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How Ofsted can support leaders taking on struggling schools

Sean Harford

Back in the early hours of a Wednesday morning in May, through the ever helpful medium of Twitter, I posed the following question: ‘Mainly but not exclusively for HTs or aspiring HTs: what could Ofsted do to incentivise you to take on the l'ship of an RI or SM school?’ That 140 characters could generate such a wealth of considered, and thought-provoking responses, should perhaps not have come as a surprise. After all, the passion for the profession among social media savvy teachers is well known.

Although I was a bit surprised to generate my very own support group #helpsean. I am pleased to say there were very few outright calls to abolish Ofsted amongst the hundreds of tweets and numerous blogs in response. Generally suggestions fell into two themes: (1) ‘give more time before inspecting’, and (2) ‘work with us’.

Time to embed changes

The need to give new headteachers at schools that require improvement (RI) or those in special measures (SM) time to settle in came across very strongly in responses. Many people called for an inspection moratorium for up to two years to give them time to embed changes.

We have considered these comments very seriously. In his speech launching the new inspection frameworks earlier this week, Sir Michael recognised the importance of this and we have now reflected it in the new section 8 handbook published on Monday. As a result, it is now possible for the new headteacher to discuss the timing of the RI re-inspection with the monitoring HMI and, following that discussion, for the Regional Director (RD) to programme the re-inspection beyond the current window, at the RD’s discretion.

So from September, depending on circumstances, the re-inspection can be scheduled up to 30 months after the publication of the inspection report that judged the school to require improvement. In practical terms, this means that if the new headteacher joins the school a year after it was judged to require improvement, she/he can have up to 18 months to make and embed the changes necessary.

For schools in special measures we will keep with termly monitoring by HMI as we have good evidence that this works and supports inadequate schools. However, we are changing the judgement for the monitoring inspections to be one of ‘taking effective action’ rather than just ‘making reasonable progress’, as we feel this better reflects the hard work put in by teachers and leaders to turn these schools around.

Working in partnership

The second common theme was the desire to see more of a ‘work with us’ approach. Many contributors called for dedicated HMI to return regularly to schools, or even for inspectors from the original inspection team to be attached to the school to help support the school’s progress.

This is an interesting area of debate. With our regional structure now well established and the new contracted inspectors set to have a firm regional locus, Ofsted is in a much stronger position to provide better intelligence and support as our teams across the country truly get to know what is going on locally.

That said, I am cautious of the idea that inspectors should be effectively located in schools, on hand to tell them what to do to ‘pass’ their next inspection. There needs to be an element of distance that ensures objectivity and proper accountability as without that we could lose our perspective.

I think that having, as we do currently, a lead HMI linked with each school in special measures, and indeed with those requiring improvement where the leadership has also been judged to be less than good, strikes the right balance of support and challenge.

However, I take very seriously the points raised by Bill Lord (@Joga5) that sometimes these monitoring arrangements fall short of our best intentions and that we have to try harder to keep continuity and communicate more effectively.

Other recurring topics

Other recurring topics included the quality and consistency of inspections and training for inspectors. This is perhaps a more general comment on how Ofsted can improve, as distinct from something specifically about incentivising heads to take on RI/SM schools. I am confident that we can and will make even greater strides in this area with the bringing in-house of our contracted inspector workforce. My colleague Sir Robin Bosher will have more to say about this on these pages soon.

Mentoring and ‘inspection duty’

Many contributors called for Ofsted to get involved, perhaps in conjunction with the National College for Teaching and Leadership, in brokering mentoring opportunities between heads of RI schools and leaders with successful experience of school improvement. While Ofsted can’t make this happen, I would hope that Sir Michael’s recently announced initiative for recognising exceptional headteachers, supported to do so by their great staff, might help inspire this kind of support.

I will certainly promote the idea with DfE colleagues at every opportunity. Where Ofsted can take the lead more is in looking at who gets involved in inspection. I really liked the idea from @chrismcd53 and @oldprimaryhead1 for an ‘inspection duty’ for all heads. It’s worth pointing out that 7 out of 10 of our new Ofsted Inspectors are serving heads and leaders, but we can build on this even further.

Classroom teachers

A number of the responses asked about classroom teachers, rather than just senior leaders, being involved as Ofsted Inspectors. This is something we can keep under review, and it may be that down the line, headteacher Ofsted Inspectors will put forward their best teachers for this. At the moment, we need to focus on ensuring that the senior leader Ofsted Inspectors who have stepped up for September are well trained and confident in carrying out the role.

