Myth-busting Ofsted inspections

Melanie Moore

Melanie Moore

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In this episode, we talk to Curriculum Director, Melanie Moore, to debunk five recurring myths about the primary inspection process. Issues discussed include curriculum planning, curriculum models, lesson observations, and the triangulation of evidence, data, and assessment. For further information or to read about all the issues addressed in this episode, download Ofsted’s School inspection handbook below.

James: Welcome to the Primary Knowledge Podcast brought to you by Cornerstones Education. I’m James Marriott. It’s a pleasure to welcome back to the podcast Cornerstones Curriculum Director, Melanie Moore. And today, we are myth-busting.

Melanie: We are.

James: I feel like we should have a little jingle. [Music plays] [Singing] Myth-busters something. Something along those lines.

Melanie: Something along Ghostbusters lines.

James: That’s it. That’s it.

Melanie: Yes

James: Or maybe we should have special backpacks on with laser things that we can zap the myths with. And here’s how this is going to work today; I have some myths regarding Ofsted inspections, and you’re going to clear through the nonsense and give it to us straight. That’s the basic kind of thing. This, of course, stems from the new inspection framework from 2019, which obviously is in schools now. But some of the changes from the last framework, still a little bit unclear, still a bit of misinformation out there. So today is really about getting to the truth, basically. First of all, I want to ask you why this matters. And it’s a very basic question. I’m sure the answer is very simple. But why does it matter so much to challenge and solve these myths?

Melanie: Well, inspection is a challenge at any time, but particularly after the last couple of years that we’ve been through with COVID. You know, schools are still in the process of recovering from great, great disruption. And when the Ofsted inspections started up again after COVID, obviously, we were using a new inspection framework. So, there’s been a lot of uncertainty, and even at the best of times, inspection is a nerve-wracking experience for schools. I’ve gone through several myself as a teacher and as deputy head and teacher advisor, you know, so in lots of different roles, and no matter what role I was doing in school, it was always unnerving. Because teachers and senior leaders, work so hard every single day, and the pressure is to convey all of that hard work that you’ve been doing, that impact that you’re having on children’s learning, in such a short space of time. And a lot of the myths that are out there about about inspections can not only cause stress and anxiety; nobody works best under those conditions, but the other thing is it can create a frightening amount of additional workload, which, of course, is just crazy for one of the most hardworking professions anyway. So, I think being really clear about what the inspection process looks like and what is expected of schools is crucial for all of those reasons.

James: Okay, let’s kind of do this sort of full disclosure sort of thing here. So, you’re going to bust my myths today, but the information that you’re using to bust the myths, where does that come from?

Melanie: It comes from several sources. So, I think Ofsted have been very good at trying to bust the myths that are out there themselves. I was listening to a podcast this morning with Chris Jones, and he was — very briefly, though — just talking about some of the things that Ofsted will and won’t do, and that’s all in the inspector’s handbook. So actually, I would advise that all schools read that for themselves. But the other place that I’ve gathered my information from is the schools that we’re working with. So, we have about 1600 schools that we work with. We support any of those schools before, during and after an inspection. Quite often, we’ll get teachers, head teachers, calling us in the midst of their inspection saying, ‘the inspector wants to see X, Y or Z. How should I do this? What’s the best way to show this?’ And then we do get quite a lot of schools who ring up post-inspection and tell us about their experiences. Obviously, that informs what we do to help schools further, but it does also give us an insight into the real experiences that schools are having. So, my evidence is taken really from all of those different avenues.

James: All right. I’m going to trust you that I’m going to believe that this is true.

Melanie: Well, read the report for yourself, and you can check my answers.

James: That’s my bedtime reading for tonight. Yeah. I imagine particularly the stuff from schools after they’ve just had an inspection is really revealing. So, I want to start by asking you, I’m going to ask you for a myth here. So, you mentioned earlier about this stuff that adds kind of extra workload, extra stress is causing more work for schools. Which is the worse then? What’s the myth that’s causing the most stress and headache for schools?

Melanie: Well, I think that’s all relative, depending on who you are in school and what you’re responsible for. But the one that we hear most often is the myth that schools must write their own curriculum. A curriculum is at the heart of the new inspection framework. It’s at the heart of the quality of education judgment. It’s obviously crucial that schools have the core curriculum.

