Ofsted: Finally on the right track?

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice

Ofsted is finally showing signs of positive change, says Deborah Lawson – but will it stay the course?

In the report Forgotten Children: Alternative provision and the scandal of ever increasing exclusions (July 2018), the Education Select Committee rightly expresses concerns about “the over-exclusion of pupils” and “hidden”, or informal, exclusions.

While such practices cannot be condoned, they are the inevitable consequence of a fragmented, “marketised” system where schools must compete for funding and dwindling pools of staff and resources, while under the intense pressures of league tables, scrutiny of their results, demands to “solve” social mobility, and the Ofsted inspections that enforce the government’s target-driven agenda.

Meanwhile, Ofsted itself is facing something of an existential crisis, trying, it seems, to steer a subtly different course under its new chief inspector Amanda Spielman while being pushed in potentially different directions by MPs, the National Audit Office (NAO) and the unions (my own included).

The Select Committee recently accused Ofsted of not providing the level of assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need, commenting that the Department for Education (DfE) needed to be clearer about “the purpose of inspection”.

In May, the NAO found that “Ofsted does not know whether its school inspections are having the intended impact: to raise the standards of education and improve the quality of children’s and young people’s lives” – which surely calls into question the very purpose and direction of Ofsted.

When our schools are desperate for increased funding to keep going, let alone improve, it is shocking that “Ofsted cannot demonstrate that its inspection of schools represents value for money”.

Voice, in response to members’ concerns, has long called for Ofsted inspections to be more consistent, and to be supportive and positive, rather than punitive and negative. We believe Ofsted should be about enabling, not penalising, education professionals.

More recently, there have been encouraging signs of a change of emphasis from Ofsted, suggesting that in future “exam factory” schools that narrowly teach to the test will be marked down and the emphasis on exam results will be downgraded.

The DfE has defended the use of exams as a measure to judge school performance. But it is only one measure. The outcome of an inspection should not rest, or be perceived to rest, on exam results and league tables.

In a speech to the Education Policy Institute, Ms Spielman spoke of Ofsted being “too data-driven” and said that it “should focus on what happens in schools, as opposed to school leaders feeling they must justify their actions with endless progress and performance matrices”.

In her online commentary last month she admitted that inspectors have put “too much weight on tests and exam results” and “not enough emphasis on the curriculum” (see http://bit.ly/2yaQVMy). These themes were echoed in Ms Spielman’s most recent speech (October 11), when she outlined a new “Quality of Education” judgement (Schools prepare for January consultation over Ofsted plans, SecEd, October 2018: http://bit.ly/2NJQxd9).

I can agree with all that. Voice wants to engage positively with Ofsted to achieve solutions that benefit education, pupils and the whole education workforce.

Schools need to be inspected to ensure standards and accountability and teachers are not averse to that principle. The problem with the current system is the process employed, its inconsistencies and its often punitive nature. This supports neither education nor education professionals.

As Sir Mike Griffiths wrote in SecEd last month (A plea to Damian Hinds, SecEd: http://bit.ly/2REztbC): “Our accountability system needs to evaluate school effectiveness, but based on more than success in reaching very restrictive arbitrary criteria. Are children happy? Resilient? Stretched? Challenged? Excited? Stimulated? Educated? We must evaluate what is important, not just what is easy to measure.”

We should indeed look again at Sir John Dunford’s idea of “intelligent accountability”.

Successive governments have turned education into a market and unsuccessfully attempted to manage the market. They have talked about “freedom” – introducing free schools and academies and competition and pushing local authorities out – while creating a new and expensive bureaucracy of regional commissioners and multi-academy trusts, micro-managing the curriculum, “standards” and accountability, and using Ofsted to enforce their agenda.

Successful schools are successful despite, not because of, this marketisation. They are successful because of strong leadership which believes in values, empowers teachers, and values their judgement, skills, knowledge and expertise. What they need is an inspection regime that does the same.

  • Deborah Lawson is the general secretary of Voice.


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