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The changing face of Ofsted: Inspection of support staff

This is the last in a series of three articles dealing with how the school’s SBM can lead on performance management for support staff. Tony Powell looks more closely at the new inspection framework in the context of current restrictions and expectations.

Summary points

• Support staff will be judged on their contribution to the core purpose of education.

• The new framework represented a surprising change in direction towards the curriculum.

• It is now schools’ responsibility to put in place their own measures to evaluate their practice.

Initially, this article was to explore the relevant sections in the inspection handbook. By this point in the inspection cycle, Ofsted would usually have embedded the new Education inspection framework (EIF) and we would have had many thousands of reports to study for patterns.

We know now that it will be a long time, if ever, before the external validation of schools through ‘formal’ inspections returns to ‘normal’. Inverted commas around ‘formal’ and ‘normal’ indicate that they need explanation. By ‘formal’ I mean inspectors visiting schools using a framework such as the Ofsted handbook to ensure consistency over space and time. ‘Normal’ here simply means what happened in the past.

Many people, including me, would argue that the normal focus of inspection – pupil standards – had already changed even before the cataclysmic impact of Covid-19. Redirecting the focus of inspection takes a lot of time and effort and the introduction of a new handbook by the current HMCI provides an excellent exemplar.

When she took up post as HMCI in January 2017, Ms Spielman commissioned a survey of the curriculum. Deficiencies identified through that survey led to a national consultation and the introduction of a new inspection framework and handbooks from September 2019. These deficiencies had, of course, been anticipated by Ofsted.

Inspecting the contribution of support staff

The key is ‘contribution’. Support staff will always be judged by their contribution to the core purpose of education, as defined nationally, and as defined by the school through its mission statement and policies. Below are comments about the effectiveness of teaching assistants in outstanding schools. Two of them relate to practice prior to changes in schedule and one from afterwards.

‘Teachers and their teaching assistants work very closely together to carefully plan work that very effectively meets the needs of all pupils.’

‘The needs of pupils with specific learning difficulties and/or disabilities are met very effectively because teachers and support staff are knowledgeable about how to meet these pupils’ particular needs.’

‘Pupils who struggle with reading have time and support from staff to help them catch up successfully. Staff have had effective training in teaching reading. This ensures that teachers and other staff use a consistent approach when teaching phonics.’

The third example is from a school inspected in November 2019. Some of you may have guessed this from the emphasis on phonics. However, what is most noticeable is that these could have come from any period and we can use this fact when we are evaluating the quality of support staff.

Evaluating contribution to quality of education

The new inspection framework is centred around the judgement about the quality of education provided by the school drawing together curriculum, teaching, assessment and standards. However, where previously the emphasis was very much on teaching and assessment and standards, now it has shifted towards curriculum. Ofsted defines the curriculum using the concepts of ‘intent’, ‘implementation’ and ‘impact’.


Leaders (senior and subject) and teachers plan and sequence curriculum maps and schemes of work.


Carefully designed curriculum plans are implemented through classroom teaching, progress is assessed, and the curriculum and future teaching strategies amended as appropriate.


Learners make better progress and standards rise. Not spelled out, but very evident, is the belief that pupils will make better progress in their personal development, particularly in areas such as the acquisition of fundamental British values, so that in the future we will have a more cohesive society.

For hardened Ofsted watchers, this is an extraordinary change of direction. Imagine, for example, HMCI ruling in favour of real books in the past debate between reading schemes and real books. Yet, teaching synthetic phonics is almost a requirement of the new Education inspection framework (EIF).

The evidence base

Even if Ofsted had not changed its methodology and criteria for inspecting schools, the global pandemic has destroyed the ability to make valid comparisons within schools, between schools, between regions of countries, and even between countries. All statistical evidence, data from attendance to examination results, are compromised, and to this point we don’t know when this will be resolved.

Added to this, the key feature of an Ofsted inspection has always been gathering ‘first-hand evidence’ through observation in the classroom and all parts of the school, and the ability to engage with pupils, staff, parents and carers and governors. Currently inspectors are not able to visit schools, and at the time of writing inspections had been suspended until the beginning of Summer Term 2021. This date looks ambitious even in terms of being able to enter schools to observe what is happening and talking to pupils to find out ‘What is it like to be a pupil in this school?’

Good practice

Schools should forget about Ofsted for the immediate future and concentrate on getting it right for pupils and staff. This means that SBMs and others involved in managing performance should study what is regarded as good practice and match it to the needs of the school. Fortunately, there is an extensive body of literature available to support this effort. I recommend a visit to the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) website. Look, for example, at the ‘Making Best Use of Teaching Assistants’ guidance report.

In the toolkit section, there is a checklist based on the recommendations made in the guidance. Schools should use this to evaluate their own practice. The absence of Ofsted should not mean no self-evaluation. Instead, schools should be even more punctilious in their regulation of the quality of what they provide for their learners and the standards achieved as a result. Perhaps the need to refill the government’s coffers may even convince the DfE that schools are grown up enough to be responsible for checking their own performance.

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