But curriculum has been and is receiving much more attention than it used to. And schools are under increasing pressure to make sure that their curriculum is well planned and well taught and has a good impact on children’s learning. Many schools that we talk to report that they have been directed by an outside source that they must create their own curriculum. Quite adamantly, sometimes. And this message is wrong. Schools don’t need to write their own curriculum. And in fact, in that podcast I was talking about that Chris Jones did, he actually said that sometimes it is preferable for schools to adopt a commercial; he called it “off the shelf”, but I would disagree with that term, but that’s what he did call it. But what he was saying is for some schools, it’s actually better that they adopt a commercial scheme either because they don’t have the subject expertise, or they don’t have time or they’ve tried to do it and, it’s taken them too long, and the school feels themselves that they’re not successful. The guidance in the handbook actually says that schools can adopt or construct a curriculum as long as it’s well sequenced, ambitious, is well structured. It doesn’t matter whether they’ve purchased a curriculum or whether they have written it from scratch. The thing that we do know, that overwhelming message that comes through is, it doesn’t matter how you get there, so, it doesn’t matter if you write your own or you purchase a curriculum; what is crucial is that you know that curriculum well. So you must know how that curriculum is structured. You must know why you’ve chosen that curriculum, and you must know what children are learning through that curriculum. So, you don’t have to write your own, but you do have to be very well informed about the why, the how and the what.

James: Makes sense. So, the myth is that schools must write their own curriculum. The truth? Absolutely not. In fact, in some cases, it’s encouraged or even better for them to adopt a commercial alternative. This links quite well, actually, into the next myth that I want to put to you. So off the back of that, do Ofsted have a preferred curriculum?

Melanie: No, they don’t. Now they do give a very strong message that knowledge should be very well sequenced and present in the curriculum. So that is one thing that they are quite clear on. But again, in the handbook, I think the quote is the inspectorate will judge fairly schools that take radically different approaches to the curriculum. Now I don’t think you need the word radically in thre, because I just think the inspectorate will judge fairly any school curriculum, I think, is really what they want to say. You don’t have to plan it or teach it according to any educational or cognitive theory, any pedagogical approach. But again, it’s back to what I was saying before is there’s no preferred curriculum model, but it must have good coverage, it must have good content, it must be well sequenced, and it must be well taught, and it must have impact on the children that are studying that curriculum. There is no preferred curriculum model.

James: That was very well answered. So, the myth is that Ofsted have a preferred curriculum. The answer categorically: that’s just not true.

Melanie: No, it’s not true and neither should there be, because a school should always choose the right curriculum for their unique circumstances and context. So, I think that’s absolutely right.

James: The next myth, and this is going back to kind of historically Ofsted grading individual teachers from lesson observations, is that still the case?

Melanie: No. And hallelujah for that. I went through the inspections many years ago now… I’ve been out of school for a few years, but it certainly was the case that when I was in school, when an inspector came into your classroom, they were judging how you taught. And believe me, that is a horrible, horrible feeling. And, you know, anyone who says you can teach and your children behave in the same way when somebody sat at the side of your classroom with a clipboard is a liar because you can’t.

But thankfully, all of that has gone now. And they’re very clear in the framework that the inspectorate will not provide individual grades for teachers. What they will be doing when they come into a classroom is this word triangulation? So, what they’re looking for is, is what is planned in your curriculum being taught at the right time in that classroom in that year? What does it say you’re going to teach? Are you teaching it? And the final point in the triangulation is what impact is that having on children’s learning? So, you know, they’ll look at what children are learning. They’ll talk to the children, they’ll talk to the teacher, they’ll look in the children’s books and they’ll triangulate that maybe with test data if they’ve got it, or with curriculum plans and curriculum maps to make sure that what the school has set out as their intended curriculum is actually being taught in the classroom. And I think that’s fantastic because it means it lessens the pressure. I know it’s only a little bit, and we all feel nervous when somebody is in our classroom observing us, but they are there to gather that evidence about the curriculum, not about you as an individual.

James: It does make a lot of sense, doesn’t it? The idea that anyone thought that, you know, literally sitting there with a clipboard during someone’s lesson was ever a good way of judging whether they’re a good teacher. It’s a snapshot, isn’t it, of an hour or two or whatever it would be. It’s the equivalent of exams versus coursework, isn’t it? It’s like, it’s kind of taking that step back, and that bigger picture of how someone’s performing over time and what they’re doing just makes so much more sense. And I’m glad we’ve busted that one because that’s a really horrible thing for anyone to think is still the case.

Melanie: Yeah. And I can’t tell you the sleepless nights a lot of us experienced when, you know, the inspectors are coming. And in those days, inspections were longer. You also knew that they were coming in almost six months before they came. So, it was like a really extended period of panic.

James: An awful countdown that must be.

Melanie: Yeah, an awful countdown. At least now the notice is much, much shorter, which just means that you’ve got to show what you’re doing every day in a little more natural context.

James: Okay. What about planning now? So how schools present their planned curriculum?

