Ofsted inspections: What to expect

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Ofsted is back, and those in the inspection cycle will need to be prepared for their next visit. Here, Matt Bromley reminds us what the key features of attendance inspection are and identifies the main changes in light of Covid-19.

Summary

  • The new EIF was published in September 2019 with a very different frame of reference for schools.
  • Attendance and punctuality are covered within the ‘behaviour and attitudes’ judgement.
  • Ofsted inspectors now have additional considerations post Covid-19.

On 28 June 2021 Ofsted published changes to the School inspection handbook. The revisions:

  • take into account the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic
  • reflect updates to government guidance
  • clarify Ofsted’s position in relation to harmful sexual behaviour, including how it expects schools to confront sexual harassment, abuse and violence among children and young people.

Before we explore these changes, let’s take a step back and explore why Ofsted published a new Education inspection framework (EIF) in September 2019 and what changed.

The Education inspection framework (EIF)

Ofsted published a new framework which came into effect in September 2019. The purpose of this framework, Ofsted said, was to discourage schools from narrowing their curriculum offer – perhaps in the form of running a three-year GCSE or closing down certain subjects.

The EIF was also intended to end practices such as teaching to the test – being blinkered by what the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman, calls the ‘stickers and badges’ of qualification outcomes at the expense of a more rounded education that better prepares pupils for the next stages of their education, employment and lives.

Finally, the EIF aimed to tackle social justice issues, ending educational disadvantage and affording every child, no matter their starting point and background, an equal opportunity to access an ambitious curriculum and to succeed in school and college.

Inspection activity now takes three forms:

  • Top-level view: Inspectors and leaders start with a top-level view of the school’s curriculum, exploring what is on offer to whom and when, leaders’ understanding of curriculum intent and sequencing, and why these choices were made.
  • Deep dive: Next, they conduct a ‘deep dive’, which involves gathering evidence on the curriculum intent, implementation and impact over a sample of subjects, topics or aspects. This, Ofsted says, is carried out in collaboration with leaders, teachers and pupils. The intent of the deep dive is to seek to interrogate and establish a coherent evidence base on the quality of education.
  • Bringing it together: Finally, inspectors bring the evidence together to widen coverage and to test whether any issues identified during the deep dives are systemic. This usually leads to school leaders bringing forward further evidence, and inspectors gathering additional evidence.

Attendance and the EIF

Attendance and punctuality feature in the ‘behaviour and attitudes’ judgment where it says that inspectors will judge the ‘extent to which teachers and leaders have high expectations of pupils, on attendance and punctuality’. Here, it is crucial for school leaders to develop the right culture in order to support teachers.

What works

In practice, schools that successfully develop a culture that promotes good attendance and punctuality – as well as good behaviour – tend to have committed senior leaders and strong teams who are highly visible, and who have a clear and detailed sense of purpose and strategy which is regularly communicated to all stakeholders.

They consult on, agree and articulate rules and routines, and the consequences of failing to follow those rules are also clearly articulated and consistently applied. There is a close attention to detail in these schools – no one lets the little things slip and everyone challenges non-attendance, lateness and poor behaviour.

These schools also have a strong commitment to staff development to ensure that all staff are skilled at dealing with such issues. Finally, attendance policies are a continual focus in these schools.

The EIF says that attendance and punctuality can be maximised if schools have a clear and effective attendance policy with clearly defined consequences that are applied consistently and fairly by all staff.

Pupil motivation and positive attitudes to learning are also important predictors of attainment, Ofsted says, and as such schools need to foster a positive, respectful school culture in which staff know and care about pupils.

Ultimately, schools need to create an environment where pupils feel safe, in which bullying and discrimination are not accepted and in which they are dealt with quickly, consistently and effectively whenever they occur. It follows that, if pupils feel safe in school, and can see the purpose of being in school, they are more likely to attend and be on time for lessons.

What to avoid

Conversely, in the schools that fail to create the right culture, there is often a lack of clarity about the vision, or a poor communication of that vision to staff and/or pupils. Expectations of pupils are either too low or poorly communicated and inconsistently applied. Staff are often overburdened by workload and therefore unable to focus effectively on attendance and punctuality. The leaders in these schools are often remote, unavailable, or equally burdened by bureaucracy.

The ‘behaviour and attitudes’ judgment focuses on the factors that research and inspection evidence indicate contribute most strongly to pupils’ positive behaviour and attitudes, including attendance and punctuality, thereby giving them the greatest possible opportunity to achieve positive outcomes. Among these factors, Ofsted says, is a strong focus on attendance and punctuality so that disruption is minimised.

Naturally, if pupils do not attend, do not attend regularly enough, or are not on time for lessons, then their potential to achieve positive outcomes will be stymied.

Accepting different needs

The EIF accepts that not all pupils will be able to attend school at the same rate and that all pupils face different challenges. As such, inspectors will not expect every pupil to achieve 100% attendance. Rather, when a school is working with pupils with particular needs, they’ll look for ‘behaviour and conduct that reflects the school’s high expectations and their consistent, fair implementation’. This is likely to include demonstrable improvement in the attendance of these pupils, and will take into account the individual circumstances of the school.

