Understanding Ofsted monitoring visits

While school leaders are familiar with the format of Ofsted inspections and all that they entail, monitoring visits may be a less well understood form of scrutiny. John Viner explains the different types of monitoring visit and what happens before, during and after them

Ofsted inspections are currently carried out under Section 5 of the 2005 Education Act and are known as Section 5 inspections. Faith schools get an additional Section 48 inspection under the same act. Section 8 of the act deals with the re-inspection of schools that are causing concern. These could be in special measures or under a notice to improve (NtI). However, it is not just schools that are in a category of concern that are covered by Section 8; it also allows for the re-inspection of schools graded as satisfactory.

Under the previous inspection framework, only five per cent of schools judged to be satisfactory received a monitoring visit and, by and large, the odds means that leaders did not worry too much - the thought of a re-inspection could be safely brushed under the carpet. Since the introduction of the present framework, in September 2009, the percentage of satisfactory schools receiving a monitoring visit has risen to 40%. So, then, better to be prepared.

A primary school that is in special measures receives its first monitoring visit four to six months after the inspection. Then there are flexible termly visits up to a maximum of five, the number of inspectors depending on size of school. There is a further full inspection around two years after the original inspection. Eighty-five per cent of special measures visits are led by HMI and the school can be removed from the category on any monitoring visit. Headteachers receive two days' notice for the first three visits and one day for the last two. The lead HMI or AI works closely with the school during this period and often builds up a good working relationship.

The core task for the monitoring team is to make key judgements about the school's progress in securing improvement. If, at any point, progress is sufficient for special measures to be removed, the visit will turn into a normal Section 5 inspection.

For a primary school with a notice to improve, the process is far less intense. They will usually receive a monitoring inspection between six and eight months after the original inspection and will be re-inspected between a year and eighteen months after the last Section 5 inspection. The monitoring visit is subject to one day's notice and cannot remove the NtI. Unlike the special measures visits, an NtI inspection will focus on the same factors as a Section 5 inspection, will involve lesson observations, but should be tightly focused on issues that relate to the expected improvement. An NtI visit cannot place the school in special measures but, if progress is judged to be inadequate, the lead inspector must make it clear that the school may require special measures at the next Section 5 inspection.

Satisfactory schools may receive what is known as a Grade 3 Monitoring Visit. This is likely to take place between one and two years after the original inspection. However, with schools now being inspected earlier than they had expected as a result of outstanding schools dropping out of the cycle, the shorter period is more likely.

Being allocated a Grade 3 Monitoring Visit is not arbitrary and it is quite possible to work out if your school is vulnerable. Ofsted publish a protocol for selecting satisfactory schools for monitoring visits. The protocol sets out six criteria that are used to assess whether or not a school should be monitored. These are:

  • whether one or more of the judgements in the Section 5 inspection which judged the school's overall effectiveness to be satisfactory was graded inadequate
  • if the capacity for sustained improvement judgement was graded as satisfactory
  • significant decline in pupils' attainment and progress
  • significant decline in pupils' attainment or progress
  • no significant improvement in either attainment or progress
  • attendance concerns.

Attainment and progress, of course, includes that made by different groups of pupils. Ofsted will also take into account if the school has received a local authority warning notice.

From here it is quite easy to identify if one or more indicators apply and therefore if it is likely that your school will receive a monitoring inspection. Ofsted say that, ‘the inspection covers aspects of the framework for school inspection, but is selective and focused sharply on the improvements made by the school since the last Section 5 inspection and the extent to which it is demonstrating a better capacity for sustained improvement' (Ofsted 2010, Monitoring Inspections of Schools Whose Overall Effectiveness is Satisfactory).

No judgement is made about the school's overall effectiveness and a monitoring inspection of a satisfactory school cannot place the school in a category of concern. It can, however, influence the timing of the next inspection. Ofsted also warn that, ‘if inspectors consider that safeguarding arrangements are inadequate this may affect the judgements made during the monitoring inspection' (Ofsted 2010).

A satisfactory monitoring visit will feel much like a Section 5 inspection. Inspectors will consider the same contextual information, focus on the same outcomes, observe and feed back to teachers and talk to senior leaders. They will have access to the same documentation that is used in a Section 5 inspection. As noted, the key to a successful monitoring visit is to demonstrate a stronger capacity for improvement. Where the inspection differs is that, unless EYFS was identified as being in need of improvement, it will not be inspected.

The outcome of a monitoring visit, whether for special measures, NtI or satisfactory schools, is not a full report but a monitoring letter. The report on a school in special measures can be very detailed but the letter for NtI and satisfactory schools is only around 700 words in length. The letter includes an annexe that re-states the areas for improvement identified during the Section 5 inspection. The monitoring letter has the same status as an inspection report and is published on the Ofsted website. Like an inspection report, schools have 24 hours to report any factual inaccuracies. Unlike a report, they are not required to copy it to all parents but it might be sensible to do so if it contains good news. Certainly parents of children at a school causing concern will want to know that things are getting better. And you will want to tell them!