Four steps to a successful Ofsted

Written by: Stephen Rollett | Published:
Image: MA Education

To help you speak confidently to inspectors and understand what they are looking for, inspections specialist Stephen Rollett offers four practical steps...

There are no quick fixes in preparing for Ofsted inspections. Successful outcomes rely on a long-term, strategic approach. The four steps outlined here will help you to speak confidently to inspectors and understand what they are looking for. But more importantly, they will help to ensure that your department is serving the people who really matter – your students.

Become a myth-buster

Ofsted has published “myth-busting” guidance on what inspectors don’t expect from schools. To summarise, previous inspection frameworks had been dominated by widely accepted, but thinly evidenced, “best practice” which seemed to be viewed positively by inspectors.

Examples included triple-marking and attempts to “show progress” every 20 minutes. Schools may choose to continue with such strategies, but must do so on the understanding that they are no more or less favoured than other strategies.

Whatever schools choose to do, inspectors will be more concerned with whether or not it is working.

  • Read the guidance paper Ofsted Inspections: Myths (see further information).
  • Identify aspects of your team’s work which might benefit from myth-busting.
  • Discuss these with your line manager; Ofsted may not have an approved approach but your school almost certainly will.
  • When talking to colleagues, remove Ofsted as a driver for change. Focus on what works best for your students; it’s easier for everyone to buy into this.

Expectations and consistency

Ofsted’s myth-busting guidance makes it clear that schools are not expected to adopt particular practices for the purpose of inspection.

While this is empowering, it is important not to interpret this as “anything goes”.

Although inspectors should not have a view on how things are done, they will want to know whether what you are doing is working and if it is consistent with school policy.

Aside from student outcomes, how will you know if your approach stands up to scrutiny? One litmus test is to consider whether departmental policies and practices demand high expectations of staff and students. Students’ books are a good example of how this plays out during inspection. Whether we like it or not, any visitor, or indeed any student, who thumbs through a set of our books is likely to form at least a subconscious view of our expectations.

Ofsted will want to see that you have high expectations of young people. Of course, high expectations must go further and deeper than presentation in books. For example, how are staff and students expected to use feedback? How challenging are lessons?

Professor Rob Coe produced a useful analysis which shows many commonly held indicators of learning are in fact “proxies” – they do not strongly correlate with learning having taken place. According to Prof Coe, high challenge is most likely to result in learning.

This seems a good rallying point around which teachers and leaders can plan for and facilitate progress. Having established policies and practices which are based on high expectations and challenge, it is important to ensure consistency so all students can benefit from the best your department or school has to offer.

Inspectors will consider whether school policies, such as marking, are being followed consistently.

  • Read Improving Education: A triumph of hope over experience by Prof Coe (see further information). Consider how this might change your approach to lesson planning and evaluation.
  • How are high expectations and challenge evidenced in your area? How are these tailored to meet the needs of all students? Consider making these questions the focus of your next learning walk.
  • Is what you do working consistently across your area? How do you know?

Know your data, use your data

Knowing your data does not require the memory of an elephant or a mind like a computer. It means knowing the messages within it. More crucially still, it means knowing what actions you are taking as a result and what impact these are having.

Don’t forget that in Ofsted’s handbook, progress carries more weight than attainment; and the progress of current cohorts (e.g. current key stage 3) carries more weight than historic cohorts (e.g. last year’s GCSE results).

  • Get your hands on data for historic and current cohorts. RAISEonline and the inspection dashboard feature a rich body of historic data on core and EBacc subjects.
  • Ask your line manager if you need help interpreting data.
  • Know how groups of students, as well as individuals, are performing, especially disadvantaged and SEND students. Do this for each starting point (low, middle and high prior attainers).
  • Where teacher assessment is the basis of current data, consider how best to ensure accuracy and robustness. For example, could you work with colleagues from other schools to standardise and moderate judgements?
  • Where it is difficult to accurately forecast specific outcomes (e.g. due to key stage 4 reforms), consider how you know whether students are learning and making progress.
  • Identify key messages and actions to be undertaken. Create a brief improvement plan (this should feed into the strategic narrative in point 4, below). Review the impact of these actions regularly and adjust as necessary.

A strategic narrative: the wood for the trees

In essence, this is about knowing, clearly and concisely, what you want to say about the performance of your subject/area for a range of audiences, from inspectors to line managers and governors.

It can be tempting to write self-evaluation documents in microscopic detail. However, the best leadership is often rooted in a precise understanding of the key priorities for change, rather than a long wish list which you may struggle to translate into coordinated and sustained action.

By all means know your area’s strengths and weaknesses inside out, but try to go beyond this to define the strategic narrative of your area. This means pinpointing what really matters. Doing so will not only help to sharpen your leadership and resultant actions but will also help you to share your vision with others.

Departmental colleagues and senior leaders will find it useful to have access to a concise overview and such an insight could also prove useful during inspection. Consider how well your strategic narrative aligns with that of the school in order to communicate a shared vision.

  • Create a concise strategic narrative (one or two sides of clearly-spaced A4). Identify three characteristic strengths, three priorities for improvement and a few improvements/emerging strengths since the last inspection. You might choose to write this brief overview in collaboration with your team.
  • Read the previous inspection report. Look particularly for aspects both directly and indirectly related to your area. How has your area moved forward?
  • Share your strategic narrative with your line manager, as well as your team. Does it complement their understanding of your area?
  • Focus on the priorities for improvement that you’ve identified. What actions have you taken? What impact have these actions had? What evidence can you muster?
  • Know the strategic narrative of your school and understand how this relates to your area. Inspectors will triangulate what school leaders say with what they hear from other colleagues. Messages to inspectors should be accurate and consistent.


  • Stephen Rollett is an inspections and accountability specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Further information

  • Ofsted Inspection: Myths, Ofsted, August 2016 (date of last update): http://bit.ly/2rKBR4d
  • Improving Education, Inaugural Lecture of Professor Robert Coe, director of CEM and professor of education at the School of Education, Durham University, June 2013: http://bit.ly/2rKKxYg
  • ASCL is holding a conference for heads of English, maths and science on July 5 in London which includes a session on the changes and challenges faced by schools under the latest Ofsted framework: http://bit.ly/2rT0yNJ


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