July 2021 edition: The Resumption of Ofsted Inspections – Key Points for Trust Boards to Consider

The Resumption of Ofsted Inspections – Key Points for Trust Boards to Consider

With a more ‘normal’ schedule of Ofsted inspections expected to resume in the Autumn term, let’s take a bit of time to remind ourselves of key school inspection developments. Some of these were in motion before Covid-19 whereas others have happened in response to the pandemic. Either way, here are five things Trust boards may want to consider if an inspection is on the horizon.

 1. Extended inspection windows

Both the statutory intervals between inspections and Ofsted’s internal windows for inspections have been updated to take account of the significant backlog of inspections that have built up. The statutory window has been extended from five to seven years for each school’s first inspection following the pandemic. However, in most cases Ofsted does not push inspections right up to the outer limit defined in statute. For example, good schools are usually inspected in a cycle of every four years and new schools are usually inspected in their third year of operation – these cycles reflect Ofsted’s own windows rather than what is in statute. Well, Ofsted has had to extend these cycles too and has added six terms to the ‘usual’ cycle. So, for good schools a period of "up to” six additional terms (two years) has been added to the usual four-year cycle, and a similar extension has been added to the cycle for other types of school too. This is all outlined in the inspection handbook. The key is for boards to be aware of these changes as it is likely to mean that the horizon for many schools’ inspection has been pushed significantly into the future. What this means for each school might be different; for some it will be welcome, for others it won’t. With regards to the latter, don’t forget schools could request an earlier inspection.

Boards should not underestimate how much of an anchoring presence they can be for executive leaders and other staff who might be anxious about the prospect of inspection

Steve Rollett

2. Areas of new or strengthened focus

Ofsted’s recent review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges found "that the issue is so widespread that it needs addressing for all children and young people. It recommends that schools, colleges and multi-agency partners act as though sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are happening, even when there are no specific reports.” Accordingly, the updated inspection handbook features a new section on how inspectors "will consider how the school handles allegations and instances of sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and sexual violence”. It is essential that boards are aware of paragraphs 306-310 in the updated handbook and that appropriate steps are taken by the board to ensure children are safe: "Where schools do not have adequate processes in place, it is likely that safeguarding will be considered ineffective.”

Boards should also be aware that Ofsted has strengthened the part of the handbook which deals with careers information, education, advice and guidance. Paragraphs 256-259 outline the specifics inspectors will explore and how this will impact on the report and judgement: "If a school is not meeting the requirements of the Baker Clause, inspectors will state this in the inspection report. They will consider what impact this has on the quality of CEIAG and the subsequent judgement for personal development.”

There is also an addition (paragraph 15) which requires inspectors to consider how schools’ deployment of tutors supports the aims of the curriculum. Note this is part of the quality of education and leadership and management judgements rather than a judgment in its own right.

3. Outstanding schools

The exemption for outstanding mainstream schools has been removed and Ofsted will start the process of bringing these schools back within a cycle of routine inspection. Those last inspected before September 2015 will receive a full Section 5 (graded) with those inspected after this date receiving a Section 8 inspection in the first instance. The early signs of the Education Inspection Framework (before it was paused) suggested it was harder to achieve/retain an outstanding grade than in previous frameworks. Boards may want to consider this risk, being aware that the new more stringent framework could mean that a school could be downgraded to ‘good’ when in real terms it might have particular features that are stronger than when it was judged outstanding. This might be something that parents and others might not readily appreciate and so, depending on the situation, might be a relevant point when managing post-inspection messages with stakeholders.

4. Curriculum intent

Curriculum ‘intent’ was, of course, brought into sharper focus by the Education Inspection Framework that was launched in 2019. However, it can be something that some boards struggle to navigate. Of course, as ever the board needs to avoid an inappropriate drift into the operational – it’s not the job of Trustees to write schemes of work and they are not expected to know the sorts of things teachers should about the granular details – but the board ought to play a role in shaping the ‘top-level’ intent of the curriculum across the Trust, even if the scheme of work allows for local decision making.

Boards ought to have something to say – at a strategic level – about what they want the curriculum to do for children. If the Trust’s vision is, for example, the often-cited ‘broad and balanced’ curriculum, one might expect the board to be able to point to particular strategic decisions it has made that helped to develop and protect this. For example, this could include looking at how the curriculum is structured, the type of curriculum groups of children experience, and how CPD is used to support teaching of the curriculum. Inspectors will probe to see how strategic actions at Trust and school level align with the intent and implementation.

Frankly, putting Ofsted to one side it’s important in any case that the board understands this responsibility is ultimately a key part of its leadership of the Trust’s mission. So, it’s worth giving some thought to what your curriculum is intending to do. Is your secondary curriculum intended to induct children into subject disciplines with the aim of giving equity of access to children, thus building a path for future learning and achievement? Is your primary curriculum about building fluency in the fundamentals in Key Stage 1 so that children can confidently access a broadening curriculum in KS2? Trustees might not easily find such words in a conversation with an Ofsted inspector, and they wouldn’t be expected to either, but they ought to know at top-level what the curriculum is aiming to build, be able to say something about why, and how governance supports it. Executive leaders might need to work with Trustees to build their understanding and support them in probing and shaping the curriculum intent.

5. Catch-up/recovery/teaching

You may or may not use terms like ‘catch up’ or ‘recovery’ in your schools but undoubtedly, inspectors will want to know how Trusts and schools are responding to the challenges of the pandemic and what they are doing to address the issues it caused. As with the curriculum intent section above, it’s important the board takes a strategic lead. Perhaps the most important headline message is that this ‘catch up’ work should be seen as being emergent from and integrated with the curriculum, rather than some sort of bolt-on. There is, therefore, a thread that runs between the curriculum intent and much of the work around catch-up/recovery. Again, what strategic decisions has the board made in relation to this area?

Final reflections

There is understandably a lot of uncertainty in the system caused by 18 months of significant disruption to education. The prospect of inspection might, in many cases, add further uncertainty. Boards should not underestimate how much of an anchoring presence they can be for executive leaders and other staff who might be anxious about the prospect of inspection. By being aware of the five aspects outlined above I hope that boards will be better placed to support leaders through an inspection. In turn I hope that will allow leaders and teachers to maintain their focus on what matters most: not inspectors but the children in our schools.