In 2009, Ofsted trialled no notice inspections. This week they announced a second attempt. Liam Collins explains some unexpected problems of this idea.

Earlier this week, when Sir Michael Wilshaw announced Ofsted would be trialling 40 no notice school inspections, I wasn’t shocked or surprised or worried. I was actually quite bored by it.

The goalposts move so fast with Ofsted that each time new frameworks for inspection are announced headteachers wait to get the lengthy updates sent by the brilliant people at the governors’ services. Many will then look at it, think, “Ah, okay” and carry on as normal.

It’s also not as if schools currently get lots of prior notice. Heads get a phone call at midday from someone saying, “We are coming tomorrow”. When I got my phone call last year, it was absolutely on the nail — 12 o’clock — at which point we used our battle plan to prepare.

The plan does not include things you often hear about in rumours, such as sending kids off on day-trips or bussing in super teachers. What we spent our time doing was thinking about the basic problem of having four important visitors in school.

Will they need a parking space? How will we get tea and coffee to them? Do they want fruit?

Where can they sit? Will they need a parking space? How will we get tea and coffee to them? Do they want fruit? It sounds ridiculous, but it’s important.

The rest of the time is spent getting data prepared. This is the most important part of an inspection and the bit no notice inspections struggle with. We informed the staff at the end of the day and that was it.

My school, Uplands Community College, went through a no notice inspection last time when Ofsted trialled them in 2009. I was not here then, but senior leaders who took part say the school and inspector spent the first morning collecting paperwork.

This meant the inspectors didn’t decide what trail to follow until the end of that first day. They then spent the second day running out of time trying to see all the things they needed to see before making the judgements they wanted to make.

This will be even worse under the current framework, as it relies on a depth of data that schools just don’t have at their fingertips. If an inspector calls the day before and says what you need to have ready (as they currently do), then a head can have everything for them. If they arrive with no notice, you can’t.

So why is Ofsted trialling it again? Possibly it is a part of a “look how tough we are” ethos, based on the idea that Ofsted is an inspectorate that should penalise rather than help schools improve. To me, that is the wrong approach.

Ofsted ought to be re-engineered from being a penalising inspectorate to a school improvement partner. If using no notice inspections then the Ofsted team should agree, in advance, that if they rate the school as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ then they will also help with the school improvement.

A later inspection could be carried out by a new, independent inspector, but the original team should also attend to point out where changes have been made. This would help with consistency.

There’s also a confusion in the current announcement. Last year, my school was rated as ‘good’ and we were told that we would be given light touch inspections from this point forward.

Does that mean we are exempt from no notice inspections, given that it should only happen where there are major concerns?
Or does it mean if we suddenly slipped we would be given a no notice, light touch inspection?

The upside to the announcement is people might be less stressed all the time. Maybe they will think: “We don’t need to over-plan or put on a performance; the inspectors can just turn up and see us as we are”.

Unfortunately, with Ofsted still acting like a group whose purpose is catching people out, rather than helping them improve, I suspect this attitude will be rare.

 

Liam Collins is the Headteacher of Uplands Community College in east Sussex. He is also a member of the Headteacher’s Roundtable