Why OFSTED Isn’t Everything

If you’re stressing about which primary school to send your little one to this September, and have been agonising over OFSTED reports, you’re not the only one. It’s been the hot topic of conversation every time I see any of my friends who have kids that are Lyra’s age (three to four year olds), and it’s also been much debated within the Slack thread here at Rock My Towers.

However, hopefully today’s super-useful post by Rachel from Staying Sane As a Mummy Of 3, (who also happens to be a teacher) will bring a bit of clarity and reassurance about the ‘which school’ dilemma before the 15 January deadline. And if you’re not thinking about school just yet, this page might be a good one to bookmark for the future. Over to Rachel…

I have been a Primary School Teacher for 15 years and am a mummy to 3 small children; George is 5 and in Y1, Esme is 4 and starts school in September and Ted is 1. I try hard to keep the two roles separate, but I have to admit there are times when the lines blur… the playroom boxes are labelled, there’s a number line on the wall and there is a phonics chart taped to the the easel (or as my friend likes to mock, ‘the writing corner!’)

So when it came to choosing a school for George to go to, it was a decision I did not take lightly. It felt like such a big deal! We were going to be handing our baby boy over to this institution for such a significant part of his day and despite having been on the other side of the gates for a number of years, it felt terrifying! I also wanted to get it right- we have no intention of moving house any time soon so this was going to be his (and his siblings) school for the next 7 years (11 if you include the baby one starting in a few years!)

Our catchment school had the OFSTED rating of ‘outstanding’ and our other local schools were all ‘good’ or better but the teacher in me knew that an OFSTED report was not the only thing to look for. Yes they are well regulated and there to hold schools to account (as they should be) but I know from experience that they are generally driven by results and can sometimes only be a snapshot of a school on that given day. Also the data that they use for inspection purposes and for league tables only really shows where children have ended up and doesn’t take into account where they started; their attainment rather than the progress they have made.

I also felt really strongly as a parent that my children are more than just outcomes- I wanted to pick a school that was going to nurture them as individuals and develop them as a whole, not just academically.

A guide to OFSTED Inspection Reports…

When looking at OFSTED reports, try not to get too hung up on the Grades given. Schools are given an overall effectiveness rating but are also looked at in detail for different categories where you will find more detail about achievement of pupils or leadership for example. Look more at the things that are relevant to your child. For example if you know your son or daughter lacks confidence or struggles emotionally, read the section on behaviour and safety of pupils- is there any mention made to how pupils are inducted or supported at more unstructured times like playtime? Do they mention specific interventions that may be used to effectively help pupils who find school difficult? Does it talk about how pupils interact with each other and with staff?

Try not to instantly dismiss schools that have a ‘requires improvement’ OFSTED grade or even those graded a 4 (either those deemed ‘serious weakness’ or ‘special measures’). Quite often these schools have been on a journey of school improvement and will have had lots of support, intervention and probably funding. It may well be that the improvements have just not been recognised yet due to where they are in the OFSTED inspection cycle. It’s also really important to read the report before you go to visit a school as you can use that as an opportunity to clarify any points made that concern you or that you’d like more information on.

Visiting the school…

For me, the visits were much more informative and important than the report. I wanted to get a feel for the schools and the staff and children there. Don’t get fobbed off with an appointment after school- you need to see the kids interacting with each other and with staff. Ring up with plenty of time to spare before the application deadline too- quite often the Head or Deputy will have set aside specific sessions that may get booked up quickly. I took George with me for the viewing- he had lots of questions and it was a great chance for him to start to acclimatise to the thought of school and all it had to offer.

Make sure you go into Foundation Stage (some schools will still call it Reception). This is going to be where your son or daughter will start their school life and it will have a huge influence on shaping their attitude to education as well as providing building blocks for the rest of their learning. George is a very ‘outdoorsy’ and I was really keen to look at the outdoor provision and to check that children had lots of access to it. I was also keen to see how formal the setting seemed- He was only going to be 4 and a few months when he started and I was worried about him having to do too much, too soon.

Look at the learning environment. Is it bright and warm and welcoming? Does the school appear well resourced? Are the staff friendly? Do they talk to you and your child as you look round? Do the kids look happy and engaged? Are there plenty of additional adults in school and are they working alongside children? Are you seeing lots of different types of learning happening in classrooms – group work and drama and art as well as the core subjects? And most importantly- do you think your child could be happy here??

Questions

Go armed with questions (my husband and I had a bet on to see if I gave away my profession with my questions – the Head asked me if I was ‘in education’ at the end of the look round! Busted!) Things to consider when making a list of questions…

Practicalities: Do they have a breakfast club or after school club that you can use if you need additional childcare? Ask about the timings of the school day- you may need to consider child care of younger children at home and how they fit together.

