An Inspector Calls – The Ofsted Experience

The Phone Call
Friday May 7th and after worrying about it daily since the beginning of the academic year, we get the call we’re to be inspected the following week. I was sitting in a meeting with a local university planning our next training day when the secretary walked in and told me of the call. When Ofsted call you quickly make yourself available and that’s what I did!

The first call is with the agents, who inform you of the fact that you are to be inspected and who your lead inspector will be. Frantic note taking is the norm at this point, even though an email minutes later confirms the details just given verbally. The second call, from the lead inspector comes pretty quickly after that. No matter how well you think you’ve prepared there is always that thought that you’ll be caught out. That the inspection will be a negative process that will destroy all your efforts. It’s hard to shake your feelings of doubt and see the experience as something positive at this stage!

Following that first phone call, comes an impromptu staff meeting to inform everyone, to reassure, support and advise staff. Then phone calls to governors, letters to parents and meetings with key people. It’s all done very quickly and everyone wants to know when school is open over the weekend, how late can they work, what to do about this, will they want to see that? Some people panic, some worry, some take it all in their stride and some see it as a chance to shine. It’s hard to second guess people’s reactions and subsequent responses.

Inevitably the weekend in school is very busy as we try to ensure the place is seen in its best possible light.

Meeting the team

Tuesday morning, the team arrived and we made sure we were there to greet them at the door. We provided them with an office space and took them down to meet the staff. The lead inspector attempted to put everyone at ease and most people certainly would have felt better about the inspection following his reassuring words. An all too quick tour of the school followed – one which allowed me very little time to talk about things as we went around the building. Before we knew it we were into class observations. The team left their office en masse, clipboards at the ready.

The Inspectionday 1

Following the first day of the inspection I couldn’t have felt lower. The UK’s school inspectorate can make you feel like this. Having been through many inspections I can honestly say this one hit me hard. The inspection process is now something that is done with you, rather than to you – this is what I was told and indeed I was party to a number of evaluations and conversations that have hitherto been held privately. Did this make the process easier? Better? More open? Possibly, in some ways, but ultimately the experience is about a range of judgements based on very shaky criteria and open to interpretation. Some teams are generous, some are more stringent.

Staff must have felt the decidedly miserable atmosphere around the place as we left on that first evening. I found it difficult to see any aspect of the experience as positive and can hardly say I was relishing another day of Ofsted.

The Inspection – day 2

We arrived for day 2 determined the team would see us at our best, witness some of the fantastic things going on around school and leave with an accurate picture of the school. It isn’t easy to do this as it relies on everyone pulling out all the stops, all technology working etc… The day went much better than the previous one and we all felt we’d had a much better experience. Meetings with staff, governors and pupils all seemed to go well and we began to feel a bit better about things. In the afternoon the inspectors met to decide on their judgements. As we sat listening to them deliberate over grades it was obvious there was a range of opinions based on the different experiences and observations of the team. The lead inspector made the final decision on all the judgements and much as I disagreed on a few of them, it was pretty obvious they weren’t going to change.


The team left us after reporting back to our leadership team and chair of governors. As always at these times there are mixed feelings – delight that certain things have been recognised, disappointment that other things have been missed, reassurance that your self evaluation has identified the same areas as the inspection team, relief that the experience is over!

I had been told by colleagues that this round of inspections had been their most positive. I have to say so much still seems to depend on the team you get. People will tell you that report is nearly all written before the team set foot in school anyway, based on your SEF, Raise online data and your previous inspection and there is definitely more than a hint of truth to this. It was pleasing to see common sense once again prevail regarding safeguarding – no one measured fence heights or tried to sneak in the building to catch us out over security.

I recognise the need for accountability in our schools – it’s the price we pay for the autonomy we enjoy, but I’m yet to be convinced there isn’t a better, fairer way to do this. I started writing this post as a real time journal during the inspection – it’s taken me this long to be able to put it together as the experience absolutely floored me. It’s not a helpful place to be. We have reviewed our action plan, taken on board the inspection team’s advice and celebrated their report but would I want to go through the experience again? Has it helped the school recognise anything we weren’t already aware of? Will it ultimately benefit the school community in any way? I have to say my answer is no.


