require improvement” – but the inspectors didn’t see it.
    I hope the new framework will help prevent game playing of this nature so that when we get reports through we know that they are an accurate reflection of the school and offer useful insight into how it can improve.

  15. Comment by Sean Harford posted on

    Thanks for the comment Naureen. It’s a point I’ve been asked about before. Simply put, it is indeed a myth that members of the governing body can’t read the draft inspection report. We ask that the headteacher, the chair of governors and as many other governors as possible come to the final feedback meeting at the end of an inspection. While the draft report and inspection outcome are restricted until the school gets the final report, they should be shared with the relevant senior personnel and not just those who were able to attend the feedback meeting. So a rule of thumb would be that if you were eligible to attend the final feedback meeting, you should be able to see the draft report. However, governors need to be aware that we expect the report to be returned to us with any comments within 24 hours (or 5 days for a grade 4 OE) so this may constrain any input from the wider governor group.

  16. Comment by Naureen Khalid posted on

    Thank you, Sean for replying and making this clear. Governors up and down the country will be thanking you.

  17. Comment by Campion Financial Consultancy posted on

    Its good to see these changes are going to happen.

  18. Comment by Notdaftenufftogiveit posted on

    We were inspected in the first 6 months of opening our preschool. That was in 2008/9 academic year. We were told we were not able to get above a 'good' overall grade because we had, 'not been open long enough'. The inspector left before the end of the day yet gave us an 'outstanding' in the area regarding communication and relationships with parents, whom she had not met nor seen interacting with staff at the end of the day.
    Locally, other private providers (day care nurseries and preschool) have been inspected in the middle of this summer term. If they have been assessed as a good or outstanding preschool they will therefore use that as part of their advertising. They can plaster the locale with adverts using extracts from the report and pick up a lot of business. This comes from having had an inspection at such a useful and advantageous point in the yea - Kids are biddable, used to the setting and staff after a year there and accustomed to visitors, routines and so on. It seems to be the best time to be inspected - your oldest cohort are moving on next term, you need to be advertising now (if not a lot earlier!) to get the business.
    We have not been inspected for 6 years now. We are only open term times - we operate as a preschool providing just that - preschool education and preparation. Other private providers recently inspected, are open as nurseries all year round. In two weeks we close for summer. Right now and for next term on, we will rely (to whatever extent it is considered useful) in part on an incomplete 6 year old report to promote our tiny business.
    If we are to be inspected next term we are confident we are a lot better than 'good'. However, I think an inspection in the first term of an academic year is not as advantageous (for advertising in part and in demonstrating all our best qualities) as is a later one.
    I welcome any comments about how long it has taken to be inspected (still waiting), the results of the first inspection, the manner/conduct of the first inspection, the use of inspection reports for advertising and the idea that one end of an academic year is better than the other for an inspection to take place. I am happy to be reassured about my concerns and corrected if I am making the wrong assumptions about the disadvantage we might be put to.
    Thanks for any response

  19. Comment by Sandra Lucas posted on

    Is there going to be an ealy years equivalent.


  20. Comment by Ofsted external relations posted on

    Thanks for your comment. The current early years inspection cycle finishes on 31 July 2016 and a bit more about it is online:

    Otherwise, you may wish to discuss this with your local Ofsted early years contact; we do not know where you are based. Otherwise, if you wish to discuss further and in more detail, you can send your contact details to

  21. Comment by joining the debate posted on

    Please could you consider improving the clarification document as it is not helpful to the ordinary teacher...

    Ofsted does not expect to see any specific frequency, type or volume of marking and feedback; these are for the school to decide through its assessment policy. Marking and feedback should be consistent with that policy,

    "for the schools to decide" - ie for management to decide...we can only try to persuade them to see reason
    "should be consistent with that policy" so tough luck - ordinary teacher!

    There needs to be something produced that protects the ordinary teacher from unreasonable / out of touch management

  22. Comment by Derek Adam Kitchin posted on

    Whatever the negative views of HMCI above ... It must have been him who appointed Sean and his colleagues and is allowing them to operate in such an open and frank, challenging, but listening, fashion.

    I personally have been surprised at the level of rigour, search, examination and need to demonstrate so many skills as I have travelled my recent journey to become an OI. I returned to my school from the first three day course .,, shattered ... a little numb .... but full of praise for the process ... As this should guarantee our school a more consistent approach from Ofsted at our next inspection. The calibre of the candidates who had got that far was so high ... And most were practitioners in schools.

    A comment above suggests more senior leaders should 'go for it' .... I cannot agree more ... Barely at the start of my new part time career ( Yes ... My other days will be spent leading my school and resource bases) I have made some great strides personally and professionally. It has already given me confidence to do what I have been asked to do in the past but shied away from ... Extend to other local schools in intervention and/or school support and improvement work (not mocksteds!).

    So Heads and Deputies and as appropriate AHT'S. Go for it! Develop yourself and your leadership team who will be stepping up in the days you are absent. But don't think it's an easy ride to get to the OI stage. As it should always have been but may not have always been .... Right from the initial application form .... It's a role to be won and earned. I THINK ITS WORTH IT.

  23. Comment by Christopher Robertson posted on

    Dear Sean and Colleagues,

    Many special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) would like to know whether inspectors have particular expectations with regard to the use of pupil case studies by schools during inspections? Over a number of years, SENCOs have developed a 'tradition' of preparing a small number of these to illustrate aspects of pupil progress, intervention strategies, and impact on outcomes. These can then be used to inform evidence based discussions with inspectors in ways that can explain data that may not always read as 'positive'.

    Recent debates in SENCO networks have shown that:
    - some SENCOs think that the use of case studies is definitely not an Ofsted expectation (if it ever was)
    - some SENCOs think that using case studies to inform discussions with inspectors is very helpful.

    So, should SENCOs abandon the use of case studies because inspectors will not look at them? Or, should SENCOs continue to use them with the expectation that they can be used to help inspectors understand pupil performance?

    Your view(s) would be welcome. I will then share comments or advice with a national SENCO network (SENCO Forum)

  24. Comment by Ofsted external relations posted on

    Christopher - There is no expectation that SENCos should prepare case studies in advance just for Ofsted. If they are preparing them at all it should be to help them reflect on their own practice and hopefully be useful for their own evaluations/SEF. For example, they may be useful for governors to help evaluate the provision or used to inform pupils’ review meetings. Inspectors would only look at them to help with identified lines of enquiry and may prefer to simply look at a pupils’ file, chosen at random, rather than a pre-prepared ‘set-piece’ with no supporting evidence.

  25. Comment by Christopher Robertson - Chair, SENCo Forum Advisory Group posted on

    Thank you for this clear and helpful response. I will share it with members of the SENCo-Forum e-discussion network.

  26. Comment by Caroline Fletcher posted on

    If you agree that this article warrants a reasoned response, I should be glad to see it.

  27. Comment by Ofsted external relations posted on

    Caroline: DfE sets the standards that independent schools are required to meet. Ofsted inspects against those standards.