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Understanding Ofsted

Ofsted inspections were set up in 1993 to provide a “comprehensive and impartial picture of how well a school is performing.” Yet they have attracted all sorts of controversy: the inspections bring about a great deal of stress for teachers; damning or glowing ratings cause sensations in the playground – and the media; and parents even move house on the basis of an Ofsted report. But do the reports really tell us parents all we need to know about our children’s existing or prospective school(s)? Not necessarily, it seems.

One teacher I spoke to describes Ofsted reports as: “A slightly wonky snapshot of a school taken at a given time, by a certain panel of individuals, according to specific and sometimes changing criteria.”

That’s because the inspectors are only in for a short period of time, and much may have happened to the school since a particular report was published. What’s more, the criteria that Ofsted use to judge a school may not reflect the issues that are important to you and your child.

So although Ofsted reports can provide an overview of how a school is performing, they certainly don’t give you the whole picture. When consulting the Ofsted report for your local schools, don’t be tempted to take everything at face value and always go and visit the school for yourself.

All state-funded and some independent schools are inspected by Ofsted (Office for Standards, Education, Children’s Services and Skills) at least once every five years (more frequently for schools judged satisfactory or below) and receive between zero and two days’ notice of an inspection. Schools are required to notify parents of the inspection and include details of how they can pass their views onto the inspectors. Parents will be sent a confidential questionnaire about their views on the school and can ask to speak to the inspectors during the inspection.

The inspection lasts no longer than two days and the inspectors will look at the school’s self-evaluation, its previous report and data about its performance before the visit. They will sit in on lessons, talk to pupils and staff and take parents’ views into account before making a judgement about the school’s overall effectiveness and producing a written report. This will include specific judgements on achievement and standards; pupils’ personal development and well-being; the quality of teaching and learning; how the curriculum is taught; the care, guidance and support provided by the school; and the leadership and management of the school.

The inspectors will judge the school as Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory or Inadequate. Inadequate schools will then be made subject to special measures or issued with a notice to improve. The school’s governing body must send a copy of the report to all parents and carers of pupils at the school within five working days of receiving it and make a copy of the report available upon request to members of the public. The report is also published on the Ofsted website.

• Read between the lines: When checking an Ofsted report, do look at the actual comments rather than focusing solely on the grades. This will give you a better idea about where the school’s strengths and weaknesses lie. Remember, the schools are being judged on how well they are performing against set criteria and policies at a specific moment in time, and the danger is that you don’t get to see the whole picture.

For example, health and safety issues play a big part in the Ofsted inspections, which has led to criticisms in the media of good schools receiving mediocre ratings because they haven’t met routine technical requirements, such as fences being high enough. What’s more, teachers have expressed concerns that schools cannot be rated ‘Good’ if their exam results are low – regardless of whether they are operating well in socially challenging areas.

And the Ofsted inspection could have taken place on a particularly bad – or good – week. Standards might well have altered for the better – or worse – since that time. Perhaps the head or teaching staff have now changed, investment has been made in new facilities and Ofsted recommendations have been put into place.

• Visit in person: When choosing a school for your child, use the Ofsted reports to back up your own findings. You need to make appointments to visit all the options – and schools should operate an open-door policy. Make sure you meet the Head and talk to the teachers. If you’re concerned, discuss the report and find out what the school is doing to improve and implement Ofsted’s recommendations.

More importantly, look around the school and see whether the kids are happy, confident and thriving. Think about how well your child would fit into this learning environment. Trust your gut instincts. Would they feel comfortable here?

Ask questions about the things that matter to you and your children. Do the extra-curricular activities on offer match their hobbies and interests? Is there a high pupil turnaround? How much homework is set? What do the school leavers go on to do?

The wall displays are often a good pointer to a school’s educational ethos. You may be put off if you see work containing spelling mistakes, deeming that standards or expectations are low. Or you may relish the fact that creativity is rewarded just as much as academic skills.

• Meeting their needs: Remember, what the Ofsted panel has judged as ‘Outstanding’, may not be an outstanding educational environment for your child. For example, you may place more emphasis on a happy and relaxed learning environment for your son or daughter rather than a stress-fuelled, high-achieving establishment. Will an outstanding school push the able children and neglect the strugglers? Will it be too academic if your child benefits from more active or creative forms of learning?

Similarly, a disappointing Ofsted report doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a ‘bad’ school, and all sorts of changes may have been made since the report was published. Schools that are placed in Special Measures are given additional investment and support to help improve their standards and some are quickly turned around. In addition, the school might operate a more hands-on, creative approach than would suit your son or daughter but isn’t in line with the Ofsted criteria.

And if the school that your child’s attending doesn’t fare well in an Ofsted inspection, don’t automatically take steps to move them somewhere else. Because the findings don’t reflect every aspect of the school, the elements that are important to your son or daughter may not be affected. If your child is thriving and happy at school, why move them, especially if their friends are staying put?

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