Melanie: Yeah. Again, we get lots of calls about this. So maybe it’s a local authority adviser or somebody during which Ofsted are very against, a ‘mocksted’. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that term but, you know, a fake Ofsted, you know, asking teachers for printouts of their curriculum planning or, it used to be in the old days that you would have all, because we didn’t have the technology, so everything was paper-based. That’s not the case anymore. Inspectors don’t expect to see your curriculum planning in any particular format or to any degree of, you know, specific detail. And we have to do in our work because obviously, we have a digital curriculum platform, you know, for some schools it’s quite a big mind shift that it is all right to show things on screen, digitally. You don’t need to have reams and reams of bits of paper. As long as you can articulate to an inspector what your curriculum is and answer any questions about it, then that is sufficient. You know, your maps could be, you know, very brief and to the point, or they might be greatly detailed. But actually, it doesn’t matter either way; if you don’t know what’s included in there and how it all works, that’s not going to wash. You need to know very well. So no, they don’t expect to see any specific type of curriculum plans or lesson plans or previous lesson plans at all. That is for the school to determine their practice and you present your practice with justification of why you’ve done it like that.

James: And you definitely don’t need a tree’s worth of paperwork to prove it. Okay. that’s cool.

Melanie: You don’t. Thank goodness.

James: Our last one then is about assessment and things like progress scores; there seems to be quite a bit of confusion about this. So, what are Ofsted actually looking for?

Melanie: Well, it goes back to that phrase I’ve used before, which is about the triangulation and evidence. So, I think it says in the document itself, the handbook, the inspectorate don’t look at internal data during inspection. But what they will be looking at is what I said, basically, what’s the impact of the curriculum? What do children know?

Do they know what was in your planned curriculum as a teacher? Do you know what they don’t know? Inspectors will speak to the children, and they will look in their books and they’ll find out where there’s any gaps in children’s learning. As a teacher, you should know what the gaps are, and the inspectors will want to know how you’re using that assessment of where children are at, to, you know, teach for any gaps in their knowledge. So, it is all about finding what the gaps in learning are and what school’s teachers are doing about it and how they might modify their curriculum to make sure that children learn what the curriculum says they will learn. And again, that comes from, you know, we’ve had years of, you know, spreadsheets and companies driving very detailed and onerous types of assessment and recording and tracking. And I think it’s great that the inspectorate are saying they don’t want to see that. What I’ve realised is some schools don’t feel that confident yet to let that go, but that does create an awful lot of workload. So, you know, if that is you, it is worth looking again at your assessment practices to streamline them to what is actually required.

James: Well, I’m out of myths now.

Melanie: Are you?

James: You busted them all. But I think overall, I mean, it all sounds like all quite positive stuff. What you’re generally saying is it’s the answers that we want to hear about, which is brill.

Melanie: Yeah.

James: But it sounds like still, these myths are around, and if they’re causing stress and they’re causing extra work for people, then it’s worth us challenging them. Because, you know, from a child’s point of view, that can’t be great. The more that teachers and leaders are able to just concentrate on what’s going on in the classroom and not worrying about stuff that, really, they don’t need to be worrying about. So, I hope this has been really useful for people. You mentioned a few times in there about what Cornerstones does. So, if anyone wants to find out more about what Cornerstones can do to help in these situations, what’s the next step for someone that wants to find out more?

Melanie: Yeah, I mean, I haven’t really talked about that and probably neither should I on this podcast. But as I said, we do support schools before, during and after inspection and in the much longer term as well, you know, in terms of curriculum. And I suppose if anybody is interested in looking at how we do that, they can visit our website or they can give us a call, and we can have a chat with them about how we can help with all of those issues. But certainly, anything curriculum-wise, you know, we’ve got you covered.

James: And if you’ve got a myth that you’d like us to bust on a future episode.

Melanie: I’m available.

James: Please get in touch because we will be like…

Melanie: Busting away.

James: Ghostbusters two was alright. When it got to three it got a little bit dodgy, but then the most recent one’s good, so we’ll keep coming back and doing these. I think they’re really good. So, you know, if you have got concerns, please let us know. And we will tackle those on a future episode.

Melanie: Yeah. And as I say, because we’re always in constant contact with schools, we almost collect them and then, we’ll pull them together and do another one of these.

James: Good. Well, thank you very much.

Melanie: You’re very welcome.

James: Great to get your knowledge on all these things. And I do hope that you’ve enjoyed listening to today’s episode. We have handpicked some extra resources and things that we think will help. Obviously, we did mention a few things during the episode as well that will include details about if you do want to get in touch, then the phone number and everything else is in the show notes for this episode as well. There’s lots more information and you can find all our other episodes at Thank you for listening, and we’ll see you next time.

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