The warning signs Ofsted is looking for


Philippa Wilding and Stephen Long, an Ofsted inspector, reveal some common areas which can suggest to an inspection team that a school is in need of improvement.


Every school strives to be “outstanding”. Yet the road to outstanding or indeed maintaining an Ofsted grading, is dependent on your ability to show clear evidence that improvement is ongoing across the school. Here, we pinpoint a few areas which highlight to inspectors that all might not be as it should and what you can do about them.

Students not making expected levels of progress

We all know that ahead of an inspection, the lead Ofsted inspector will take a thorough look at all available data to pinpoint any areas of weakness at your school. The focus of an inspection will then be to support or disprove any conclusions they have drawn.

You will need to be able to counter any conclusions you feel are not valid and prove to inspectors why. Perhaps, if you are in an area of high mobility, you can demonstrate that it is only the students that have recently joined your school who are not making adequate progress; and that once they have been at the school for some time, they catch up with their peers. 

The ability to have this sort of dialogue with an inspection team will require both leadership staff and teachers to understand exactly what progress is being made and by whom, which calls for a good understanding of student data.

Inspectors will expect to see that you have systems in place to address any attainment gaps, you are monitoring progress, and that teachers can provide supporting evidence of the work that is being undertaken to address any area of concern. 

Teachers not making expected levels of progress

Of course, when an inspector arrives at your school gate, they won’t necessarily know if any of your teaching staff are underperforming. But once they start to observe lessons, they will pinpoint areas of weakness. 

The inspector may also use the lesson observations to test any hypotheses they have about teaching being matched to the needs of all students so that any potentially underperforming groups, such as Pupil Premium students, are able to make good progress. 

This may also involve asking teachers and students about strategies being used in the classroom on marking and feedback, for example.

To meet their expectations and develop outstanding teaching practices, ensure you continuously analyse teachers’ performance and development needs. Create bespoke training sessions tailored to the particular needs of individual teachers or consider introducing some form of mentoring programme. 

We have also visited many schools that have peer-observations that run alongside more formal practices. These sessions do not form part of any official recording process, but staff seem to really benefit from seeing first-hand, the methods employed by their colleagues. 

Whatever strategy you adopt, it is important to measure the success over a period of time and re-evaluate if you are not making progress with one individual. An inspector will not expect to see a perfect teaching team, but where there is underperformance, will expect you to be able to demonstrate that it is being addressed.

Failure to comply with safeguarding policies

One area that often catches out many of the schools we visit is safeguarding. Yet it is an important aspect of your inspection that can have a significant impact on your Ofsted grading. 

Safeguarding is so much more than ensuring your single central register is kept up-to-date. An inspector may choose to examine the hidden areas of your school grounds. They will look to see whether your back gate is locked, for example. 

They will want to see that there is a system in place to ensure all visitors are asked for proof that they have been DBS checked. Did you ask your inspector for the relevant documentation, for instance? If a student has broken their leg, what is your procedure for evacuating them if a fire breaks out during a lesson?

Think about introducing a safeguarding training session at the start of the new academic year so staff are reminded of the importance of the little things. 

It is also vital that you keep an eye on the ParentView website. If a parent or number of parents have raised concerns about bullying, for example, your inspector will want to know why the issue arose and how the matter was resolved.

Clear breaches of a school’s behaviour policy

As soon as an inspector arrives, they will immediately begin gathering information about your behaviour policy. They will be looking to see how students arrive at school, their behaviour in the corridors, and any choice language used. 

Not only will they observe behaviour in lessons, but they will tour all areas of the site, visit the canteen at lunchtime and talk to students. An inspector will want to see how good behaviour is being supported and bad behaviour challenged. 

There must be consistency in promoting high expectations, with a high ratio of praise in both oral and written feedback to students. Evidence for this needs to be captured and analysed.

To provide an overview of current behaviour across the school, you may want to consider publishing weekly reports from your management information system so that you can see the number and types of behaviour that are being logged. This will allow you to monitor any changes over time and where these take place.

Think about introducing a meet and greet policy, whereby teachers accompany students out of the classroom and greet their next class as they arrive for the lesson.

During lunchtime, ensure staff are engaging with students. Perhaps hold CPD sessions so that everyone understands your expectations of them during breaks and lunch. This will help ensure that student behaviour is not an area that lets you down in an inspection.

Staff not singing from the same hymn sheet 

An inspector will be looking for any inconsistencies across the school. If at the start of an inspection you talk enthusiastically about policies and strategies in place, your inspector will be expecting to see this in practice during every lesson that they observe. 

If they ask a teacher about how you are raising the achievement of students with English as an additional language, they will want to see an answer similar to the head’s. They will instantly pick up on any significant gaps between teachers and across departments.

Your inspector will also want to see that everyone is united in their understanding of the school’s improvement strategy. To help with this, you might consider changing your daily staff briefings so that they focus on specific areas where improvement is required.

Introduce training sessions for middle leaders so that they are able to confidently undertake regular detailed analysis of their departments, and spot any potential areas of weakness. You could also ensure that even junior staff are responsible for specific key improvement goals so they are actively involved in driving the school forward.

The result of implementing these changes will mean that everyone in the school feels more confident at the prospect of an inspection and that the outcome is much more likely to be the one you were hoping for.

  • Philippa Wilding is head of the SIMS School Improvement Programme at Capita SIMS and Stephen Long works with her team.


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