Leaders should keep a cool head and take practical steps to prepare for the phone call from Ofsted, writes Ian Hartwright.
School leaders tell us they are relieved that Ofsted has dropped plans to arrive on-site within a couple of hours of notifying a school of an inspection. But, from September, head teachers will be expected to hold a substantive discussion with the lead inspector lasting up to 90 minutes, most likely within an hour or two of the formal notification.
This is more than an administrative discussion; it will set the tone and inspection trails for the following two days. There will no longer be an opportunity to reflect overnight on how best to articulate your school’s successes and challenges in that key first discussion with the lead inspector.
A proportionate response requires a cool head
Ofsted is tight-lipped about the training that inspectors who conduct this call will receive but we do know that the lead inspector will probe the headteacher’s view of the school’s strengths and weaknesses, the progress made since the last inspection and the quality of its curriculum. Heads will also be asked to identify what they regard as the key areas for inspection “deep-dives”.
How best should school leaders respond to this new reality?
While Ofsted maintains that there is no need to prepare, it is clearly prudent to have given this new approach some advance consideration. There is a risk that this new approach could drive much misdirected bureaucratic activity in schools, adding to the workload of both school leaders and their staff. The last thing anyone needs is more paperwork, evaluation activity or internal reporting.
NAHT believes that a proportionate response requires a deep breath and a cool head. Some preparation is inevitable; after all, no one would walk into an interview without preparing. But that preparation should be rooted in the work that the school is already undertaking, rather than the creation of a new workstream.
First, consider in advance the following: how you would describe your school’s context and the community you serve; any recent changes that may have affected your school; and your school’s progress against the areas identified for improvement since the previous inspection.
Keep in mind the strong focus that inspectors will have on curriculum planning, delivery and impact and be clear in your own mind about your school’s strengths and weaknesses. Pick out areas where inspectors can see best-practice and areas where you are taking steps to secure improvement.
Take simple, practical steps too. Think about keeping a short, simple aide-memoire of the above points to keep with you, for example. This could prove helpful in reducing stress and anxiety about responding “cold” to “the call”, particularly if you are off-site. Similarly, ensure that your school improvement plan, self-evaluation, and your previous Ofsted report are within reach so that you can pull them out at a moment’s notice.
A proportionate response requires a deep breath and a cool head
Finally, have a plan for the actual call. Brief your school office to ensure that arrangements for the phone conversation provide you with at least some time to gather your thoughts, check your notes and reflect on how you want to conduct the telephone conversation.
Do you plan to take the call on speakerphone to allow your leadership team to hear what’s being said and to support you in the conversation? What about the process for informing and reassuring staff? Will another member of the leadership team need to do this if the call runs beyond the end of the school day?
And as well as preparing yourself, take measures to ensure the whole leadership team is equally ready to take the call if for any reason you are not in a position to take it on the day. This includes ensuring that your colleagues are equipped with the relevant information and know where to access the necessary documents.
A few simple steps really can help leaders to feel confident and in control. It can make all the difference to the impression you make of your leadership and your school.