Inspections cast a long shadow, but Pat Doe wonders if the future could be brighter

It was dark and I was creeping out of the house to make an early start on the second day of our Ofsted. I was hoping not to wake anyone but my five-year old daughter was out of bed and standing at the top of the stairs. ‘What do the spectres want?’ she asked. I was bewildered by the question and thought that she must have had a nightmare, until she explained, ‘mummy said there are spectres in your school … the Ofsted spectres’.


The anticipated visit of the Ofsted ‘spectres’ can cast a long shadow over the already challenging work of a teacher. One of the reasons Ofsted inspections are so stressful is that teachers are often unsure what is expected of them.

There is a successful industry of consultants, authors, coaches and trainers that promise to let teachers and school leaders into the secret of an ‘outstanding lesson’ and tell us ‘what Ofsted really wants’. This lucrative market helps to feed the perception that there is a set of secret rules that teachers need to follow to demonstrate effective teaching.

Ofsted has had the negative consequences of narrowing the curriculum and increasing workload

Ofsted frequently addresses this misconception, publishing documents that clearly state ‘Ofsted do not expect to see a particular approach to teaching’ and addressing ‘myths about Ofsted-approved marking policies’. What Ofsted is looking for is hardly a secret, the handbook issued to inspectors is a public document, and public consultation on the current version has recently closed.

In launching the consultation document, the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman acknowledged that league tables and the narrow focus on exam results in Ofsted inspections have had the negative consequences of narrowing the curriculum for children and increasing workload on teachers.

New framework

Rather than relying solely on performance data, the new inspections will consider a much more diverse set of evidence. Under the new proposals the lead inspector will visit the school for an on-site planning meeting the day before the lesson observations start. This ensures that they have access to the kind of evidence they need during the actual inspection. Schools having just two and half hours’ notice before the inspectors arrive has been reported. However, teachers will still have the same notice period before any lessons are observed.

The framework also introduces a new focus on the curriculum. Many schools now begin teaching GCSEs in year 9 to meet the challenges of the 9-1 GCSE specifications. Under the new proposals Ofsted will look at long-term curriculum plans with the expectation that skill development and knowledge over time has been considered.

In science in particular, it seems unlikely that simply starting at the beginning of the GCSE specification in year 9, in the hope of getting to the end in time for revision in year 11, will meet either the needs of our pupils or Ofsted’s curriculum planning expectations. If the new framework prompts a widespread consideration of how to bridge the gap between the limited science studied in KS2 and the demands of the 9-1 GCSE just two years later, then it should be welcomed.

Ofsted has long been a convenient bogeyman for some school leaders

To support the framework Ofsted has produced a summary of the research that has influenced its development. Controversially, the document states that learning is ‘in part defined as a change in long-term memory’. This position reflects the ‘learning sciences’, relating to the formation of memories and principles of providing clear instructions. Those of us who remember the pantomime of attempting to demonstrate the progress of students within a 20-minute observation will welcome Ofsted’s recognition that good teaching includes periods of practising what has already been learned. Ofsted is also now recognising that independent student work is sometimes best supported by short periods of clear teacher instructions.

Ofsted has long been a convenient bogeyman for some school leaders under pressure to demonstrate their ability to influence classroom practice. The lazy justification that we must adopt a new practice because Ofsted demands it is misguided and damaging.

Ultimately what ’the spectres want’ to see are lessons where students are engaged and challenged, and that this learning is reflected in their final examination results. Few of us in education would want anything else and our teaching should continue to be guided by those principles. This new framework seems to be a genuine attempt to recognise a broader range of good practice than has previously been the case. All that teachers need to do is deliver the best lessons they can. It is incumbent on Ofsted to recognise good teaching, not for teachers to adapt their practice to suit Ofsted criteria.