Five keys to a successful Ofsted inspection

Written by: Nigel Whittle | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Headteacher Nigel Whittle has extensive, first-hand experience of making sure Ofsted inspections go well and understands how you can get your key messages across to inspectors. He offers five practical tips to help you with your inspection

All great school leaders know that our real work lies in improving schools as quickly and as sustainably as possible through asserting the highest of expectations, accepting absolutely no excuses for underperformance, by building relationships and collegiality and by checking meticulously that all aspects of the school’s work are functioning together seamlessly.

Great leaders need a chance to make this happen and for it to come alive in the schools they lead.

Regularly now in the media, we are reminded that teachers and leaders are struggling to soak up to continued pressure and challenges: “High-stakes Ofsted inspections, unrealistic targets and a flood of teachers leaving the profession has left schools unable to recruit leaders” The Guardian, February 2016

Whether we agree or disagree with this, it makes the prospect of having the time and opportunity to build a great school where children perform exceptionally well, staff thrive and the school is the hub of the community worrisome to say the least.

In November 2012, I was appointed as the youngest secondary headteacher in the country at Havelock Academy in Grimsby. The school served the second most deprived part of the country and had some unique challenges.

Just under three years later it was judged to be a “good” school by Ofsted for the first time ever. I couldn’t have achieved this without the support of a talented group of governors, a dedicated and forward thinking academy trust, and an amazing group of talented leaders and teachers.

It was after this that I moved on to my next challenge. A school in similar circumstances to Havelock a few years earlier. Poor results, low attendance, too many excuses. It was a risk – the school was due its Ofsted inspection in the year I took over! I genuinely felt I knew what to do to improve the situation but needed time to do it.

It was crucial that when Ofsted arrived they saw real capacity to improve now – and not just the history of the school. When they did, while the school was graded as “requires improvement” overall, leadership and management was graded as “good”.

The five points below are key strategies and ideas I have learned and refined while getting my first school to “good” and from ensuring the journey we have started in my current school was allowed to continue at real pace.

If you are a leader in a school, working steadfastly to improve but worried about that inspection call, the following advice and suggestions are designed to give you practical strategies to secure the inspection and continue your improvement journey.

Make the initial call count

The initial pre-inspection telephone call with the lead inspector is essential. It is your opportunity to begin building a frank and open relationship with the lead in a way that provides them with reassurance that you know your school, the journey it is on and that you are on top of all of the detail.

I worked with one school leader who insisted on nearly the entire senior leadership team being on speaker phone for such telephone calls and consequently missed the crucial opportunity to steer and shape the inspection from the earliest point.

Commonly asked questions on the initial call:

  • How many staff are in the school? Breakdown of teachers/non-teaching?
  • How many children on roll?
  • Any alternative providers used?
  • Do you have a working self-evaluation form (SEF)?

I have always found it useful to have note pre-written and ready with five key points that I want to get across before the end of the call.

Much of the call will be logistical so it is key that you have decided in advance what the four or five key points are that you want to make.

It is essential that other key staff in the school know the protocol for receiving the call – particularly the switchboard operator, receptionist or PA. There should be a very simple protocol clearly understood by all key colleagues making clear who the call should be put through to, what happens if the headteacher is out of school, and so on.

An accurate SEF

“The principal has a very clear vision, shared by senior leaders and academy councillors, for the school’s improvement. This is based on an accurate and honest self-evaluation of the school’s work.” Ofsted 2015

This may sound like an obvious one but I have noticed more and more that inspectors are inclined to agree with the school’s own judgements in its SEF, but only if it is accurate and brutally honest.

When my old school secured “good”, I was responsible for leading on school-to-school support across the multi-academy trust. This brought me into contact with nearly 15 Ofsted inspections, Department for Education (DfE) monitoring visits or visits from the Regional Schools Commissioners. I was sometimes amazed that SEFs in schools that had inadequate results and poor behaviour were not acknowledging this.

In one of the inspections, despite my best efforts, Ofsted reported that the school’s leadership had an “over rosy” view of its performance and this was hampering rigorous improvement.

The SEF must acknowledge all that has been done to improve (showing real capacity) but also exactly what the key issues are and what is being done to address them.

I have never found the perfect SEF “template”. Ours is an eight-page document. Two pages for each of the Ofsted framework key judgements. Each section is split in to three simple areas:

  1. Key issues.
  2. What is being done to address them and evidence of impact so far (however early this may be).
  3. What the next steps are and when these will happen.

When you are busting a gut to improve standards in your own school, reaching out and helping another school in difficulty may seem a stretch too far. However, providing evidence of what external support your school is receiving but also how you are supporting others is essential to showing good capacity to improve.

It is helpful to have a short paragraph in the leadership and management section of your SEF giving examples of both of these areas.

First impressions really do count

An inspector on one inspection I was involved in said, in the first 15 minutes of being in the school, that it was impossible that the school could get anything higher than “requires improvement” because of the historic, inadequate data.

We exchanged some pleasantries and I politely explained that we would work to show how we could.
This work to show capacity and good provision started from the first moment the inspectors stepped foot in the school.

For example, I worked with one school where the receptionist did not make clear enough the school’s safeguarding procedures. Needless to say the introduction meeting with the head and school’s leaders did not get off on the right foot.

It may be helpful to have your student leaders ready to meet and greet the inspectors (looking immaculate in their uniforms) and lead them to the well briefed receptionist who will ensure all safeguarding checks and identity checks are done (all Ofsted inspectors have official photo ID badges).

Work in books

It is essential that the quality of work in students’ books matches what is being said about that quality in meetings and discussions.

For example, in a meeting about pupil achievement and data, I confidently argued that White, British, Pupil Premium boys were doing better following the last two assessment points. To my horror, the inspector nodded politely and then asked to see 20 books from that group of students, selected at random, NOW!

I duly obliged and accompanied the inspector to a classroom he chose off the timetable. Fortunately, all of the books scrutinised were representative that this particular group were indeed making far more progress throughout the academic year.


In 15 of the inspections I have been involved with, unless it was a traditional, local governing body, the inspectors did not understand the governance arrangements. The governance of multi-academy trusts, for example, took some explaining!

I empathised with inspectors on this. There must be so many different models of governance with a whole host of acronyms, titles and responsibilities. What really helped us was having a very clear, one-side summary of the governance arrangements covering:

  1. Who was responsible for what?
  2. What the local arrangements were? Was there, for example, a local academy council? What did they do? What powers did they have?
  3. What the scheme of delegation was?
  4. If there was a nationalised or regionalised model, how did this work?

The one-side summary was given to the lead inspector on day one so when they met key people responsible for governance later in the inspection, they had a head-start and could make the discussions useful and relevant (focused on standards) without having to ask about all of the above.


School leaders are incredibly busy. Each day is different and brings a unique set of challenges. We are so focused on improving our schools for the young people in them that we can sometimes forget to get some basic, operational procedures in place.

During the inspection, we as school leaders should “lead”. It is your school. The inspectors are guests in it for two days and you are in it for a lot longer. During this short process, they must leave convinced and informed by what you are doing – it is your opportunity to make your journey so far really clear but remember that you don’t have long to do it. Good luck.

  • Nigel Whittle is a serving, secondary headteacher in the North West of England and has spent his career improving schools and working in challenging circumstances and disadvantaged communities.


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