Is the school oversubscribed? How many children were admitted from out of catchment last year? If you are not in catchment it might help you to make a decision if you know you are unlikely to get in!

What does the curriculum look like? The objectives that are covered are dictated nationally but the way that they are delivered are specific to each school – do the themes and topics sound like things your child will be interested and engaged by?

How do they involve parents in school life? Do they offer workshops or support for parents on how to help your child at home with reading for instance? What are the homework expectations as your child moves through school?

What are the school’s improvement priorities? What would they like to be doing better? What are they developing across school at the moment?

What is the provision for extra curricular opportunities like? Do they cater for your child’s interests and skills? Do they offer extra clubs that your child can attend or lessons in music or languages or sports that will develop or nurture an interest or talent?

Does your child have any specific needs that would require provision or interventions? How would the school cater for these needs?

In general…

Talk to neighbours and other parents at play groups etc about their experiences of local schools. Use social media to gauge opinions (but obviously apply the ‘pinch of salt’ rule where necessary!) Consider practicalities such as distance- being able to walk to school was a key priority for me- even dragging along two pre-schoolers with us, I love the walk with our friends and their kids. Think about other children that you know will be attending and the friendships that your child already has- there is a strong chance that these will change once they start school but having friendly faces that they recognise when they start could help to ease them in. Consider your own support network- Ted was born 2 months after George started school; being able to call on a neighbour to drop George off when we’d been up all night or when Ted vomited everywhere just as we were about to set off was a godsend! Consider the size of the school- I love our little village school which is very personal and suits George to a tee; but some children are better in a larger setting with more resources and options… Consider what works best for your family. Also remember that you may be looking for a school place for one child but if you have more than one child the likelihood is that siblings may also be attending in the future- which is the ‘best fit’ for all your children?

And finally; go with your gut! If something bothers you, go back another time and check it out. You and your child are going to be part of this school and its community for a number of years- it’s a big choice and important to get it right!

Good luck with the applications, I hope your littles get the place you want.

What are your views on OFSTED?

Do you have any other tips?

The loves of Lisa’s life are Rich and their kids, Lyra and Jenson. Although she does wish they would let her have a shower in peace every once in a while.

34 Comments. Leave new

What a brilliant article – thank you Rachel for writing and RMF for organising. Hugely helpful. X

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Glad it was helpful :0) good luck with your search x

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This is an incredibly useful article, thank you! x

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Thank you. Glad it was useful x

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Also a teacher here (Secondary) but completely, completely echo every word Rachel said here.
We were seen by Ofsted who, because our results weren’t comparable to the grammars locally (apparently didn’t matter they creamed off the top), were sending us on a one-way ticket to RI (requires improvement). The school was really special and everyone cared for everyone else; the children were fantastic.
My best piece of advice- if you can, go on a natural day with nothing ‘on’ and go on feelings.
Finally I would add that a quick read of the school’s recent newsletters (often available as pdfs on their website) will give you an idea as to what the children are doing and crucially the school’s ability to make a strong connection with parents!!

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OOh, good tip about the newsletters. Will be hunting these down.

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Great advice! Totally agree on the ofsted issue too- there is an assumption on entering a school that each school faces exactly the same challenges and are all playing on a level playing field and that isn’t the case. The school I work in has a number of children who join mid year and don’t speak any English as an example- these kids make amazing progress and the staff do a brilliant job but there is no allowance for this in terms of the expectations that they should be working at by the end of Y6 which is what we are judged against. Tricky all round! X

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Exactly- EAL (English as an addditional language) is a completely different ball game. I agree that schools should be held to account but some common sense and an awareness of all factors is vital!
Anyway superb article Rachel 🙂 x

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This is a brilliant brilliant post. We are a year away from these decisions but will be bookmarking for future reference xx

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Thank you. Good luck in your search x

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Brilliant post. And also great extra bit of advice about newsletters from Charlotte.
Am sending this straight to the husband so we can both be prepared.

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Going with someone else is also good advice! I found I was an emotional wreck with anything school related for George, (Totally opposite with Esme- she’s soooo ready and we’re counting down the days!) but my husband was much more rational and practical about it! You see different things if you both go x

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My daughter started reception in September, so I went through all these deliberations last year, all really useful advice.

One thing I would say is that if it’s an option in your area then compare Infant schools with Primary schools. We went with an Infant School which has a 75 place intake. This sounds really big, but as the school only has 3 years it whereas some of the primaries with smaller intakes felt vast.

It’s all horses for courses so I would advise looking at quite a few different schools so that you find the one that suits you and your child the best.

