In recent years Ofsted has become buffeted by harsh winds which have blown it off course. While rightly inspecting schools of all types without fear or favour, Ofsted’s independent stance has been accompanied by an arrogant disregard of the quality of its inspectors, or the safety of its inspection judgements.
Compounding this fault line in inspection quality is the lack of transparency and complexity of Ofsted’s complaints process which means that schools which unfairly fall foul of its judgements find that they have very little opportunity to put the inspectors, and their judgements, right.
There can be no doubt that Ofsted was unprepared for the growing, well-informed and well-evidenced critique of its purpose, its practice of inspection, and the accuracy of its judgements of school quality. The mountain of criticism over the past few years has disturbed the agency’s equilibrium. In a nutshell, Ofsted has been unable to answer the charge that its inspection judgements lack sufficient reliability – that is, that the grade given by one inspection team would be replicated by another.
This most serious accusation goes to the heart of the effectiveness and the ethics of the inspection regime – if Ofsted judgements cannot be trusted, then how can the agency justify the £157 million a year it takes in tax-payers’ money? And given the awful effects of a poor Ofsted grade on school leaders and teachers’ professional lives, hopes and careers, and the fact that it takes schools two terms just to recover from the stress and excess work caused by an imminent inspection, how can Ofsted claim that it is a force for good in education?
There have been other criticisms – that Ofsted judgements tell you much more about the quality of a school’s intake than the quality of its teaching; that Ofsted has fallen foul of, and promoted, too many discredited fads and fashions – the three-part lesson or excessive pace in teaching, for example.
Slow to react to informed criticism, Ofsted has defended the indefensible too many times. Graded lesson observations based on 20-minute observation, conducted by non-subject specialist inspectors, in which teachers were required to demonstrate “progress”, were abandoned by Ofsted only when the weight of evidence against the reliability and validity of these judgements became impossible to ignore. This is Ofsted’s fundamental flaw – the agency reacts too slowly to the changing education landscape, and when it is forced by the weight of informed opinion to make changes, those made are too little and too late.
And so Ofsted launches, this September, a new Common Inspection Framework for early years settings, schools and further education providers. Ofsted claims that a common framework, combined with in-house training of inspectors, and the involvement of more practising teachers, lecturers and school leaders, will transform the quality of its inspections.
I do not share Ofsted’s conviction. A Common Inspection Framework does nothing to address the issue of how that framework is interpreted by different inspection teams. Ofsted answers this point by arguing that the quality of its training of inspectors will be transformed by bringing it in house. But how can the agency be so sure that it will get it right when there are so many inspectors, so widely dispersed throughout the country, and where the existing quality of inspectors is so uneven? And until Ofsted operates an independent complaints procedure, how will we have any evidence that the quality of its judgements have improved?
In an effort to promote debate about the much-needed, long-awaited, fundamental, far-reaching and radical reforms of inspection, we have published our Vision for Inspection. Our vision is for a system of school peer-review, moderated by a national, independent inspectorate. If you agree with our critique, and proposals for inspection reform, please sign our pledge.
Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Download ATL’s document, A Vision for Inspection, at http://bit.ly/1Jp4uXS