Be brave, Ofsted


As Ofsted seeks to reform itself, Professor Mick Waters offers his vision of how inspection should work and how schools and teachers should be judged.


There will be much relief in secondary schools about the news that Ofsted is going to change the way school inspections operate. About time too! 

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw should be applauded for recognising the need for change even though it means further upheaval after seven new frameworks in 10 years, a rate that would plunge schools into special measures on the grounds of incoherent strategic direction.

The change of emphasis promised by HMCI provides an opportunity to rethink the process itself rather than simply modify the frequency and personnel. Ofsted should not be afraid to invite suggestions; the profession should be rigorous with itself in setting expectations for regulation.

What might be considered in a review? First, might schools be classified as “good enough” or not? The present system strives to set the baseline as “good” with “outstanding” above and “requiring improvement” below; should we really countenance a system that strives for all to be at least second rate?

A two category outcome would reduce the need for the strained and convoluted judgements that describe practice as good with hints of outstanding or an aftertaste of inadequate, much as wine is described by connoisseurs. Is the school a place which is “child and education worthy”? Yes or no? If not, let’s sort it out; if so, let the school demonstrate to parents, community, employers and pupils that it is truly outstanding on their terms.

I take my car for its MOT and when I collect it I am told that it has passed. “What,” I exclaim, “no outstanding features?” All I really need to know is that it is road-worthy.

Ofsted’s recent pronouncement that no one style of teaching is preferable is welcome but surely that does not mean that anything goes. Solid, clear instruction is a vital part of the teaching repertoire as is the graphic exposition, the open-ended challenge, the group task, the individual practice and the sheer joy of sharing together a poem.

What is not acceptable is the slow lethargy of endless printed sheets completed to provide evidence, the time-filling mediocrity of copying lesson objectives that are not understood, the emphasis upon time with the pencil and page rather than the scales, pipette, trumpet, map, protractor or brush. Let’s have a better dialogue about teaching and encourage thinking professionals rather than classroom technicians.

The only consistency in the current system is the lack of consistency of inspection. The inspectors are mainly diligent, committed professionals but it doesn’t always show. 

The process is less one of scrutiny and more a negotiation between the head and the lead inspector based on the relative assertiveness of each. There are plenty of myths but they must come from somewhere and many in teaching are left wounded by their perceived treatment at the hands of inspectors who themselves are jumping through hoops set by others. The influence of “readers” employed by the agencies to ensure further contracts ensures consistency of report writing rather than consistency of inspection. 

While most would want rigour in the inspection regime, the stifling tension in schools as they wait for the call is awful and affects pupil learning for the worst. Some heads of so-called outstanding schools have not been inspected for several years and spend the early part of each week dreading the call that could signal the end of their category, their job, their career if the “wrong team” arrives. It might be irrational but it is happening and it is having a bad effect.

We might do something in reports to include a comment on parental support for children’s achievement. At present parents are treated as consumers and the commentary relates to their appreciation of the school’s effort. In some places some parents hamper the effort of the school. Why not make that clear in the report?

What about the inspectors themselves? Let’s applaud the proposed inclusion of school leaders alongside highly respected HMI. How about saying that all other inspectors have to teach for half a term a year as a condition of registration? Teach – not just be in a school. If they had to do it for a while, day-in, day-out, there would be more humility, more appreciation and a lot less inspectors available.

Lastly, is it not time that Ofsted had an independent complaints procedure? Ofsted argues that the level of complaint is minor and most schools report a helpful inspection process. Once the wolf has been kept from the door it is surely natural to lie low when asked what we thought of his growl. If Ofsted is confident in its teams and processes, it should be brave enough to submit to scrutiny of itself.

Let’s not miss the chance to improve the system, because if we can, we will make learning lives better for pupils. Be brave, Ofsted!

  • Mick Waters is professor of education at Wolverhampton University and member of the 21st Century Learning Alliance. His book, Thinking Allowed on Schooling deals with these issues and other matters.

Further information
The 21st Century Learning Alliance is a forum with representation from practitioners and industry that debates difficult issues to help stimulate improvement and change. Visit or follow on Twitter @Learning_21C


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