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The end of the road for Ofsted?

No more tinkering – it is time for a systemic change to school inspection. Dr Patrick Roach asks if the new Ofsted chief inspector has the will…
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The tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry rightly prompted an outpouring of anger from the profession and released a pent up surge of demand for fundamental reform to the inspection system.

The mark of a decent society can be seen in how it treats its dedicated public service professionals – headteachers and teachers.

While inspection is never popular, the watershed moment of the coroner’s judgement – that the inspection process contributed to the death of a valued and respected headteacher – calls into question whether Ofsted as we know it has reached the end of the road.

It also raises the question of whether the wider accountability system and the cultures which underpin it are also in need of complete reform.

It is right that Ofsted and government responds fully to the report of the coroner, not only to prevent future deaths but also to actively secure the welfare and wellbeing of those who, every day in our schools, work tirelessly and selflessly to secure the very best for the nation’s children.

Schools should be held accountable for the contribution they make to children and young people’s educational progress and achievement, and so too should government. But, for too long teachers and headteachers have suffered under the tyranny of a flawed and egregious inspection and accountability regime.

Ensuring the welfare and wellbeing of teachers, as well as headteachers, must be viewed as a priority. Ofsted’s Big Listen exercise will mean nothing without real and systemic change.

Currently, inspection and accountability operate on the basis of a fiction that the responsibility for the quality of children and young people’s educational experience rests entirely within the control of schools and their teachers and headteachers.

The evident but inconvenient truth, however, is that the quality of education in schools cannot exceed the capacity of the wider system to support the efforts of teachers and headteachers in securing the highest standards and best outcomes for pupils.

At NASUWT, we believe that accountability measures must take into account the actions and decisions of the government (not least the last 14 years of reckless disinvestment in education), together with the contribution of leaders of MATs, local authorities and those responsible for wider children’s services.

These bodies also have a considerable impact on the quality of children’s learning and wellbeing, yet the current system is focused narrowly on the work of schools as if they are solely responsible for how well children progress and achieve.

And, in that context, how Ofsted contributes to raising standards must also be considered. When Ofsted is the headline news, then there is a problem. It is education, teaching and learning that matters.

We have been surveying our members in England and initial results show that 6 in 10 cite Ofsted pressures as a main driver of workload – distracting from teaching and learning. The intense daily pressure and fear of inspection is damaging the lives of literally hundreds of thousands of teachers, school leaders and pupils.

At a time when inspection is contributing to the deepening crisis in teacher morale, recruitment and retention, the maxim “physician heal thyself” is no longer credible (if ever it was).

The new chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver, must be prepared to grasp the need for real change, and we also need leadership from government to ensure that the accountability system supports our vision for world-class schools – halting the exodus of new and experienced teachers and headteachers from the profession.

It is beyond time for systemic change to inspection and accountability, not tinkering around the edges. Better support for school leaders, better advice, counselling, and wellbeing support are welcome, but will they provide the remedy needed?

NASUWT has set out our vision of what a fit-for-purpose system should look like. Our latest policy paper (NASUWT, 2024) calls for an immediate freeze on all inspections in order that a full assessment of the workload and mental health impacts of inspection on teachers and headteachers is carried out in consultation with the profession.

No credible system should be applauding schools where workload and working practices contribute to stress, burn-out, and poor health of headteachers, teachers and support staff.

We want to see a move to a system that genuinely supports school improvement rather than punishing schools, starting with abolishing the use of single-word/phrase-grade descriptors in inspection judgements and moving to a balanced scorecard approach.

Inspection teams should be made up of those who have recent and relevant direct experience of classroom practice. We want the introduction of an effective and independent process for dealing with complaints about inspection – not a system in which Ofsted is left to mark its own homework.

And we want more robust action to tackle the misconceptions around what the inspectorate requires – and what inspectors should and should not do in practice.

The new chief inspector has publicly acknowledged the need for change and we welcome that. But his credibility in the longer term will depend on whether he has the will to drive through the changes needed to deliver an inspection system that commands the trust and confidence of the profession and which will end the climate of fear that his organisation creates.

In this election year, our members will want to see from the next government politicians who value teachers, recognise the profession’s concerns, and who have the courage to speak out and act.

That courage must go beyond inspection reform to how the education of children and young people, and the work of teachers, is monitored, measured, and evaluated.

Ranking our schools, rating them as good or bad, is an insult to the work of great teachers and headteachers. This needs to change, for the sake of our children and young people and for the future of our profession.

 

Further information

NASUWT: Inspection and Accountability Position Statement, 2024: www.nasuwt.org.uk/advice/in-the-classroom/inspection-and-accountability/inspection-and-accountability-position-statement.html