As a former teacher, I remember many things I loved about the profession: those magic moments where the penny drops for a child who has been struggling to grasp a skill or concept; the end of term plays, sports days and carol concerts where children came alive and loved every minute. It’s one of the richest sectors to work in and – while incredibly hard work – packed with satisfying reminders of why you went into the profession in the first place.
But one of the most frustrating things I found about teaching was the constant sense of change. Just as you perfected a scheme of work, or got your head around a mark scheme, it would be all change and a new government or minister would launch a completely new set of criteria. Part of the reason we created Learning Ladders was to offer continuity to schools, despite potential political changes – and it’s one of the things our schools tell us gives them comfort and focus through periods of transition.
One element of all this change is the expectations of Ofsted. What are the requirements; what will inspectors be looking for and expect to see? While senior leaders are often quick to process changes to Ofsted criteria and prepare for them, these changes are not always as quickly communicated with the wider staff: this is where misunderstandings occur.
Here we delve deeper into the three most problematic answers from our Ofsted quiz for teachers, asking teachers themselves 'why the confusion?' – plus, offer ways to ensure your staff understands expectations way ahead of your next Ofsted visit.
The results for this part of the quiz were that 59% of participants knew inspectors prioritised evidence gathered themselves over existing data, while 41% of teachers believed their own data would be prioritised over the evidence collected by inspectors during the visit.
One of the most evenly split responses came with the question regarding which data Ofsted will prioritise. While most teachers answered correctly – it is a myth that inspectors will prioritise existing data over evidence they gather for themselves – 41% of participants thought otherwise.
“In most staff meetings about Ofsted, SLT talks about how important our data is because Ofsted will look at it before they come. They stress that, if our data is a mess, we're more likely to need to justify ourselves, e.g. we have this issue in Year 2 but we're addressing it by doing X, Y and Z. Ofsted is often used as a reason to update data regularly; but it’s not always clear how this benefits the children.
The emphasis is on how well leadership knows the issues in the school and what staff are doing to address them. The message we often get is about what Ofsted will look for ahead of their visit, not what they’ll be looking for during their time in classrooms.
I think it’s a good thing that Ofsted uses so much first-hand evidence from their observations. It means data shouldn't have to be updated every four weeks – or whatever other unrealistic time periods schools set – because its purpose is to inform your teaching, not for the benefit of Ofsted.”
– Beth Harper, primary school teacher in Bristol.
It could be that schools – because of their desires to be organised and reflect well during inspections – use Ofsted as a tool to keep staff on top of their data. While it’s important for schools to keep their data accurate, it’s also important teachers know this isn’t Ofsted’s main focus when they visit schools; they want to see teaching and learning and talk to pupils.
If you asked a member of staff today why they have to record data as regularly as they do, how would they reply? Would their response reflect the pupils or Ofsted? If they see the main purpose of data collection as being for Ofsted’s purpose then they may be missing opportunities to use it effectively for pupil progress. Total transparency with staff as to the function of your school’s data policy is vital.
Instead of focusing on data management in your next staff meeting, perhaps share good practice about getting pupils to take accountability for their learning, ways to encourage students to have meaningful conversations about their learning, or alternative ways to record and discuss progress – these are the things Ofsted are really going to be paying attention to in their observations.
The results for this part of the quiz were that 60% of teachers knew that inspectors weren’t looking for half termly marking, while 40% believed half termly marking was expected of schools and inspectors would be checking for it.
40% of teachers thought that half termly marking goals were a requirement of Ofsted. It might be that these are the day-to-day expectations of their particular school, yet this frequency of marking is not coming from Ofsted, but their Senior Leadership Team. This could mean some schools are being asked to uphold unrealistic, painstaking marking policies which aren’t even being requested by inspectors.
“Having worked in a few UK schools, it’s easy to see that each school implements its own marking policy, as it sees fit for its pupils.
But teachers who have been in the same school for a long time, or even had their whole career in the same school, could assume that their school’s marking policy is an Ofsted stipulation – especially if senior leadership uses Ofsted as an excuse to enforce a more rigorous marking policy (which I have witnessed in schools).
It’s refreshing to know that Ofsted doesn’t actually expect any particular frequency of marking and that factors such as age, subject and ability are taken into account.”
– Chris Isaac, primary school teacher in London.
Regularly cited as one of the most stressful parts of the job, the day-to-day pressure caused by marking can be a real make or break for teachers. It is often perceived that leadership teams make these difficult demands, adding little changes here and there to marking policies, until staff have got four or five different things to assess for each piece of work they mark.
The worry is that teachers are pushed to the brink, while pupils and parents simply don’t understand the in-depth feedback – then whose benefit is this for? If schools enforce a rigorous marking policy – because they deem that system appropriate for their pupils – it’s important SLT are upfront about it being their choice, and not enforced by Ofsted.
Trying new ways to assess – that don’t involve hours of marking in books – could be a beneficial way to gain the same evidence of progress and assess gaps in learning, but in a way that frees up teachers’ time and allows them to focus more on teaching.
The results for this part of the quiz were that 53% of participants understood that feedback from Ofsted inspectors was an obligation, while a high 47% didn’t realise this was a requirement of inspectors.
This statement had participants almost answering 50/50, showing there is a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to expected observation feedback. 47% of teachers didn’t know they are entitled to feedback after an Ofsted observation and can request it if it isn’t automatically offered.
“There are two reasons why teachers might not understand they’re entitled to feedback from inspectors. It could be that sometimes inspectors will just pop into lessons and don’t stay, other times they will be there for a full 30 minutes. In my experience, they often try to do as many observations as possible so it could be that staff feel the inspectors won’t have time to feedback, or feel awkward about asking amongst the hubbub of the day.
The other reason could be that, when teachers have had observations by the school internally, they haven’t received formal feedback from their observer. If they haven’t come to expect it from their headteacher or line manager, then they won’t think it’s standard practice from inspectors either.”
– Jenny Mitchell, Head of Department in the West Midlands.
Creating an atmosphere which largely resembles an Ofsted visit when conducting internal observations will really help prepare staff. If they come to expect feedback – even if an observer only pops in for ten minutes – they will better understand their entitlement to feedback when a real Ofsted inspector comes to visit.
By empowering teachers to ask for feedback, advice and to open up discussions about pedagogy, it creates an atmosphere which is less fearful of Ofsted and more receptive to casual, unannounced walkabouts, with a give-and-take attitude to observations.
Your staff might only get an Ofsted visit every five years – or even longer – so encouraging them to ask for feedback when they get the opportunity is a useful tool, and one that will not only benefit them but could help others at your school. Ensure your senior staff are in a habit of providing constructive, positive, helpful feedback to teachers and they will feel better prepared for your next Ofsted inspection.
Of course, many teachers in our quiz got most – if not all – of the answers right when they submitted their answers, but we were more interested in the gaps in knowledge, and what we can do to help.
Having analysed our data and looked more closely at these three areas, we hope school leaders will consider the potential confusions and misunderstandings in their own schools. Use our findings as an opportunity to clear any similar cloudy areas with your staff, ahead of your next Ofsted visit. We look forward to bringing you further insights from our survey to help you gain a deeper understanding of the expectations of Ofsted, helping your teachers focus on the excellent job they’re doing and not be preoccupied by outdated information that might not be correct.
Matt is the CEO of Learning Ladders and a former school teacher.