#SecretOfsted: A special school experience for @OfstedNews

Reading time: 6


Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
Read more about @TeacherToolkit

… The location and identity of this school, is not disclosed in the following article, but, the relevant Ofsted report is to be passed to Mike Cladingbowl for consideration at this week’s Ofsted meeting. This #SecretOfsted post, is written by a teacher who works in a Special School in London.


This article follows a series of posts recently published here and here.

Photo Credit: TerranceDC via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: TerranceDC via Compfight cc


Our secret-teacher says; this recent Cladingbowl quote makes me wonder how much would be left of our own (school) Ofsted report if the text followed his guidelines:

“‘I’ll make no apology for changing any report where I think that the inspection report itself is not following the guidance we’ve issued strictly enough.”

Even our appointed School Advisor agreed at a meeting with teachers, that in prescribing a method of teaching for the autistic students, the (this school’s Ofsted experience) report broke the most recent guidelines.

Photo Credit: quinn.anya via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: quinn.anya via Compfight cc

A special school experience:

I work at a Special School for learners with moderate learning difficulties and autism. In our most recent Ofsted inspection, my school was judged to ‘Require Improvement’.

When I joined the school it was on ‘notice to improve’, but after two further inspections we came ‘out of category’. Key targets from the last of these inspections were increasing active and collaborative learning, and peer and self-assessment. Although these were not unproblematic in the context of a school with 40% on the autistic spectrum, they drove the school’s improvement plan and, with the support of what was then our School Improvement Partner, we subsequently self-evaluated as a good school.

Last summer, the school also secured NAS accreditation. No reference is made to this fact in the report (although other recent Ofsted reports for similar schools do consider this to be relevant to outlining a school’s context).

The National Autism Society
The National Autism Society

However, even before the most recent inspection, last term, teachers already felt doomed. The previous reports were consistent – that the school was on a site that was not fit for purpose – and that the LA should try to find an alternative site.  What actually happened was that a site was found that could accommodate a specialist autism provision, meaning that one school was to be split over two sites.

New school:

The new school was supposed to open in September 2013, but due to unforeseeable construction problems, this meant the opening was delayed (and an opening date has yet to be announced)! To reduce disruption when the school was to split partway through the academic year, two separate schools were to be run on the existing site in the interim.

Photo Credit: Dave Wilson Cumbria via Compfight cc
Not quite the new building we’d hope for …
Photo Credit: Dave Wilson Cumbria via Compfight cc

Compromises had to be made, which included less than suitable rooms, being pressed into service as (short-term) classrooms in buildings scheduled for demolition in the near future. This was not the ideal showcase for us to show off our good practice but, incomprehensibly, no reference is made to these difficult circumstances in the subsequent report and, indeed, the suitability of the existing site is no longer stated to be an issue.

Teaching and learning:

The most recent report is focused on teaching and learning, particularly for our autistic learners. Too many lessons were found to ‘require improvement’. Disturbingly, however, there was not much evidence that they were matching up their individual lesson observation judgements with progress data. Rather, teachers discovered that the inspectors who had just arrived in the room were ‘experts’ in the learners they saw before them, despite the fact that they were not interested in perusing background or assessment data. They were still somehow able to say, that individuals were not being sufficiently challenged, despite evidence to the contrary and, indeed, in one case, they refused to discuss the lesson afterwards.

Should the same size fit everyone?  Photo Credit: anotherlunch.com via Compfight cc
Should the same size fit everyone?
Photo Credit: anotherlunch.com via Compfight cc

The inspectors clearly also had a specific teaching style in mind for those on the autistic spectrum and, contrary to guidance, the report specifies that teachers need to be better trained in it.  It is deeply ironic that teachers attempting to develop the collaborative aspect of learning (thinking that this was what Ofsted were looking for, after the previous inspection), were now damned because they were not running lessons at work-stations, with individual programmes and schedules.

