Debate over Ofsted notice clouds real issue of inspection reform


Weeks, days, hours – the debate about how much notice Ofsted should give schools is clouding the real issue of the impact of our punitive inspection regime, says Pete Henshaw.

The age-old debate over the notice period schools should be given before an Ofsted is getting in the way of the vital debate about the structure and function of inspection.

The Ofsted notice period has slowly been diminishing for years. It used to be weeks, and then it was days, and most recently hours – or one afternoon to be precise.

Now the inspectorate is trialling no-notice routine inspections. It is to carry out these unannounced raids throughout the academic year – with 40 due to take place during a two-week window this month.

Of course, inspectors have already the power to swoop unannounced if they have cause for concern, but this new trial is for Section 5 routine visits.

It is all in reaction to the Trojan Horse revelations – that Islamist groups had attempted to take over the governing boards of schools in Birmingham and bring undue influence to bear on their day-to-day running.

Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said this week: “I’m currently giving thought to whether Ofsted should move to more routine no-notice inspections as part of our wider education inspection reforms, which we will be consulting on later this year.”

But let’s make one thing clear: if half a day’s notice was felt by Ofsted to be the right structure for inspection before the Trojan Horse, then it should still be considered as such.

What I mean is, I believe that the fear and scandal revealed by the Trojan Horse affair is being used as an excuse by Ofsted, backed by ministers, to introduce no-notice inspections.

Headteachers are concerned and I can completely understand why – being “treated like naughty children” is how the Association of School and College Leaders described it. I tend to agree. It is insulting to professional educationalists; it shows no respect and smacks of a complete lack of trust.

Ofsted perhaps fears that an afternoon is too much time – time enough for a school to act to skew the real picture? I hardly think so.

From a practical point of view it seems bizarre, too. It’s likely that many of these inspections will by necessity now take place without the head, or key members of the leadership team. 

Or they will take place while said personnel conduct a “mad dash” back from whichever conference or engagement they are attending; visions of headteachers hailing cabs and shouting “John Smith’s High School and step on it!”

On the other hand, schools live their lives nowadays in a permanent state of “inspection readiness”. They only have half a day as it is, and so everything is Ofsted-proofed well in advance – it has to be. And throughout the year there are regular updates to key data and development plans, hours of planning all just in case the inspector calls.

So I can’t really think what difference having no notice at all will make. Schools will still be ready.

However, while we are discussing all of the above, what we are not doing is discussing the inspection regime as a whole. We are not discussing its punitive effect on the schools system. Indeed if the aforementioned attempts to skew the real picture of a school are a common occurrence then surely it is only the result of an overly pressurised and punitive inspection regime?

We are also not discussing the stress and mental health problems that inspection has caused and continues to cause for many school leaders, or the inordinate amount of time that is spent ticking Ofsted’s boxes rather than focusing on the children – and the filtering down of this pressure onto teachers and school staff.

We could avoid all of this nonsense by simply having a system that trusts highly qualified and professional staff to work with the many high quality school inspectors out there constructively and positively to continue the on-going improvement journey of our education system.

Inspection, I fear, is a necessary evil. However, we need to dramatically reform how we go about it. We need a system of intelligent accountability (to steal the SSAT’s phrase – see their Redesigning Schooling campaign) and trust has to be at the heart of this – professionals working alongside one another with a common goal, not inspectors pitted against school leaders in what often boils down to a battle of wits, if not a battle of data analysis.

This has to be our aim for school inspection, because our aspirations for a collaborative, world-class education system will never be realised by reliance on punitive accountability measures that attempt to threaten the system into improvement.



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