Passing the test

Valerie Dunsford and Nina Gunson report on Sheffield High’s five-year plan to improve its rating from the Independent Schools Inspectorate

In 2008, Sheffield High School was judged to be ‘good’ by the Independent Schools Inspectorate (ISI). The school was popular with parents, while pupils’ achievements both academically and in co-curricular activities were commendable. The whole school community knew, though, that it had the capacity to be outstanding. A five-year plan was put into action and in 2013, it achieved an ‘excellent’ rating.

Preparing for an inspection can be a daunting prospect for the best of schools, but it needn’t be. Based on the school’s experience, five key areas a school needs to focus on emerge:

1 Aiming high

One of the most important steps a school can take to boost its inspection rating is to aim high in every area of school life. This approach is particularly effective when it encompasses staff and students. At Sheffield High, graded lesson observation became part of the school’s standard practice. This gives teachers more objective feedback and helps them to gain confidence in the quality of their teaching. Through lesson observation, teachers can be offered support and guidance, helping to counter feelings of isolation in the classroom. Teachers become used to having visitors in their classrooms too, which can reduce anxiety during inspection.

Sheffield High also focuses on developing the leadership skills of both staff and students through coaching, courses and other activities, such as ensuring students have a voice and play a key role in the school’s development. This can really unite a school community in driving standards.

2 Teaching and learning excellence

It is vital that schools recognise what makes an excellent lesson and ensure this is replicated across the curriculum. This is the cornerstone of a successful inspection. Pooling the expertise of a skilled team of teachers can take teaching to the next level. Sharing best practice through discussion groups, learning walks and peer observation are key parts of the training offered at Sheffield High.

Having an open door culture where every teacher gives and takes advice can be a powerful way to encourage good teaching and learning. Not only is this approach a great source of inspiration for designing and delivering consistently high-quality teaching, it means that teachers come to welcome evaluation and are fully prepared when the inspectors arrive.

3 Inspiration from beyond the school gates

Collaboration and partnership work have been an important part of Sheffield High’s development. Teachers learn from each other by carrying out learning walks, both within their own subject area and also across other departments. These short, informal lesson drop-ins are often paired and so promote reflective dialogue between teachers.

As part of the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), the school has also forged close links with a number of schools. This allows for exchange visits with other schools in the local area – including those which are state-funded – and these are not occasional events: learning walks, for example, take place every day in some form and can help to promote the quality of education being delivered.

4 Data management

It is important to understand an institution’s strengths and weaknesses so schools need to consider the self-evaluation form (SEF) as a ‘living’ document that is continually reviewed and updated. This will help ensure that the whole school community is working together to move it forward

When the inspectors arrive at a school, they will have already read the SEF, but this alone may not be enough to showcase all the great things that a school is doing.

One of the things the staff at Sheffield High found useful was to use the inspection grade descriptors as the criteria against which to measure the school’s performance. It is also useful to ensure that a school’s best pieces of evidence are showcased in each category too. This evidence could include folders of pupils’ work, imagery around an event held to boost children’s maths ability, pupils’ achievement data or the results of a survey of parents.

Using a SIMS management information system (MIS) can also enable a school to record a wealth of pupil data quickly and easily. Sheffield High, for example, was able to show the inspection team a lot of data and, more importantly, demonstrate how it’s been used to inform provision in the classroom. The system provides an up-to-date view of every pupil’s effort, attainment and progress data, along with any medical and special educational needs. When a teacher writes their lesson plan, this data is attached, providing valuable context. If a child with SEN responds well to text highlighted in red, for example, this is noted on the lesson plan and will be incorporated into the lesson.

It is also worth a school considering how a school-wide initiation might be rolled out so as to make better use of any data being gathered. This can be incredibly effective in raising pupils’ attainment and driving whole school improvement. The implementation of such an initiative at Sheffield High has resulted in a rise in A* grades at A level.

Using data to inform decision making not only ensures that interventions are effective, it also means that inspectors are not left guessing why things are done in a certain way. At Sheffield High, the inspection team was impressed by the way data is used to help identify and meet the individual needs of pupils.

5 Positive achievements

The inspectors want to see the fantastic things that happen at a school every day so the inspection is a valuable opportunity to show them what makes a school a special place for children to learn.

As part of the SEF, schools are asked to identify the top five things they would like inspectors to see during their visit. Many schools complete this part of the form at the start of the year, but others prefer to wait until they get the call. Doing this gives schools the opportunity to take a fresh approach to inspection. At Sheffield High, for example, inspectors were invited to an after-school tea and cake session with middle leaders so they could ask questions and discuss the work that’s been being done to drive change. The inspectors also had the chance to see a lunchtime house activity involving a number of year groups, which showed pupils in a different dynamic away from the classroom.

Many school inspectors are also practising members of senior leadership teams and they know what it is like to be on the other side of an inspection. When staff are positive about their school and everyone is proud to be a part of it, the inspectors will see that – and the inspection becomes an opportunity for a school to demonstrate the level of excellence that staff and pupils are achieving and to allow the whole school’s character to shine through.

Valerie Dunsford is headteacher and Nina Gunson is deputy head at Sheffield High School W:


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