Understanding the new Ofsted framework for school improvement inspections

19/12/2014 15:21:06 | with 1 comments

Since joining the National Governors’ Association (NGA) this year, most of my time has been taken up with coming to terms with everything LASI. That is, everything to do with the local authority school improvement (LASI) inspections conducted by Ofsted. I was given the task of writing guidance for governor services on how they can improve their services to meet Ofsted’s criteria. This involved a detailed analysis of:

  • the LASI inspection reports issued to date
  • a number of focused school improvement (FSI) inspection reports and interviews
  • key LASI staff across the country

The expert knowledge of my colleagues, coupled with my own research, has given me a good understanding of what Ofsted are looking for from governor service teams across England.

The old system for LASI inspection

Before November 2014, Ofsted had two ways of assessing a local authority.

The first method was by conducting a “school improvement inspection”. This consisted of an on-site inspection of the local authority’s arrangements for school improvement lasting only one week. It was introduced by Ofsted in May 2013 to assess how effective a local authority is at both challenging and supporting schools that it maintains, and how well it fulfils its legal responsibilities to all children across the local authority. Overall, Ofsted looked at a local authority’s arrangements for:

  • corporate leadership and strategic planning
  • monitoring, challenge, intervention and support
  • support and challenge for leadership and management, including governance
  • use of resources

Since the introduction of LASI inspections, eleven local authorities have been inspected by Ofsted and thirteen reports have been issued. Of these, nine local authorities were found to be “ineffective” in their arrangements for school improvement and, in some cases, Ofsted recommended that serious changes need to be made before they can be considered to be effective.

The second method for inspecting LASI arrangements was through the focused school inspection (FSI) process. This was a series of school Ofsted inspections within a specific local authority. During their inspections, the Ofsted inspectors would attempt to gain an understanding of the local authority’s arrangements for school improvement by asking a series of questions of governors and headteachers in schools. In addition, inspectors would also telephone a number of “good” and “outstanding” schools in the area to judge the local authorities provisions for “school-to-school support”. In total, Ofsted has conducted seventeen focused school inspections since February 2013.

During both the FSI and the LASI inspections, Ofsted inspectors were able to gather a detailed picture of the local authority’s school improvement arrangements. Not only did they assess the local authorities’ policies, the effectiveness of staff and the evidence presented to them by the LASI team, but they were also able to get an external judgement of the local authorities LASI arrangements; consulting governors and headteachers on how they felt about what was offered by the local authority.

The new system for LASI inspection

In November 2014, Ofsted introduced a new framework and handbook for LASI inspections. The key changes are:

  • There will no longer be separate FSI and LASI inspections. Under the new system, both the FSI and the LASI inspections will occur simultaneously under one two week inspection.
  • Local authorities will not be judged “effective” or “ineffective” but, instead, will receive a narrative judgement of their LASI arrangements.

Just because Ofsted has removed the ineffective and effective ratings from the inspection process, the impact of the report will not lose its significance. On the contrary, by incorporating focused inspections into the framework, Ofsted has also increased the amount of information it can collect and, as a result, the level of scrutiny of a local authority. If the focused school inspection letters conducted to date are anything to go by, a narrative judgment can still provide a damning account of a local authority’s school improvement arrangements. In addition, Ofsted will still require the local authority to produce a report outlining how they intend to improve their school improvement functions and, if deemed necessary, Ofsted may also re-inspect the local authority at a later date if “significant concerns” are discovered. In this sense, it is still critical that LAs prove that they are “effective” in the LASI inspection. Just because Ofsted no longer uses this terminology, the general principles and outcomes still remain the same.

As I have already mentioned, the inspection itself will now be spread over two weeks rather than one, with the inspection split into three phases:

The first phase will be a number of inspections in maintained schools in the local authority area. There is no way of knowing how many schools will be inspected during this phase. If Ofsted follows the same structure as it did in the old focused school inspections, the numbers of schools seen can range from six to thirty-six depending on the size of the local authority. The purpose is to gain an insight into the perceptions of school leaders and school improvement officers by asking them:

  • How well does the local authority understand the school’s strengths and weaknesses, its performance and the standards the pupils achieve?
  • What measures are in place to support and challenge the school and how well do these meet the needs of the school?
  • What is the impact of the local authority’s support and challenge over time to bring about school improvement?

Phase two is carried out alongside the first phase in week one. A selection of maintained schools and academies will be contacted by telephone. This will be used to:

  • understand from “good” or “outstanding” schools how the local authority has informed their leaders how they can help weaker schools in the area
  • understand from “inadequate” or “requires improvement” schools how the local authority has helped them, and whether the local authority identified them as a cause for concern before they were inspected by Ofsted

The evidence collected from phases one and two will be used as supporting evidence for the final on-site inspection. This will give Ofsted inspectors a flavour of:

  • the level of knowledge the local authority has of its schools
  • how well headteachers and governors understand what the local authority does
  • how good they think the LASI team is

This evidence will be collected separately and kept aside for the LASI inspection. This will then be given to a new set of inspectors who will use the information to prepare for an onsite inspection of the local authority.

Phase three will be in week two. This will last for 5 days, usually consecutive, and will look at nine areas. These are:

  • corporate and strategic leadership
  • the clarity and transparency of policy and strategy scrutinised
  • the extent to which the local authority knows its third party providers
  • the effectiveness of intervention in underperforming schools
  • the impact of local authority support and challenge over time
  • the extent to which the local authority offers schools support
  • the effectiveness of strategies to support effective leadership
  • the effectiveness of governor services
  • the effective use of funding to meet specific challenges

The fundamental difference between the old criteria and the new is that Ofsted will be far more prepared when they come to conduct the on-site inspection of the local authority.

The National Governors Association (NGA) has a lot of useful resources for corporate members, including governor service teams, in order to help them support school governors. If you are interested in joining, please click here.

The NGA and the National Coordinators of Governor Services (NCOGS) have released a research report and guidance, written by myself, in order to assist governor service teams across England in the inspection process. This outlines key findings from an analysis of the LASI and FSI reports as well as a number of key interviews with local authorities. The report and guidance can be accessed here.