Ofsted – the good the bad and the ugly of dealing with a tough new grade

Two kids engrossed in a colouring book

You know that your next Ofsted inspection is due in a couple of months.

The staff are stressed, it’s a critical time for influencing potential children and parents from next year’s possible intake, and you know that the trend from Ofsted inspections is for schools and colleges to drop one if not two grades.

Sound familiar? It is – you’re not alone.

Over the past couple of years we’ve worked with a number of schools and colleges who have found themselves in this position and have had to put in a lot of work to maintain pupil enrolment numbers and maintain their reputation in very challenging circumstances.

The best thing to do of course, is to persuade those wonderful Ofsted inspectors that you still deserve that Outstanding or Good rating. But that doesn’t always happen, and in those circumstances schools and colleges need to be pro-active in engaging with pupils, parents and other key stakeholders to keep them informed and provide reassurance.

As a starter for ten, here’s a few lessons worth remembering that we’ve fine-tuned along the way.

  • Try and adopt a ‘no surprises’ strategy with senior stakeholders – in the vast majority of cases local councillors, MPs and other prominent community figures will want to work with local educational institutions if they can see that the leadership team is working to address the issues it needs to tackle. What they really appreciate though, is a personal briefing from the head or the principal. That communication channel should always be open anyway, but if it isn’t, pick up the phone and share what you can at the right time before it comes public. That way you are more than likely to win respect and support at the time you need it.
  • Acknowledge the challenges, but shout about your successes – it rarely does any good launching an all guns blazing assault on Ofsted (they’re going to be back again soon), so a bit of humility and a focus instead on what you are doing to improve things is very important. That doesn’t mean you just roll over and give up however. Your high achieving students, successful community partners and proud parents will be valuable allies and can be very powerful advocates for your cause.
  • Be open and accessible – whether that is informal drop-in sessions for students at lunchtimes, parents in the evening or by sharing personal contact details and inviting feedback and questions is absolutely critical. Going into a bunker and adopting a siege mentality won’t work at a time like this, however much you feel like doing it. Brief your team and put yourself and your best and most engaging staff members ‘out there’ to answer questions. It will be worth it.
  • Get digitally savvy – if the school is great but your website and social media feed is still stuck in the early 1990s, that isn’t a great first impression for people who have no other experiences of the school or college, and that is critical at a time like this.
  • Make a plan – logistics, timing and sequencing are important for getting the message out there for maximum impact. Make sure you don’t fall foul of Ofsted’s rules and at the same time think about how the announcement might impact on your next Open Evening or Parents event and prepare accordingly.

So, if your next inspection is in two months and you haven’t started planning the communications around the results, now is the time to get busy (even busier, sorry).

PS – the picture at the top of the post isn’t one from our design studio by the way – congrats to the pupils at Hill Top Infant School in Essex who celebrated their outstanding Ofsted grade by creating this lovely picture.