Teachers and school leaders deserve more than a quick judgment from Ofsted teams. Inspectors should instead make positive and self-aware efforts to challenge and look beyond those instant impressions, says Gerald Haigh.

Can HMI tell almost as soon as they arrive at a school just how good (or, presumably, bad) it is? That’s certainly the impression I, and others, took from this tweet, posted in early March by Greg Hurst, education editor of The Times (@GregHurstTimes):

“Wilshaw on inspection. ‘We can tell how good a school is within half an hour of being there, due to atmosphere of the school’.”

Now that, surely, is a scary prospect for headteachers, and I thought I’d better check back to the source: an appearance on March 2 before the education select committee by the chief inspector, supported by Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director, education.

On the video of the session, Sir Michael says: ‘Talk to most HMIs – and I do all the time – and they will say ‘We can sense within the first hour of being in a school whether a school’s good or not simply because of the atmosphere in the school – the level of engagement that the children have, the happiness they exude’. The longer they spend in the school they will find why that’s happening, because of good leadership and good teaching.”

All of which, I’d say, makes Greg Hurst’s tweet spot on.

Sir Michael and his team are not ordinary visitors

However, to be fair, as always with significant quotes, it’s important to examine the context.

Sir Michael’s response came as he and Sean Harford were questioned on Ofsted’s attitude to “soft” and “personal” skills, and how they measured “personal development and welfare”. During this discussion Sir Michael referred to “the culture of the school” asking “is it calm, safe, are pupils engaged, are they bullied?”

At that point, Conservative MP Lucy Allan asked Sir Michael whether, within the short period of an inspection, it was possible to “get to grips with” such difficult to measure attributes. Sean Harford and Sir Michael nodded vigorously as her question ended, and Sir Michael came quickly and confidently back with that “within the hour” response.

It’s reasonable to see Sir Michael’s words as referring to school “culture”, rather than to an overall Ofsted judgment. Even so, are teachers and school leaders still entitled to be concerned at the prospect of “within the hour” impressions?

I believe so, for good reasons.

I have visited very many schools, to write articles and case studies, and am familiar with the idea of quickly picking up the “atmosphere”. But I also know just how misleading such rapid assessments can be, and, more importantly, how easily they can colour everything that follows.

In 1920, psychologist Edward Thorndike called it “the halo effect”, and it has since been extended to organisations and groups. Applied to a school, it suggests that a visitor will carry the first impression through to the end of the visit, with the risk that borderline judgments may be tipped one way or another.

Ofsted inspectors cannot be immune from this effect, which is known to be pernicious and persistent. Indeed, the second part of Sir Michael’s quote seems to say that once the inspectors have formed a good impression, they will then be looking for supporting evidence.

Years ago I talked to a local authority inspector who had moved from a successful primary headship. She said her biggest problem was ridding herself of preconceptions. In particular, “I must never compare a school with my own school.”

Are we completely sure Ofsted teams rigorously exercise the same care? Sir Michael, in particular, ran a successful school of which he is justly proud, and to which he often refers, and there will be other inspectors in the same position, from a range of school backgrounds. Are we sure there is no sense, conscious or not, of measuring “culture” against a familiar, close-to-home model?

Sir Michael’s remark, frankly, is one that any regular school visitor might make, in private, among friends. But Sir Michael and his team are not ordinary visitors. What we hope for, and have the right to expect, from HMI is that rather than be proud of their ability to reach quick judgments, they will make positive and self-aware efforts to challenge and look beyond them.