While Ofsted is taking steps to improve its internal practices and training, it is critical that nominees or provider staff feel confident to raise concerns and professionally challenge inspectors during or after the inspection. The inspectorate is also re-evaluating its complaints procedure, including a new national helpline for leaders to raise concerns. The Fellowship of Inspection Nominees (FIN) advises providers how to make a complaint without fear or trepidation, but hopefully the need for this type of support will diminish.
But how does the inspectorate propose to reduce the stress and fear of inspection itself? Most comment on this absolves Ofsted and instead looks to the DfE to get rid of one-word judgments. I believe this misses an important change of approach the organisation could take today.
FIN promotes the mantra “prepared, not scared”, which helps to support nominees while also emphasising the importance of building resilience among staff. We have worked with providers to achieve this, improve learning provision before inspection and, where needed, we help to pick up the pieces following inspection.
It can be tough witnessing the extreme emotions, anxiety and devastation which a poorly-managed inspection or a negative outcome can have. Ofsted has now publicly recognised the importance of upskilling inspectors and raising awareness in identifying signs of stress and anxiety among education leaders and staff. As MPs have recommended, there should be more dialogue about this as part of the forthcoming ‘Big Listen’.
The consultation should acknowledge that Ofsted has been critical of providers engaging in what is termed as ‘preparing for inspection’. It has discouraged providers reaching out for consultancy support, frowned upon inspection preparation training and has been horrified at the notion of a mock inspection. This stems primarily from concerns about additional workload and stress. However, we can only presume that it also reflects the inspectorate’s worry that such preparations might create an artificial environment, possibly leading to inaccurate assessments of the quality of education they provide.
In reality, as long as there is inspection, there will be inspection preparation. But it’s time for providers to take back control of that process. They should be focusing more on their own needs than Ofsted’s particular likes or dislikes, which can change over time as FIN’s tracking of inspection reports shows.
Inspection preparation programmes should allow providers to give targeted support for the nominee and the shadow nominee, and to train their staff to gain confidence in showcasing their provision. Programmes should also focus on preparing staff to deal with the pressures associated with inspections, fostering resilience. Indeed, it is arguably far more dangerous to mental health to send teams into a high-stakes test without this kind of preparation.
The concept of TCUP (Thinking Clearly Under Pressure) should be at the forefront of this training, concentrating on maintaining composure, presenting evidence and making informed decisions during high-pressure situations. When provider staff fully understand the triangulation of required evidence and measuring impact, it helps to demystify inspection. Equipping staff with these tools will not only impact positively on the provision but will also help to make the inspection experience far less challenging.
Our experience with providers is that practice interviews or a quality review are insightful, motivational and a proven method of resilience building. Collaborative working groups are extremely beneficial with nominees coming together for professional exchange and talking through challenges. Following inspection too, nominees and staff should share their experiences, what they did or did not do well and what they would do differently.
Ofsted’s approach to inspection training is at best naïve, based on the vain hope of seeing providers as they truly are. It should shift to a more mature model that respects preparation as a positive part of the improvement process and a protective measure for staff.
MPs have highlighted a number of other issues which should be considered as part of the ‘Big Listen’. The sector should not waste the opportunity to help shape a more positive environment surrounding quality assurance.