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Definitely something to consider- separate infant schools often offer a much smaller and more personalised setting which some children will definitely do better in. They also tend to have staff who are really experienced and dedicated to early years provision. The school my son goes to is a through primary but only has one class per year which means it’s smaller than average- I really like a smaller village feel and it feels like all the staff know all the children. But then again the school I work in is double the size and we still work hard to personalise learning so it’s swings and roundabouts!

The only thing to consider on the other hand is that it can sometimes be a big transition to KS2 for these schools at the end of Y2. It can also be a logistical nightmare for parents if you have more than one child and end up having to drop off and pick up in two places once one has moved on to the juniors. Just something to consider though- and possibly a line of questioning if you visit to check how it would work for you.

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Great post! Definitely saving for when we will have to start thinking about all of this, thank you!!

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Glad it’s helpful. X

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mm
Charlotte O'Shea
4th January 2018 4:06 pm

Rachel this is so informative and useful – thanks so much for sharing. I feel as though I’ve been on a merry go round with choosing Mabel’s school, and it definitely was the “feel” and the attitude/enthusiasm of the teachers & children as much as the results that was important to my husband and I x

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You definitely can’t underestimate your ‘mummy spidy sense!’ I loved little things on our look round like the kids holding doors open for us, or the head knowing kids by name or the little boy who showed me his writing with such pride! All kids have specific needs and talents that need to be nurtured- you need to find the ethos and setting that’s right for your child x

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Brilliant post and so informative, thank you. I wish I had this when I was choosing a school last year! I definitely went with how the school ‘felt’ on our visit but was totally anxious that I was making an unsound decision as I knew it wasn’t the best rated. I didn’t like the ethos of the better rated school and also my decision was based on practicalities like wrap around care and that we could walk to school on my day off. I wanted to feel part of the local school community. I have always felt sceptical about Ofsted, I work in the NHS and have felt the same regarding the CQC so it’s really reassuring to hear the perspective of a teacher. My son started this September and I have no regrets and absolutely know we chose the right school for him, he is loving it and coming on so we’ll, as you said as a requires improvement school they are really investing and working hard to develop.

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Thank you. It’s great to hear that you feel you made the right choice and that’s hes doing so well. I honestly think it’s a bit like finding your dream house- you just know! I think your point is really important- just because a school is outstanding on paper, doesn’t mean it’s outstanding for your child! The School community part was a huge pull for me too (not least because the PTA hold their meetings in the pub! ) That connection is so important x

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Great post, just could’ve done with it in November when we were doing the open mornings. My daughter will be 4 only 3 weeks before starting school in September and our local (outstanding) school is oversubscribed, with us not meeting any of the priority criteria and living on the edge of the village, so I’m terrified she will be shipped off to another village with no one she knows at great inconvenience to us as a family and to the detriment of her start of formal education. There may well be tears in April (mine!). But we looked round the other options and although all have ‘good’ ofsted ratings, I’d definitely echo that there’s a lot more to it than that as they all felt so different and had their own individual atmospheres. I’d be happy enough with her at any of them but still hope with all myhoping power that we get our village school. Wish us luck!

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Ah definitely wishing you lots of luck! The wait is really stressful isn’t it!?

The age thing is an interesting point- my son is a spring baby so was 4 and 4 months when he started. My daughter is October born and so will almost be 5 and baby Ted in November will be similar. I was really worried that George wasn’t ready but he totally proved me wrong and is doing really well- I almost feel that for us it’s the opposite way round in terms of it being a problem as I feel like Esme is missing out when she’s absolutely ready now. I understand that there has to be some kind of cut off point but it’s a tricky one!

Fingers crossed for your choices xxx

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I’ve only just discovered your blog.. great articles, especially this one! I’ve been a deputy head and teacher for over 20 years and I’m also a Governor at our local school. We moved here 2 years ago so I’ve not taught in the area. I agree, very strange to be the other side if the gate! So in the end I’ve chosen NOT to send my son to the Outstanding over-subscribed school where I’m Governor… but I’ve picked three infant schools, that are Good, that I’ll have to drive to. Why? Because of exactly the things you mention: the Early Years approach to those first few years. Mostly that the classrooms were full of fun learning and the classes extended outdoors! My other tip when visiting is to pay attention to Year 1. Lots of schools have fantastic Reception classes but it suddenly turns IMO too formal too soon in Year 1. Agree with other people how every school is not easy to compare. Thanks!

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Thanks Lisa. Yes totally agree on Y1- often children are really thrown into the deep end in terms of formal learning and it can be a real switch off for learning- my son is in Y1 now and I think they’ve got the balance right for him- lots of continuous provision to ease them in and beginning to move to a slightly more formal approach now. Great advice thanks x

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Nicola Daniel
7th January 2018 9:04 pm

I have been looking forward to reading this post and it didn’t disappoint. Thank you!

