Is Ofsted under pressure?

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With more and more schools challenging Ofsted judgements and a new inquiry into whether it’s fit-for-purpose, Dr Mary Bousted says the inspectorate’s influence is on the wane.

Strange times for Ofsted. Just before Christmas Twitter was alive with the breaking news that Ofsted had given teachers a Christmas present!

In an apparent volte face, new guidance told inspection teams they should not automatically criticise teachers for talking too much or mark them down if they did not lay on a range of different activities in the lessons. Nor should inspectors expect teaching to be personalised to each pupil.

The revised guidance states: “It is unrealistic ... for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable.’’

In further developments, Ofsted seemed to have caught on to the politicians’ mantra that it is the quality of teaching and evidence of learning that matters. The revised guidance warns inspectors not to “focus on lesson structure at the expense of its content or the wide range of other evidence about how well children are learning in the school”.

It is completely understandable that many teachers’ initial reaction to this news was wildly positive.  Having suffered under the yoke of Ofsted’s diktats on what counts as an “outstanding” lesson, anything that signalled a more considered, more professional approach to the complexity of teaching was bound to be welcomed.

But, I am afraid, the Scrooge in me said “bah, humbug” to the prospect of Ofsted’s new approach. Why am I so ungrateful? Well, it is widely acknowledged, by teachers, by school leaders and by government ministers (although they would never admit it publicly), that Ofsted inspection teams have a major quality control problem.

Frankly, it’s a lottery whether the team that turns up to your school will have the ability to make sound judgements on the quality of education provided by your school. Ofsted is buckling under the volume of complaints and appeals against inspection findings that cannot be justified against the weight of contrary evidence.

Now the rules have been torn up this could, paradoxically, leave schools and teachers with a bigger problem. Ofsted inspectors needed the old guidance because too many of them would not be able to recognise effective teaching when they saw it. Rigid guidelines gave at least some consistency of approach. 

There are, therefore, huge dangers in requiring Ofsted inspectors to exercise their own professional judgements because, as teachers know to their cost, in too many cases these are neither professional nor defensible. The danger is that teachers will be left in the worst of all possible worlds – not knowing what the inspector thinks is outstanding or good, and trying to find the answer inside the inspector’s head.

There are signs, however, that Ofsted’s authority and reputation is waning. Questions about the inspection agency’s fitness for purpose are now being raised in unlikely places. 

The right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange has recently launched an inquiry asking: “Ofsted – Is the school’s inspectorate fit for purpose?”

The call for evidence states that as the school system becomes more autonomous the necessity for a rigorous and high-quality regulator is ever more necessary. That, says the think-tank, is why it is researching the reliability and validity of Ofsted inspections and the impact they have on schools, leadership teams and headteachers. Independent scrutiny of Ofsted is long overdue. I urge you to go to Policy Exchange’s website and give your views – the deadline is February 3.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Visit www.atl.org.uk

Further information
Policy Exchange: www.policyexchange.org.uk


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