The elusive Outstanding:

A key deficiency identified, was that the inspectors saw no outstanding teaching.  As a result, teachers are now under instructions to be ‘outstanding’.  What this means in terms of changing or refining my own practice remains unclear, even after the new School Progress Advisor was booked to guide us towards this. A senior leader is still telling me that they will know an outstanding lesson when they see it, but cannot define what tips the balance from good to outstanding.  Having visited a similar school recently rated ‘outstanding’, I know that an outstanding school site and associated facilities look better than ours, but I am no clearer, about what outstanding teaching and learning looks like in my kind of school.

Consultants were parachuted in...  Photo Credit: HikingArtist.com via Compfight cc
Consultants were parachuted in…
Photo Credit: HikingArtist.com via Compfight cc

School Advisor:

At the SPA’s training session, most of the time was given over to fielding teacher comments and questions about the recent morale-busting experience of being inspected. At three times in that meeting the, seemingly stunned, SPA said we had grounds for complaint; and also noted that the report broke guidelines by appearing to endorse a specific style of teaching. Having been asked by senior leadership to take questions to the meeting, I wrote the following list of questions.

It was agreed in the meeting, that I would give them in writing to the SPA. To date, there is no sign that the school has received any response.

Will our unanswered questions be answered?  Photo Credit: tomaszd via Compfight cc
Will our unanswered questions be answered?
Photo Credit: tomaszd via Compfight cc

Unanswered questions:

1) Our students (notwithstanding our efforts as teachers) do not meet the requirements of good in key respects. For example, their progress is held back, by an inability to read or write accurately and fluently; that they do not perform equally well in reading, writing, speaking and listening; that they do not read widely and often, they do not acquire knowledge and understanding quickly and securely; that they do not show a good degree of technical accuracy, or rapidly acquire secure knowledge of letters and sounds.

Can you have good or better teaching without good or better achievement?   

2) If the Ofsted criteria for good or outstanding teaching are not intended to be used for individual lessons, but rather for overall whole-school teaching and learning.

What criteria are schools meant to use for the judgements needed for the appraisal process?

3) If we need to train our autistic students, in particular, to be independent; then their work needs to be ‘practice’ rather than new learning. Observers have consistently viewed any consolidation as evidence of progress not being rapid enough.

Please clarify.

4) The 2013 Ofsted Annual Report repeats criticism of (mainstream) schools; where, “significant periods of time were spent by teachers on getting pupils to articulate their learning before they had completed enough work.”

So, how do you recommend we train our students (who have communication difficulties) to talk only about their learning, rather than what they are doing?

5) Bearing in mind a) that some students regress, b) that teachers have been criticised for writing too much in books, that is not for our students’ benefit and c) that observers have not been interested in individual stories about students.

How can we make it clearer to observers – merely flicking through our books – that our students are making rapid and sustained progress?

6) If “[i]t is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual,” and particularly bearing in mind the data pressure to get cohorts through accredited courses in KS4 (regardless of individual needs).

How much individualisation is enough?

7) The descriptors for outstanding leadership and management now make it clear, that the curriculum “promotes and sustains a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning.”

What do you think this would look like in our setting, particularly with autistic learners?

8) Recent Ofsted reports for schools graded outstanding, note that “all students read or look at books, magazines or newspapers everyday on their own, with peers or adults” and that “the timetable now gives additional time at the start and end of each day to practise phonics and build literacy skills.”

These clearly contribute to learning over time, but how do inspectors measure learning within any one such lesson?


Comments are free:

If you would like to leave a comment for this school teacher to share, please do so by leaving a comment at the bottom of this post. After sharing your comments. I will respond to you on behalf of the secret-teacher.

Photo Credit: seq via Compfight cc

 Secret @TeacherToolkit?

If you have an Ofsted experience you would like to share; please contact me below in good faith.