About smichael920

Headteacher of a large primary school in North West England. Helping me to blur the distinction between work and home, I am also father of five, covering most phases of education thus giving me the lowdown from within and without. Education is about enjoying today and preparing for tomorrow. This can't be done using the tools of the past. View all posts by smichael920

9 responses to “An Inspector Calls – The Ofsted Experience

  • Kevin McLaughlin

    ‘so much depends on the team you get’. I’ve heard this so many times before and I believe it to be true. The SEF goes some way in drawing a pre-Oftsed picture but I’ll never understand how one team of clip-boarded, cross ticking, form filling inspectors can honestly pass judgement on a school’s performance over two days. The best people to to that are the ones in school, the staff, the children, governors and parents. We know where our schools are, where they need to change and do better. Along with an LA appointed inspector/advisor this judgement would be discussed with everyone involved in school, lesson observations carried out during the year by the Head Teacher would be used as evidence too. Ofsted does nothing more than create suspicion and fear. Those who succeed feel like they have been beaten by a hammer but have lived to tell the tale. Those that do not, don’t.

    • smichael920

      Thanks for the comments Kevin. I think you’re spot on over the way the process could move forward. I can honestly say this was the most stressful inspection I’ve been through. Even though the result wasn’t bad it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know and left us all feeling like we’d really been through the ringer- and for what?

      The team came in with already formed opinions and judgements based on the data they had accessed online. Some staff struggled to impress with the snapshot 15mins observation they got and we had to push them to get back into certain classes as their judgement didn’t match our own. All in all big changes are needed to make the process truly feel like it is being done with you rather than to you.

      Sent from my iPhone

  • Graham Cullen

    Really enjoyed your posting. Thank you! An inspection can make or break a career and strike fear into one’s heart. Your posting clarified the process and certainly helped me. Good Luck

    • smichael920

      Thanks Graham

      I’m glad you found the post interesting. It was certainly the most stressful inspection I’ve been through even though the outcomes for us were ultimately ok. I felt numb on the Tuesday night after having to fight for everything. I can’t decide whether they were testing my metal or just sticking so rigidly to the framework and grade descriptors that everything had to be checked and double checked. I read an article in last week’s TES that talked about Ofsted ‘frightening us into improvement’, it is still so reliant on the team you get. That can’t be the best way to support schools.

      Sent from my iPhone

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  • Ant Heald

    I’m just a chalkface teacher with a relatively minor responsibility in a large secondary school. When we had our last-but-one inspection, my (private) blog entries read: “We got ‘the call’ on Monday. They’ve been in today and tomorrow. haven’t been seen today, but there’s a reasonable chance tomorrow. Felt sick to the stomach all day. A horrible business.” and then: “Outstanding – That’s what our school is, apparently. Ofsted say so, so it must be right.
    I spent stupid hours (like until 3am) putting together lesson plans and resources that didn’t make my lessons any better. Then no inspectors came to my lessons, so I can’t claim to have contributed much to our outstandingness. Or maybe my not being seen allowed the ‘outstanding’ judgement. Whichever. I can’t get too excited about it.” Last year we were inspected again. That time I intended to blog publicly, and in more detail about it, but I found it so horrible and traumatic that I just couldn’t face writing about it. Again, I wasn’t seen, and again we were judged ‘Outstanding’.

    So how you cope in a position of leadership in the smaller environment of a primary school, I just don’t know, but it can’t be long before I have a fairly good idea as my wife has been waiting for ‘the call’ all year.

    I find it difficult to believe that any decent person could understand what it does to people and still be an Ofsted inspector. But I suppose they believe they are doing it ultimately for our betterment and for the good of the children we teach, so I suppose that with Chinua Achebe, we should:

    Praise bounteous
    providence if you will
    that grants even an ogre
    a tiny glow-worm
    tenderness encapsulated
    in icy caverns of a cruel
    heart or else despair

    for in every germ
    of that kindred love is
    lodged the perpetuity
    of evil.

    • smichael920

      Hi Ant

      Thanks for the feedback. I’m still a little numb and it has taken me all this time to be able to put the post together. Like you I’d find it hard to undertake a role that so clearly terrified the life out of people for very little discernable benefit. I felt like my every judgement was being challenged and ultimately all they were interested in was the data (‘this would be outstanding but it hasn’t yet had a big enough impact on your results’ that sort of comment cropped up a few times). We didn’t learn anything that we didn’t already know about the school but spent two days in the depths if despair while others, eventually, came to the same conclusion (albeit after knocking a few grades down because results weren’t high enough to warrant 1s). All in all it’s a regime we could happily live without and still manage to do our jobs effectively.

      Sent from my iPhone

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