Little strikes as much fear into the minds of new teachers as the prospect of an Ofsted inspection.
“Even if the reality is not as bad as the prospect, it is something we have come into teaching worrying about and being wary of,” said Rachel Turner, who is in her second year of teaching English in a large inner city school in the Midlands.
“Anyone who reads the teaching press or looks at social media knows what this involves and the trepidation it brings to the profession.”
That trepidation may be somewhat greater now that the notice period for inspections has been cut drastically. Since September, under the revised framework, schools are notified on the afternoon the day before inspectors are due to arrive.
It means that schools now have little time to prepare and must be ready well in advance of an inspection taking place.
“In my school, we knew we would be inspected this academic year, we just didn’t know exactly when,” Ms Turner said. “Some of the senior leadership team thought it might be in the spring term because this was when our last inspection took place but this turned out not to be the case. The inspection can come at any time and ours happened just a few weeks into the new term.
“When the call came around lunchtime, the head mailed us all to let us know what was happening and called a short meeting after-school. Colleagues later told me that there was less stress and panic than previously because there was no time to worry. So everyone treated it as a fait accompli and we got on with doing what we had to.
“For me personally, it was fear tinged with excitement. It was my chance to shine and I hoped that I wouldn’t let anyone down. But it did feel like another thing to worry about in what was already a fairly stressful week. My head of department was off ill and I felt a bit out on a limb.
“As a school we weren’t particularly worried about doing badly, but there was some concern about the revised framework and whether we’d understood it. This seemed to be the main issue for the senior leadership team.”
One of the main changes in the framework is the need for schools to have their data, facts and figures, lesson plans and other vital information on the website. This is now the first port of call for inspectors to get a feel for the school before arriving.
“I had been asked for my submissions at the beginning of the school year and I got this done, as well as making sure all my marking and feedback to pupils was up-to-date,” Ms Turner added. “I also had to make sure I kept on top of this all the way up to the inspection, because this was information the team might use.”
She also spoke to more senior and experienced colleagues who had gone through an inspection before for reassurance. “They managed to allay a lot of my fears. We went through how the inspections might look, though with some of the changes they were as much in the dark as I was and unsure how it was going to work.
“It was helpful to know that my performance on the day was less important than how my pupils were doing over time. I thought I was going to have to come up with some sort of perfect lesson, but this wasn’t the case. I did, however, have to show that my pupils were learning and making progress.”
Mike O’Neill, who teaches in a secondary in the South West of England and has mentored many NQTs in the English department, said it is senior leaders and not new teachers who should shoulder the stress of an Ofsted inspection.
As schools prepare for an inspection, school policies will be updated, lesson plans annotated and a whole raft of documentation and supporting evidence gathered to show inspectors how well pupils are progressing.
But NQTs should remember that they have been in stressful situations before – and survived. “Your PGCE year was probably as tough as it was going to get, and if you survived that then you will also survive Ofsted,” Mr O’Neill added.
He said planning a lesson in anticipation of an inspection was crucial. “You need to ensure your marking is up-to-date prior to the lesson, that there are a suitable range of tasks and activities going on in the class including balancing group and individual work.
“It can be difficult to get all of those things into one lesson so you should try not to do too much. Just make sure the lesson is interesting and engaging, and that the pupils are learning.
“Remember too that most inspectors are reasonable and understanding. They won’t give you preferential treatment because you’re an NQT but they will take into account your relative lack of experience in the job.”
One of the most important aspects of preparing for an inspection is to talk to more experienced staff who have been there before.
“Choose your counsel wisely, though, and don’t go to those colleagues you feel are worried or in a panic themselves, as they probably won’t be much help,” Mr O’Neill added.
“Within a short time of being in the school you will have spotted the teachers who are highly regarded, and you should seek them out. Equally, your head of department or mentor will be able to talk you through the process.
“If you are going to share your lesson plans with them to check, again make sure that you do this with the right person. You could also try the lesson out on another class earlier to ensure it runs smoothly and that you have structured it correctly.”
The manner in which you conduct the class is also important. “Don’t over-perform because the pupils will certainly notice and may react in a way you hadn’t anticipated. If you normally inject humour into the lesson then continue to do this, but don’t over-do it. Equally, don’t suddenly become too strict if this isn’t your usual way. Don’t change your approach too much or it may back-fire.”
Kate A’Court, NQT mentor and faculty leader for creative communication at Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton, said: “Ofsted inspections are part and parcel of teaching and should be viewed by NQTs as a confirmation visit, ensuring that students attending the school are getting the best possible education.
“Overall, NQTs need just to be themselves – the teacher that their students see each day – rather than the bundle of nerves that an inspection can induce.”
Key changes to Ofsted inspections
The Ofsted inspection framework has undergone two changes in 2012. The first, implemented in January, placed greater emphasis on teaching, with inspectors wanting to see evidence of what pupils are learning and how they are making progress. It also meant that schools cannot now be judged as outstanding overall unless teaching is outstanding in most lessons.
In September, further subtle but important revisions were brought in which will have an impact on the way schools are assessed.
A school requiring improvement is not a good school because some elements were missing or weaknesses were found. A school requiring improvement will be monitored and re-inspected within two years. Inspectors may also feedback to a teacher that aspects of their lesson required improvement (for example that learning or assessment may have required improvement). Early inspections suggest this is proving more difficult for teachers to grasp than a judgement of satisfactory.
Short notice period
This is one of the biggest changes. The school can expect to receive a call from the lead inspector after midday on the day before the team plans to arrive.
Progress, not attainment
The use of data has become more important than ever in the inspections process because of the short notice period and the time inspectors spend observing lessons. They will need to see what progress pupils have made, and are making, and the emphasis now is more on progress than attainment – in other words, how well pupils have been moved on from their starting points. In addition, inspectors may ask to see anonymised performance management records to consider the teaching profile at the school and whether value for money is being achieved in terms of teacher salary and effectiveness.
New language of Ofsted reports
The language and general “feel” of inspection reports has changed since September, with the report laid out in the form of bullet points and the language used more brusque. NQTs can expect the quality of feedback following lesson observations to differ depending on the inspector and how much time they have to deliver it.
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.
Free best practice download for NQTs This article has been published as part of SecEd's autumn 2012 NQT special focus, which comprises a range of best practice and advisory articles aimed at new teachers as they approach the end of their first term at the chalkface. The special focus has been supported by the NASUWT and you can download a free PDF containing all the articles from the Supplements section of this website by clicking here.