I’m so confused tho (not good for a masters educated mum!!!! I’d admit!) when would my daughter start reception (or early years) at school – she was born 30th Sept 2015…??! My understanding is that children start school the term after their fifth birthday – but hearing your experiences (4 years and 4 months) makes me question that I have the correct understanding? Should I be applying for a school placement this time next year??! Anyone else find the sooo confusing!?

We are in the process of re-locating and finding nurseries while 200 miles away is challenging as we can’t easily make walk-arounds… the one we have managed to see didn’t feel right besides it’s ofsted outstanding rating – I’ve been questioning my thought-process how we could consider a good rating over it – but your article has made so much sense. Our little girl will be going from a small independent nursery (which happens to have ofsted outstanding rating) but it’s more the class sizes and physical environment that felt right – setting an expectation for the next place….

Thanks for all your help
Nicola

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She will start school in Sept 2020. As a September born she will be one of the oldest and almost 5. The application process usually opens sometime around Oct/nov of the academic year before and the deadline will be January 2020 for you- you’ll then find out in April. Hope that helps and gives you chance to relocate and have a good look first x

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Nicola Daniel
8th January 2018 8:57 am

Thank you so much! Yes that is so helpful! X

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Fantastic post Rachel. This is going to be so useful for us next year. I hope you don’t mind an slightly off-topic question but I see that you’re a primary school teacher and a mum of three. How do you find combining teaching with being a parent? And would you recommend teaching to other parents? My husband is seriously considering retraining as a primary school teacher but he’s recently been doing some work experience and a lot of the teachers he’s met have been very negative and have told him that I’d they had their time again they wouldn’t have gone into teaching. In your view has he just been unlucky to end up in a school where teachers are suffering from a low morale or is teaching and parenting really not compatible?

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Thanks Kat. Mmmmmm that’s a tricky one! I think like all public sector jobs, teaching is feeling the squeeze of budget cuts etc at the minute and there is a lot of low morale around. For me though, when you boil it down and take away the external pressures, working alongside young children is the best job in the world and ultimately a privilege! I love the fact that no two days are the same and it constantly keeps you on your toes.

Teaching and parenting isn’t always compatible… I’m part time (3 days) which helps and I’m a deputy head and don’t have the responsibility of a full time class (I teach the vast majority of the time but things like booster groups rather than the whole class) so that might skew my judgement slightly. It doesn’t offer a huge amount of flexibility- I like to be in work by 7.30 for example but we couldn’t find a nursery that started before 8! And it’s not always easy to get time off during the day for nativities or sports days etc. But with the right support network (we have fab grandparents who do our childcare and my husband can do the morning nursery drop off for example) and also with the right school with management that is understanding it can work! The hours are long but as your kids reach school age it’s great around the holidays.

I definitely wouldn’t rule it out but it just depends on the network you have around you and finding the right school to work in! A good set of colleagues and supportive management are key!!

Hope that helps x

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Thanks that’s really helpful.

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Um, a very late, stupid follow-up question!! What EXACTLY is the difference between Reception and Year 1?!!! I really should know, I was educated in this country for goodness sake, but clearly that was a very long time ago as I am now so confused. Is reception like nursery, i.e. from 3.5 years or whenever State Schools start (as I think some are different) and therefore optional depending on whether your child is in another nursery setting or not, or is Reception what we call the first year children start at school (the year they turn 5)? I thought it was the first year in school (the year they turn 5) but now the mention of Year 1 has made me question myself. Thank you!!

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Hi Annie.
Not stupid at all! I think what often makes it confusing is that nurseries and schools use the Early Years Foundation Stage as their curriculum which is 0- 60 months. Generally speaking though, nursery is separate from Reception. Nursery is up to four years old. Then in most schools, they go Reception – Year 1 – Year 2 etc. Although it’s always a bit of a minefield because some schools have their Foundation Stage altogether, with Nursery and Reception, some schools go Class 1 when it’s actually Reception etc. Not forgetting some schools who go completely off-piste with Badger Class, Dinosaur Class etc…!

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Definitely confusing!
Reception (or Foundation 2) is the school year that your child will be 4 to begin with and turn 5 during the year. This still tends to be more play based and less formal.
As becks says, it’s confusing with all the different language for nurseries and pre schools etc. Hope that helps x

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Thank you both very much!! Glad to have that ironed out, we are a couple of years off doing this but I didn’t want to suddenly discover I should be sorting it out next year instead! Annie x

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