If there is one thing preoccupying school leaders in England at the moment, it’s Ofsted inspections. The high-stakes public accountability has made inspection a defining moment in an institution’s future and its leader’s personal career, with the accolade of “outstanding” opening all kinds of doors and the lower grades slamming them shut.
Inspections have a valid and important part to play in our accountability system. Where they are done well, they provide an incredibly valuable, external perspective to the improvement process. This validates the rigorous self-evaluation that has to be embedded at all levels in the leadership and management processes of any good school.
But I am worried. Too many inspections at the moment do not have these characteristics. Instead they are too often a bruising process which seems to be focused more on finding fault than recognising positives. Even successful schools report being treated as if the assumption is that they are in the wrong and they need to prove otherwise.
Frankly, Ofsted brings with it a culture of fear and there is growing anger at reports and judgements which seem to be based on a name and shame model. The new designation of “requiring improvement” appears de facto to have turned into a category. Anyone doubting this only needs to look at the first line of new style inspection reports: “This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because…” – not exactly a marketing tool for schools which often have much good practice to share.
But my biggest concern is the evidence base upon which these judgements are made. Typically a team of five inspectors might spend two days in a large secondary school, with much of the second day discussing the findings in a team meeting. The short notice arrangements mean that inspectors now arrive with minimal preparation and little knowledge of the school beyond a look at headline data and the website, and a tightly scripted telephone call with the head focused on practical arrangements. The important stage of producing a pre-inspection commentary, with hypotheses for the team to test during the inspection, is a thing of the past.
Although the new framework focuses on four areas these judgements cover many different aspects. While we would be the last to recommend a return to the days when car-loads of paperwork were taken away by inspectors, we seem to have gone to another extreme. Sweeping judgements about the quality of teaching are based on a small sample of lesson observations, sometimes in a limited number of departments. Judgements about governance often are made on the basis of one conversation. Effective inspection cannot possibly look at every aspect of the school’s operation but we know it can and should validate and triangulate self-evaluation processes.
We recognise and welcome the chief inspector’s commitment to address inconsistencies among inspections and improve the quality of the process. We believe that this would be helped by:
Creating a better opportunity for an in-depth conversation with the head before the inspection starts.
Restating the role of self-evaluation and focusing on validation by a process of sampling, rather than trying to draw unreliable conclusions from a tiny evidence base.
Ensuring that reports, while clear and concise, are written in a way that recognises the efforts of professionals who are often working in challenging circumstances.
It is vital for the inspection system to be one which befits a high status profession. School leaders are not looking for a soft option but they deserve better than being treated like naughty children.
Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk