It may seem like every NQT’s worst nightmare. Barely a few weeks or months into the start of your first job the head announces that the school’s Ofsted inspection is due.
You are not yet feeling confident in front of that year 10 class, and year 8 has some colourful characters that test your patience and disrupt lessons. How on earth are you
going to cope?
For Jenni Weston, who was inspected for the first time earlier this year at her school in
the North East of England, the prospect of being observed by inspectors caused many sleepless nights.
She explained: “We knew at the end of the first term that inspectors were coming in and this, coupled with the new inspections framework, caused some stress in the school. I
would say that the tension was palpable among all the staff, from the senior management team downwards.
“We weren’t particularly scared of doing badly as I teach in a good school, in a reasonably well-heeled area and generally things run smoothly here. But it just felt like yet another thing to worry about at such an early stage of my career, when I was still trying to find my feet and get to grips with all the demands of the job.”
Ms Weston, a teacher of modern foreign languages, said that her mentor really helped prepare her for the process. “We sat down and she went through exactly what an inspection looks like from her previous experience and we discussed what might happen when I was being observed.
“She managed to allay many of my fears and stressed that the fact I was an NQT would be taken into consideration, so I was not to worry about it and just act as I normally would.
“This is easier said than done. I felt very lucky to have been given a job in such a good and popular school and that last thing I wanted to do was let anyone – or myself – down by not performing at my best.”
Mike O’Neill, who teaches in a secondary in the South West of England and is mentor to four NQTs in the English department, knows Ms Weston’s fears well.
“One of the first things that happens in a school due to be inspected is panic,” he said, “but most of this pressure should be borne by the senior leadership team.
“What NQTs may notice straight away is a mad rush to get school policies updated, which may mean immediate changes in the way things are done at the school,” he said. “These might include updating behaviour management policies or at least tightening them up.
“Even if the inspection falls early in the school year and does not impact directly on NQTs, they may notice slight changes in the way their colleagues behave, or teachers may be assigned different responsibilities. All of this can be quite disconcerting when you’re trying to settle in, think you’ve got the measure of the place and then some procedural changes take place and everything is in a state of flux again.”
If the inspection is within the first term of starting your new job, you may not yet have any pupils’ work to display and you may still be working on, and perfecting, lesson plans.
But where stress is concerned do not forget you have been here before. Mr O’Neill continued: “Your PGCE year was probably as tough as it was going to get, and if you survived that then you will also survive an Ofsted inspection.”
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 not try to do too much. Make sure the lesson is interesting and engaging.
“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 the colleagues you feel are panicking or worried themselves,” Mr O’Neill said.
“Within a short time of being in the school you will have spotted the teachers who are highly thought of, 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 as the pupils will notice this and may react in a way that you don’t want. 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.”
John Howson, visiting professor at London University’s Institute of Education, reassured NQTs that inspectors would take into consideration their length of service.
“If you are in your first term of your first year then they will look at this differently than if you were in the third term,” he said. “They know you are still learning and your lesson will not be perfect. You will not be judged in the same way as a teacher who has 20 years’ experience of inspections behind them.
“Make sure you are prepared as best as you can be – with reports and marking up-to-date and lessons prepared, and act in a professional manner at all times.
“The school will not sink or swim based on the judgement that the inspectors give you. But most importantly, don’t panic, as there is no need to.”
The new Ofsted framework
From this year, there is a greater emphasis in inspections on teaching and inspectors want to see evidence that pupils are learning and making progress. Schools cannot be judged as outstanding overall unless teaching is “outstanding” in most lessons.
Ofsted has not stipulated what makes a perfect lesson but the following are among the qualities inspectors will be looking for:
• Work pitched at a level that is achievable for all pupils, regardless of ability.
• Assessment data used to set tasks that are matched to the pupils’ prior attainment.
• Resources, including teaching assistants where applicable, used effectively to promote rapid learning for all pupils.
• Support for SEN pupils at appropriate times in the lesson to optimise their learning.
• Tasks set in the lesson should enthuse pupils so that they enjoy learning and persevere when faced with difficult problems.
• Work must include opportunities to develop reading, writing, mathematics and ICT skills, as well as broader skills such as research and teamwork.
• Teachers should show high levels of subject knowledge throughout the lesson, and use appropriate questioning to evaluate understanding.
• Homework needs to be set and marked frequently so pupils see where they are in their learning and how they can improve.
The view from the chalkface
Kate A’Court, an NQT mentor and faculty leader for creative communication at Malcolm Arnold Academy in Northampton:
“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.
“Inspectors are looking for nothing less than what our students deserve. Visits should not impact the education we give to students; rather, they are in place to confirm we are doing our jobs well.
“At my school, everything we do as a school across the whole year is in preparation for an Ofsted visit, and this extends down to how we provide for NQTs.
“School lesson plans are created to give teachers, and therefore observers, as much detail as possible about the lesson, the students involved and the progress that particular lesson, and the subsequent series of lessons, should enable our students to make.
“Throughout all three terms, NQTs are directed towards a series of in-house training sessions which promote best practice in lesson planning, planning for progress and assessment and monitoring.
“As part of the NQT year, lesson planning and execution are subject to monitoring and staff are able to observe other lessons where outstanding practice is evident.
“Immediately before a visit, however, NQTs are offered time to go through their lesson plans and are offered advice and tweaks to the work they have prepared. NQTs are advised to be respectful and polite and also remember that throughout inspections, students should always take priority.
“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.”
Dorothy Lepkowska is a freelance education journalist.