When some pupils, or groups of pupils, with particular needs have low attendance, inspectors will evaluate ‘the impact of schools’ high expectations, the consistent, fair implementation of policies, and their impact on the demonstrable improvement of the attendance and behaviour of these pupils’. Positive trends will be crucial here – although attendance may still be low, if it is improving over time and there is a clear narrative around the reasons for low attendance in the past and a clear strategy for tackling it, then schools will not be unfairly unpunished.

Where attendance is low, it will be crucial to show how the school is working with parents/carers and the local community and, if applicable, how they are using the pupil premium grant and other sources of disadvantage funding to provide intervention and support strategies that improve attendance.

Gathering evidence of attendance and punctuality

In order to make judgments regarding pupils’ attendance and punctuality, inspectors will observe pupils’ punctuality in arriving at school and at lessons. They will analyse absence and persistent absence rates for all pupils, and for different groups in relation to national averages for all pupils.

Inspectors will:

  • analyse the extent to which low attenders are improving their attendance over time and whether attendance is consistently low
  • evaluate the prevalence of permanent exclusions, the procedures surrounding this and the reasons for it, and the support given to make sure that it is a last resort
  • evaluate the effectiveness of fixed-term and internal exclusion, including the rates and reasons for exclusion
  • assess the school’s work to follow up and support fixed-term excluded pupils.

Once evidence has been gathered, it will be triangulated, and the evidence seen during the inspection visit will be weighed against evidence of trends over time. Ultimately, the question will be: Is attendance improving?

The impact of Covid-19 on inspection

Since the EIF was published the educational landscape has changed, not least as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Inspections resumed in September 2021 following a hiatus, and Ofsted updated its guidance accordingly.

Ofsted says it will keep its handbooks and methodology under review as circumstances change and schools continue to emerge from the pandemic. Ofsted also outlines additional considerations for inspectors when inspecting schools during the pandemic and transitional period.

Preparing for inspection

During the preparation phone call with the headteacher, the lead inspector will now seek to understand the specific impact of Covid-19 on the school community and how the school’s leaders responded to the situation, including any specific plans for the transitional period.

In this conversation, the headteacher and lead inspector will agree safety protocols which the inspection team will follow to ensure that the inspection is completed in a Covid-secure way.

Remote education

Ofsted says that inspectors recognise that there may still be some limited circumstances during the 2021/22 academic year in which pupils may need to learn remotely. Ofsted does not have a preferred model for remote education, it says. Throughout the inspection, inspectors will discuss the decisions that school leaders have taken and how they have implemented them. ‘The quality of remote education between March and August 2020 will not impact on our judgement of the school’s ‘quality of education’.’

Where remote education remains in place, inspectors may observe remote teaching and review materials. They say they will only expect to see the school’s typical approach to remote education, and do not expect schools to arrange anything solely for inspection.

To understand leaders’ decisions about the curriculum, inspectors may discuss remote education with teachers, parents and carers, and pupils. They may also review completed work and teaching materials. This will be the case regardless of whether remote education is in place at the time of inspection.

Given the above, when Ofsted refers to the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum in the School inspection handbook, this now includes remote education, where it remains in place for some pupils.

Leadership

Ofsted says that inspectors will seek to understand how school leaders have adapted their school development plans as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, including the rationale for any new or modified school improvement priorities. This may, of course, include changes to any attendance-related objectives and actions, either retrospectively or to define future work.

Safeguarding and attendance

We know that the Covid-19 pandemic increased safeguarding risks. As such, inspectors will consider how school leaders adapted approaches to safeguarding during the pandemic to make sure that:

  • vulnerable pupils, including those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), were prioritised for face-to-face education in school
  • safeguarding procedures remained effective for those receiving remote education, as well as those attending school.

Inspectors will also discuss how safeguarding arrangements have changed over time due to the pandemic, and how school leaders have made sure that they remain effective.

In respect of attendance, inspectors will discuss attendance patterns with school leaders to understand how the pandemic specifically affected the individual school. They will want to understand how, in the circumstances, the school ensured the best possible attendance for those pupils eligible to attend in person. ‘Attendance between March 2020 and March 2021 will not impact on our judgment of the school.’

Ofsted says that inspectors will recognise that the context in which schools operate has changed as a result of the pandemic. Therefore, they will consider the specific context and the steps school leaders have taken to ensure the best possible rates of attendance since the school opened to all pupils in March 2021.

Toolkit

Use the following items in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice:

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About Author

Matt Bromley

Matt Bromley is an experienced education writer, consultant, speaker and trainer. In a leadership career of more than 15 years, he was Group Director of a large FE college and multi-academy trust, acting Headteacher of one of the top five most improved schools in England, Deputy Headteacher of a small rural school, and Assistant Headteacher of a large inner-city school. He speaks regularly at conferences and is a successful author of several best-selling books. You can find out more at www.bromleyeducation.co.uk and follow him on Twitter @mj_bromley email: matt@bromleyeducation.co.uk

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