Supportive inspections

Unsurprisingly, there were a number of views about how we might make inspection more supportive – as well as calls for us to stop making changes and allow people time to get used to current frameworks. I am fully aware that external scrutiny can make people feel uncomfortable – I was inspected by Ofsted as a teacher and senior leader four times.

But I honestly believe it’s the way difficult messages are delivered rather than the message itself that can feel unsupportive to a school. We are working hard with all our inspectors to ensure that while they should always report without fear or favour, they should also always do that fairly and with humility.

Changes to the framework

Regarding changes to the inspection framework, I don’t think we will be changing our range of judgements anytime soon. We have made a commitment to the DfE’s Workload Challenge that we will not make in-year changes to the inspection handbook, unless statute forces us to do so. I for one am committed to keeping any changes over the next few years to the bare minimum.

The head as inspector

A few respondents said that they would go to work in SM/RI schools if it didn’t mean they were stopped from inspecting. This is a tricky one: I think that in struggling schools, the headteacher should focus on improving the school as this in itself is a hard enough job. They can then come back into inspection when the school has improved to good.

Historical data

Others spoke about ‘suspending historical data’ for SM/RI schools. This is a crucial point. Historical data should play little if no part in the monitoring or re-inspection of SM/RI schools. The focus should be on what’s been going on in the recent past and now in the school.

We have changed the latest School Inspection Handbook to reflect this by reducing the importance of historical data in the ‘outcomes’ judgement. This will result in a much greater focus on how well pupils are learning in the school now.

Continuing the debate

Taking over the headship of, and indeed teaching in a struggling school is a massive challenge. I have nothing but admiration for the teachers and headteachers around the country who are giving their all to help improve the life chances of young people. Ofsted should not be a hindrance in this task. We should be a support.

I look forward to continuing the debate on how we can make sure this is the case and I will keep working as hard as I can to make this so. We all want the same thing: a good quality of education for all our pupils. Please keep #help(ing)Sean.

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  1. Comment by Emma Ford posted on

    Leadership of SM schools must truly be a vocation and requires a particular style of leadership that can see the end point of success and drive towards it, balanced with the ability to nurture and develop a team onto the right seats on the bus. There are HMIs out there that understand this leadership style and should be matched to this type of inspection. This creates a unique partnership between school and Ofsted that leads to success. The right SM school leaders relish challenge and support when given in equal measure as they see the end goal of quality provision for children as the prize.

  2. Comment by Jamie Nairn posted on

    I like the comment about how messages are delivered, even if unpopular. As a new HT taking over asupposed 'satisfactory' school (under a previous framework) but quickly realised it was a failing school, it demoralised me when AI & HMI frequently took tone/attitude it was my fault. Often being very antagonistic in approach. I also welcome the aim to not change framework too often - one inspection the framework had changed just before visit so both me & inspector getting used to new wording - not helpful

  3. Comment by Lincolnshire Head posted on

    Just got my second primary school to outstanding. I am taking over a RI school in September 2016. Like the comment above, I relish this type of challenge. Disappointed to realise that the 30 month grace period for heads such as myself includes all the months since school was given this judgement - so in my case 24 months up end of Autumn term. So to give me a further 6 months beyond this is futile and I am also not relishing my name being on a RI report. If it gets a tentative good then that doesn't help either as all staff will sit back and think they've done enough! Lose lose situation I fear! Not helpful at all. Not often a school goes into RI and a new head immediately takes over - so extra months' grace will not help in most cases. Disappointing yet again that Ofsted have not got this right!

  4. Comment by Karen posted on

    An inspection was carried out in October 2015 in my Son's school and the outcome was requires improvement. A new head started and is now due to leave in the coming months. Will an inspection still be in the 30 months or wait for another head to settle in? Not happy with schools performance.

  5. Comment by Ofsted external relations posted on

    Hi, A change of headteacher would not itself be a trigger for an inspection, nor would it delay an inspection taking place.

    Regulations state ‘the interval is a period not exceeding 5 years after the end of the school year in which the earlier section 5 inspection was carried out’ (The Education (School Inspection) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2015). Schools judged to be outstanding are exempt. The policy is set out in the School inspection handbooks <a href="">School inspection handbook</a>.