Ofsted: Yet more changes

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School inspection is shifting again after Ofsted unveiled a number of changes for September. Russell Hobby looks at some of the key points.

The results of the consultation on Ofsted’s new framework are in. There was, shall we say, a little bit of unhappiness with the original proposals, much of it eloquently expressed in the pages of SecEd. 

This was stoked by an unnecessary escalation of rhetoric culminating in the “stress” faux pas. Really, we need a government that knows how to inspire as well as condemn (the funny thing is, inspiration works).

The retreat on no-notice inspections was clearly foreshadowed – it will be short notice rather than no-notice. This is important. A headteacher has a right to be present in a school when it is inspected; not only because it is a make or break moment in their career, not only because Ofsted is supposed to be inspecting their leadership, but mostly because the performance of inspection teams is so variable it requires a confident leader in situ to challenge them. It is disappointing that there is nothing in the new proposals to address this quality issue.

Although no-notice attracted the most attention, some of the other changes are more interesting if a little more subtle. There has been some watering down in the changes to the new “requires improvement” category which is to replace “satisfactory”. 

The “three strikes and you’re out” approach, where a school will go into special measures on its third requires improvement judgement in a row will now not be automatic; still likely though. 

The inspection cycle will be extended from one to two years. Most importantly, requires improvement will not make a school eligible for intervention and, therefore, forced academisation. That’s big.

These are important changes to a set of proposals that threatened to tip large numbers of schools over the brink into failure without any corresponding support. Nothing could have been more detrimental to the progress already being made in our education system. In any case, we are seeing an increase in the number school leaders, including good and outstanding ones, who are seeking retirement rather than face another round of ritual humiliation: it doesn’t matter how sharp your accountability system is if there is no-one to hold accountable.

The level of hostility between the profession and government is such that these changes are unlikely to reduce tension by themselves. The government often faces a dilemma – engage the profession or secure the headline. Too frequently it opts for the latter. The changes also leave much undone. 

The Parent View website remains a threat to successful leadership; its unverified and unrepresentative judgements, married to the amplifying effects of social media, risk exposing schools to campaigns that would make The X Factor look like a dignified evaluation process. As Sir Michael Wilshaw knows only too well, sometimes you need to make unpopular decisions.

We also need action on the quality of the inspection process. This is too variable and too subjective. Frequent changes of framework mean even the inspectors struggle to keep pace, and decisions on the ground seldom match the aspirations at the centre. Too few inspectors have recent and relevant experience in the schools they are inspecting; and the conflict will make recruiting serving leaders even harder. It cannot be right when large chunks of reports are cut and pasted from each other; or when minds are made up before the inspection has begun.

We need to think more radically still. Evaluation and external challenge should be part of our professional habits, not imposed from outside. We will listen to difficult news from someone we trust when we might react with anger and defensiveness to the same views from a stranger.

Indeed, one of the highest costs of the constant criticism of the profession is that it makes it difficult to hear legitimate concerns. A peer-to-peer model of inspection could strengthen the bonds between schools in a time of fragmentation, really connect feedback to improvement, and (perhaps) make Ofsted itself less relevant.


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