Dear Sean.

This morning, Sean Harford, an HMI, posted this question on Twitter.

Sean Harford


This provoked a range of highly sensible replies including:

  • @Mackers1969 “Government initiatives and OFSTED Framework changes can put you ‘back’ even when still moving forward.
  • @kalinski1970 “Have less aggressive inspectors. Recogniser the career ending impact you have.”
  • @kalinski1970 “Retrain inspectors on statistics and using Raise OnLine”
  • @RachelOrr “Schools set their priorities for a long term plan and then government announced even more. Overload”

I have written two blog posts about our experience as a Head Teacher going through RI OFSTED inspections which ended up being so morose, and potentially sounding whiney, that I have never posted them.

When I took on the Headship, HMCI had brought in the RI judgement and had said that Heads would be given two years to turn a school round. He said that schools would receive the support of an HMI and there would be central training for schools. I agreed with all of this and took on a struggling school under that premise.

Inspection One

  • We were inspected by a team a month after I took on the substantive Head. The team were of a low calibre and, at one point, the Lead Inspector and an AI had a full on row in front of members of the SLT.
  • Foundation Stage was inspected by a Secondary MFL adviser who didn’t bring a coat and therefore didn’t observe any outdoor play.
  • Staff didn’t feel that the inspection team was working with them and so felt it was a largely negative process.

We were given RI and, to be honest, this was a very fair judgement of where the school was at the time. It had been satisfactory for most of the previous 20 years and there was a large variation in the quality of teaching, lack of clear progression and we didn’t have sufficient time to demonstrate progress since I had arrived.

We were given support from an HMI as a school with 3 RI judgements and a 2 for Behaviour. He was someone who we thoroughly liked, he challenged us greatly on our first day together and we planned some very positive joint work.He offered us a re-inspection as late in the 2 years as possible to get as much improving data as possible. We focused on an inspection in late 2014 or early 2015.

He then went off ill.

We heard nothing from OFSTED and finally complained to our Senior HMI who appointed us another HMI. We spoke once but never met as she was coming from a long distance and it was difficult to put our  east coast school into her diary.

The HMCI then changed the rules – the two year gap between OFSTED was removed and schools were given four terms, HMI support was removed from those schools with a 2 for leadership. To be blunt, Sir Michael Wilshaw’s promises were burnt on the altar of financial and logistical limitations.

Inspection Two

I was speaking to our TAs and MSAs explaining that the rules had changed and that we were officially in our fourth term since the OFSTED but since the last one had been near the end of the Spring term, I couldn’t see one coming until the Autumn. The school administrator walked in to tell me Serco were on the phone….

This inspection was less than fourteen months since the previous Section 5 and I had taken over a school with “the worst Year 6 cohort in years” (according to many staff). To synthesise the inspection, I would say that, again, EYFS was inspected by someone without any Early years experience but the team was largely fair. The Lead Inspector didn’t have the guts to stand up to the Help Desk who seemed to obsess on our 56% Level 4+ combined scores from a cohort I had only had for months as a substantive Head. Every time we produced a good in our conversations she would disappear for a phone call and come back talking RI.

Finally, she informed me that she was going to give me a 3 for Leadership. This is in the context of a good judgement for EYFS and comments from inspectors about how good (and even outstanding) school leaders and governors were. I had the stereotypical hissy fit and was offered a way out. Change the SEF to agree with her judgement and she could judge my leadership as good because my self evaluation was robust.

We received an RI judgement with 2s for Leadership and Behaviour.

The report only has 5 negative comments in the 39 comments made. It reads like a good. It is better than other good reports. Our AFIs were largely based on those given by the LI to schools given 2 in other inspections. We felt stitched up and done over.

Rightly (though probably in error) I did not fill in the evaluation of OFSTED which is offered to schools. I had no trust in OFSTED whatsoever and a phone call to our HMI struggled to get into school for a couple of months as I was so ripped apart by our experience. However, the way that everyone in school rallied around does demonstrate their judgement of Good leadership was secure.

I found myself after 15 months of substantive Headship with Sir Michael’s noose hanging over my head. One more RI inspection and I was out. The one positive that came out of it was a driving of our vision and moral purpose. I told staff that if we were going to go down then I wanted to do it doing everything we believed in. This meant that we have absolutely stuck to our guns and, as a result, have seen standards and quality of teaching rise.

So where does this leave me?

This is a long winded introduction to answering Sean’s question which I want to do because I agree with the RI judgement and expectation to get to good.

