Behind the scenes at Ofsted

Ofsted performs a vital function but is not without controversy. Mike Sheridan, Ofsted director for London, hopes to dispel some myths…

A school’s Ofsted rating can be one of the big factors influencing parents in the decision on where to send their offspring. Its importance is such that a state school with the top rating of ‘outstanding’ can see families upping sticks and moving home just to get into the catchment area. Ofsted also monitors the quality of service provided by the Independent Schools Inspectorate.

Given the power Ofsted has, it is often subject to much controversy. Mike Sheridan, Ofsted director for London, oversees a team of experts that work across London’s 33 local authorities. Ofsted inspects children’s social care services and colleges, as well as schools and childcare.

Mike describes his role as the best job in the world, in spite of the body frequently being in the firing line. “It is challenging and while we rarely win friends and popularity contests, we do see young people do better because of the quality of provision out there.”

He adds: “It is a privilege to see all the good stuff going on and be able to visit and see the difference it is making, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. You can change lives with an inspiring curriculum. People tend to focus on the negatives but 92 per cent of schools in London are good or outstanding.”

Ofsted, which is independent and reports to Parliament, was set up 25 years ago, and Mike notes that it is a very different organisation today. “It evolves as schools evolve, and is now particularly focusing on looking at the system for children and young adults in its entirety to ensure that no one falls through the net,” he says.

“It is challenging and while we rarely win friends and popularity contests, we do see young people do better because of the quality of provision out there.”

The next steps are to look at the substance of what constitutes education. Explains Mike: “We want to make sure that schools focus not just on exam results but on quality and breadth of the curriculum. Of course it is about teaching children to read, write and speak fluently, and making sure they have a good grasp of numbers, but not at the expense of a wider curriculum where they learn about history and geography, art and music.”

He warns schools against this drive towards data and testing. “It is a misadventure as this richer knowledge really supports young people. If you take care of the curriculum the tests will take care of themselves. That takes bravery from teachers and leaders.”

But if the emphasis moves away from the tangible measure of tests, how can schools show progress? “Progress is simple to see. You see it in young people and their work. We’re keen that schools don’t feel as if they have to produce a whole set of numbers and data to prove the progress made. We want to see records that are helping them deliver their curriculum, and not producing data for us.”

“Given that Ofsted’s inspectors are, or have been, teachers, head teachers or educational  practitioners, they can see when young people are doing well and know when they are engaged in lessons.”

Some of these goals will be reflected in Ofsted’s new framework for 2019. Some hope there will be less jargon, too. “We always try to be less jargonistic. But you get used to it in a profession,” Mike admits. “However, we have been committed for a number of years to speak in plain English. You will see a huge difference in our reports now to ten years ago.”

Again, given the impact an Ofsted report can have, there is fear around the inspections themselves, and there is a belief that it is onerous on schools (and individuals such as childminders) but this is a misconception, argues Mike. “There is a real challenge around teacher workload, and a lot of people believe this is because of the work around inspections but this is not the case. What we want to see is what schools do day in day out. The anticipation of Ofsted is often much more frightening than the reality of Ofsted.”

Out of the 92 per cent of schools in London that are good or outstanding, a large chunk of those will get a one-day inspection every three or four years. The school will get a phone call around lunch time the day before and will be asked to provide some information in the form they choose. From that the inspector will come up with a few lines of enquiry that they will look into alongside the head teacher. “The inspection will lead to four outcomes – it is good, or good and getting better, or we might say this school continues to be good but some areas are less secure and we will come and test those areas next time,” says Mike.

“We don’t leave children at risk so if we think there is a serious issue we will convert that inspection to a full one at that time. That doesn’t mean it will be a failing school at that point. We just have to look much deeper. And we can’t afford to wait to do that.”

Mike adds: “We’re looking at quality of teaching but not individual teachers, we’re looking at leadership and governance, and we’re looking at how well children are developed in a holistic way: are they engaged, and is there a positive ethos in learning? Inspectors will look at a whole range of information. They will talk to pupils, teachers, leaders, and gather information from all sources to make sure that evidence stacks up before writing that report.”

With Ofsted evolving as schools and indeed society changes, what does it anticipate will be the main challenges for the next five years? Diversity and inclusiveness are key areas. “This includes building cohesiveness and making sure that schools aren’t under undue influence from those who would choose to segregate us,” says Mike. “In London, we’re also looking at youth violence and knife crime, and how we keep children safe. We are also working to help schools think about how they deal with difficult pupils, what exclusion will mean and how it impacts life chances.”

Teacher recruitment is also a major hurdle. “Head teachers are telling me it is a challenge and there is a real job for us all in managing workload and making sure that teaching is seen as a job that is manageable and rewarding, and making clear that this is a great profession to be part of.”

“We have to see it as a first-choice profession. It is amazing to stand up in front of a class and see the lights go on as a child starts to understand something. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?”