Preamble: The Heads’ Roundtable Core Group is disappointed that the scheduled meeting with the HMCI at Ofsted on Friday 15 September had to be postponed due to the closure of London Euston. With trains terminating at Milton Keynes, it proved difficult for colleagues to arrive in London on time. We remain delighted that Ofsted continues to engage and meet with us. Our meeting has been rearranged for Friday 8 December.
Please find below a blog from one of our team, Helena, regarding the ongoing issues with the prevalent inspection culture. Naturally we are grateful for the opportunity to meet with Ofsted in December to discuss further.
The ‘Of’ prefix in Ofsted reminds me Margaret Atwood’s fabulous, harrowing and recently televised ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The central character Offred is so named as she has become the possession of her ‘Commander’ Fred, as is the fate of all fertile women in Atwood’s not-too-distant dystopian future. While it might seem rather extreme analogy, I see some merit in using Offred’s fate as a cautionary tale for professional subjugation.
The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills has an incredibly important function. It was created to ensure consistently high standards of education for all children. No one would wish for something as important as schooling not to be held to account and quality assured. However, despite setting out with the best regulatory intentions in 1992, the knife-edge of Ofsted inspection has fuelled a toxic accountability culture in schools. It has been responsible for many schools losing sight of outcomes for children’s sake and has buoyed perverse incentives, valuing compliance over curriculum experience and paperwork over people.
I have become wearied by the obscene proliferation of the ‘O’ words in education: Ofsted and outstanding – the latter having become contaminated by the former, no longer actually representing its actual original meaning.
Achieving ‘Outstanding’ has become the gold standard in education. It’s what all schools, teachers and parents aspire to for their children, despite judgement methods being fatally flawed. An entire snake oil and silver bullet industry has been fashioned from the profession’s desperation to secure the much coveted rating and through fear of being ‘Ofsted-ready’. My inbox is battered by emails offering to review the school’s website and policies for compliance, prepare colleagues for inspection and provide software that will enable external visitors be bowled over by our data.
It has become universally accepted that head teachers are only as good as their last Ofsted inspection rating which in turn can only as good as their last set of GCSE results, regardless of context. As HTRT colleagues have aptly observed, taking on a headship in challenging circumstances is tantamount to career Russian roulette.
The difference between inspection outcome adjectives can fundamentally affect the prosperity of not only school leaders but the whole school community. Using teachers and vulnerable students as collateral damage has become commonplace. This frightens me. Yes, regulatory bodies are important and necessary, but to have whole educational practices revolving around an inspection regime prefaced on narrow outcomes, a fetish for raw data and snapshot judgements is unethical and the stuff of dystopian fiction.
Despite Ofsted’s best efforts to bust myths and eradicate rogue practices, there is still a proliferation of activity founded on what inspectors will want to see/know/evidence, rather than focused on the best interests of children. When so much rests upon the single word formed by an inspection team in a matter of hours, it is hardly surprising that school leaders feel forced to jump to the tune of the high-stakes accountability regime. It’s too risky not to.
No one enters teaching or leadership with a motivation to appease an inspectorate, and yet the conditions in which we find ourselves make us complicit in a sycophantic submission to external pressures.
The sector’s unhealthy obsession with accountability measures for accountability’s sake needs to stop. As does our mutual compliance with such a crude and dehumanising process such as labelling and valuing teachers and schools on the basis of simplistic Ofsted judgements. We need to build a better system that removes cynical practices and values holistic education.
We are teachers, not the concubines of an inspection regime, producing results to justify our existence. Delivering a fabulous education that enables all learners to thrive and flourish is what will stick with children for life, not the Ofsted grade that their school achieved.