  • Get into the Outstanding schools whose grades are based on middle class or aspirational families and look more deeply and beyond the Raise Online. In many of them, many of the staff wouldn’t last a term with our kids and our expectations. Being blunt, create a level playing field. I raise an eyebrow at the number of Outstanding schools in high house price areas full of middle class families in this area, particularly after looking in their books or watching lessons. I raise two eyebrows at the Outstanding judgements for Lincolnshire Grammar schools when I look at their progress scores and listen to parents and ex-pupils talking about their experiences.
  • Maintain consistency of HMIs. We had a Senior HMI who engaged with schools in our area, speaking to staff, governors and providing training. He left for an academy chain taking several colleagues with him. It now feels a very lonely place to be an RI head in a rural area as we don’t appear to have anyone local who knows the realities of life in our area.
  • Maintain your OFSTED frameworks for specified times. I understand why they have to change but they have changed too often in recent years. My suggestion would be an expiry date for frameworks. i.e. The Framework for the 2015-16 academic year.
  • Continue the purge of low level inspectors.
  • Have Primary school inspections carried out by inspectors who have Primary school experience not ex-secondary heads of department.
  • Once the inspections teams are of sufficient quality after the prospective changes, expect one member of the team to maintain a relationship with the school should they be given a 3 or 4 grade.  This is expensive but had we been inspected by someone who was leading a Primary school, I could have maintained contact with them and learned from their school. Surely this is intelligent use of OFSTED as a school improvement agency.
  • Be more geographically aware as an organisation and intervene early.   I lead a school in an area where more than 50% of schools were Grade 3 in 2012. OFSTED didn’t come in to work with us but descended upon us to place us all in RI. Surely, it would have made sense to have run workshops for Heads when issues became clear. The Getting to Good seminars were well received but we only attended them as a result of our inspection.
  • Look at the data for all year groups and for the most recent in-school judgements. If we were inspected next week, we would be judged largely on old data with the current year 6 scores only days away.
  • Make a judgement on the school moderation of judgements. In my experience, RI and SM schools are really good at this and often use external support for verification.


  • Have absolutely clarity in a ten minute read document about what it means to be the Head of a grade 3 or 4 school. (Again with an expiry date). Do not change the rules like you did in 2014.
  • Offer support to Heads taking on an RI school from a choice of HMIs. This gives the Head a choice of who they work with, which is important if the process could cost them their job.
  • Use this support to have greater control over the timing of inspections.
  • Ensure that all public comments about RI and SM schools from the HMCI and Senior HMI are pre-tested against human beings who work in schools. Waking up at 6am to the Today programme quoting Sir Michael saying how mediocre RI schools are or how vulnerable RI heads’ jobs are don’t woo people to apply.

On another note, I would point out that Oustanding schools are really struggling to appoint in this area as well. Those who I know who are looking for Headship (a reducing group of people) are only looking at Goods as they have the least chance of blowing up in their face.


So Sean, I am sorry for the rambling or random nature of this post. I have done it before breakfast because I was really pleased to see your question. I do believe that Senior people in OFSTED do care and are trying to do the right thing. I also recognise that you are constantly undermined by politicians looking for the next Daily Mail headline. Please listen to the comments made by people on Twitter and in blogs and come back to us. Also talk to Heads of RI schools who don’t engage with Social Media (the vast majority don’t) Collate the answers and give us a view.
Engagement is the answer or no-one will trust you.

9 Responses to “Dear Sean.”

  1. Mark Mackley
    May 27, 2015 at 9:07 am #

    Bill, this is absolutely spot on and mirrors so much of what I went through over the last three years. I really hope that Ofsted do actually engage with us so that there is a real move forwards, for the sake of the children and the staff who really want things to be better but are fighting a system which is too often against them.
    Thanks for this blog, it put so many is my thoughts and feelings into words.
    Keep going!!

  2. Rachel Orr
    May 27, 2015 at 9:13 am #


    Brilliantly put. I have had three inspections in two very different schools with three very different LIs.

    I took over headship in my current school where the Ofsted judgement of 2006 was outstanding. It was an inspection in the first year of the infant and junior school all amalgamating. Between that inspection and the one I faced in my first term in post another head teacher had been in place. I judged the school RI and borderline SM because it appeared to have been coasting. Staff and the HT were riding on the back of outstanding and it was all over the letterhead and website. Such a nightmare.

    It hit staff hard that we weren’t what they thought. One of the biggest shifts we made was to ensure everyone was invited, included and involved. This had never happened before. The SLMT hadn’t seen a copy of Raise Online and weren’t involved in evaluations or setting priorities. Governors were left out in the cold.

    That first term was a killer and we lost count of all the hours staff put in.

    December 16th 2013 bang on 12 noon we got the call. I was faced with the LI telling me the inspection had been triggered by a parental complaint made in June 2013. He recognised this was before I had taken up the post but also said OFSTED were clear the inspection had to happen now and not after Christmas.

    That wasn’t an easy walk around the school telling every member of staff face to face that OFSTED would be in the next morning.

    Our data is variable as cohorts differ so much. The LA are on our backs about floor targets and pupil premium. It is relentless and wearing.