4 thoughts on “#SecretOfsted: A special school experience for @OfstedNews

  1. From anonymous School Improvement Advisor:

    I wish you luck with the Ofsted meeting and hope that you have the opportunity to discuss some of the issues and concerns that surround the current inspection process. I believe there should be an honest and open dialogue about inspection, the form it should take and a review of its purpose. If this is to have any validity, however, it needs to involve everyone in the process of discussion and not be confined merely to think tanks, politicians and bloggers – especially those with overlarge egos. Teachers and school leaders need to be fully involved in this too, as does the workforce. Serving additional inspectors (who form the majority of the workforce) appear to be completely excluded from the current dialogue – it seems to me they are just there to be easy targets for anyone with an Ofsted axe to grind, yet they form the vast majority of the inspectorate and most work hard in difficult circumstances to do the best they can in the face of constant changes and often unfounded criticism.

    The #SecretOfsted post is a good example of this; it is full of the type of misconceptions that so often surround anything to do with Ofsted and also contains some very obvious flaws in its arguments.

    I will begin with the statements “We do not want or deserve or need Serco or Tribal. Just properly qualified professionals current in the classroom and keen to share expertise and advice developmentally” and “Again, the high-stakes involved, mean that schools should not be inspected by a contractor. If that means employing more HMI’s so be it” and “The DfE must be prepared to only use properly qualified and experienced HMI’s…”.

    HMIs are employed full-time by Ofsted. They are therefore, not currently working in classrooms as the writer says all inspectors should be. Recruiting more to the DfE may or may not be desirable, but at the point they become centrally employed, they give up their day job and the longer they stay fully in the employ of the DfE, the further away from the classroom they get. Some HMIs have been in post for YEARS and have not taught in anger for a very long time. By contrast, for the past four or so years, newly trained additional inspectors have had to be practitioners from a good or outstanding school (not ‘failed heads’ therefore). Most teams made up of additional inspectors usually have at least one team member (if not more) who is currently a serving Head Teacher or member of SLT. They are expert and knowledgeable, and most will tell you that they like being on teams with people who are able to undertake inspections more regularly than themselves.

    The blog post implies that HMIs are better trained than additional inspectors. As HMIs and additional inspectors receive exactly the same training I do not understand where this idea has come from. However, since 2012, many additional inspectors have undertaken a university accredited professional qualification in school inspection as part of their training – I know of no HMIs who have qualified in this way and yet some people like the writer persist in the view that HMI inspections are somehow more reliable than those undertaken by additional inspectors. A FIO request to Ofsted about how many complaints there have been about HMI led inspections would quickly lay that myth to rest. I see very little in the way of poor practice on inspection, but where it does happen, HMIs are at least as guilty of it as additional inspectors in my experience

    Having contractors such as Serco, Tribal and CfBT (I don’t know why the writer left CfBT out) allows for a flexible and much more cost effective service to be delivered. HMIs themselves are not well paid (they earn significantly less than secondary school heads for example) and recent recruitment drives have not resulted in anywhere near the increased numbers of HMIs required to cover those who have retired, for example. By contrast, additional inspectors largely work on a type of zero hour contract. There is no guarantee of work and in 2012 a pay cut was introduced across the board – no consultation was needed to bring this into effect, of course. Nothing could be further from the popular view of additional inspectors staying in luxury hotels and relaxing in the bar after a day in school. On the contrary, they receive no expenses whatsoever, either for travel or for overnight stays, and if inspections are cancelled, as they often are, they receive no money at all, even if this happens on the eve of the inspection itself. I am not arguing that any of this is good for the inspection process, the workforce, or its morale, but it does save the tax payer significant sums of money.

    In conclusion I would say this: all the time schools are subject to inspection, they deserve the very best process that can be delivered. The issue is too important to be hijacked by the vested interests of the few, so let’s hope the discussions, meetings and consultations that are taking place result in everyone’s point of view being taken into account, including those of the additional inspectors, whatever the outcome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.