    Staff are writing reports and we try to plan in staff meeting time for this as well as other opportunities. We can’t expect staff to write 30 reports at the end of a tiring day teaching.

    I know if I’m knucking fackered it must be worse for the staff.

    Head teachers support their staff, protect their staff and bat things off for their staff. Who is looking out for the HTs? One of my staff regularly says that to me. We have to stick up for what is right. Right for our kids in our school.

    The position is lonely and being made less desirable by threats of being removed from a career we embarked on with such passion.

    Sean needs to get into the schools and walk the walk teachers and HTs walk to understand, experience, live it and breathe it.

    Loved this post. Will RT it and also pop on my blogpost list for May.

    Thank you for sticking up for what is right.

    • Mark Mackley
      May 27, 2015 at 10:44 am #

      Excellent Rachel, they all (including HMCI, SoS) need to spend quality time with HTs in RI schools to see what people are doing…

  3. J
    May 27, 2015 at 10:12 am #

    Bill Lord,

    You sound like a gem of an HT who is robust and willing to stick to your principles rather than simply seek out the best ‘score’.

    Your piece seems well considered, acknowledging both positive and negative aspects of working with Inspectors and the current framework.

    Having run quality management systems and worked with third-party auditors – not in education – I think you have provided great insight. If I had ever worked in an environment with such a relentless range and volume of strategic changes with the ensuing cascade of operational changes the quality of the ‘product’ would have suffered and I would have been fired!

    As a parent in an Outstanding school this resonated: “Get into the Outstanding schools whose grades are based on middle class or aspirational families and look more deeply and beyond the Raise Online. In many of them many of the staff wouldn’t last a term with our kids and our expectations. Being blunt, create a level playing field. I raise an eyebrow at the number of Outstanding schools in high house price areas full of middle class families in this area, particularly after looking in their books or watching lessons. I raise two eyebrows at the Outstanding judgements for Lincolnshire Grammar schools when I look at their progress scores and listen to parents and ex-pupils talking about their experiences.”

    – Indeed. Middle class parents are waking up to this reality and starting to get involved. Give me a ‘good’ honest HT/School any day.

    I hope your piece is read far and wide, and reflected on by those in a position to improve the current situation.

  4. Mike Watson
    May 27, 2015 at 12:09 pm #

    Well written Bill.
    This in many ways mirrors my experience with OfSted and HMI.
    An HMI who walked around a school, never spoke to staff, even when address directly. Who several children (he judged 3 for behaviour) commented that he was very rude as he didn’t answer when greeted.

    There is still a lack of consistency and too much prejudgement.
    Some (not all) outstanding schools are not working as hard as schools who are RI/SM.

    Not only do RI/SM schools have to ‘catch up’ they have to ‘overtake’.

    This can take time and support and this does not mask a lack of strategic direction or drive to improve.

    Ofsted must recognise this.

  5. Alex Bellars
    May 27, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    Well done, Bill.

    I remember our chats at last year’s CampED where I saw, at times, a mere shadow of the ebullient, vibrant person I have come to know over the last few years both online and “in real life”… and I am glad you have finally put your thoughts and feelings into such eloquently-framed words.

    That people like you, who are ALL ABOUT THE PUPILS, should find themselves, and their staffs and schools (and, incidentally, the blinking kids!!!) in such a scenario, is clearly NO way to run an educational / inspection system. I really hope Sean is able to help engineer the required sea-change – for I fear that you and others like you (or perhaps less resilient) will simply not go anywhere *near* the kind of job that needs you so badly… Please take this to the top, Sean!

  6. Leigh
    May 27, 2015 at 9:53 pm #

    I know your post was in reply to Sean Harford but i believe everyone who work in education ( school staff, LA, Ofsted and Education department etc) should read this:

    After 20+ years of teaching in a range of primary school settings I finally found proof to back up my, and colleagues, anecdotal and assessment findings.

    Inspection teams and HMI are also rarely staffed with experts to judge whether a school is providing genuine SEN inclusive practice or offer support to improve it.

  7. LJS
    May 28, 2015 at 7:50 pm #


    Outstanding blog, covering all salient points.

    As someone who is leaving executive headship in July of a good school (my original) and an SM school ( now vastly changed), I recognise much of what you say. As HTs we live our values everyday and don’t sway with the politics or Ofsted of the day. It is becoming increasingly difficult to survive the pressures of an imbalanced system that relies on negativity and stress to drive it, from government, OFSTED, Academy sponsors and LAs.

    More than anyone, HTs get the significance of the job they do and carry the personal responsibility for all the children and staff in their care. Without a radical change to the negative rhetoric from the powers that be, we will see our work decimated by a recruitment crisis that will change the face of education for ever.

    Wishing your schools continued success on their journey to meet the needs of all.

  8. Julia Skinner
    June 19, 2015 at 12:17 pm #

    Loved this Bill & have linked it to Bristol governors site.

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