I have been a headteacher of one sort or another (LA, Principal, Executive Principal) for nearly 20 years and have lost count of how many inspections I’ve been through.  I even worked as an inspector briefly, under the initiative when they recruited NLEs, so I have seen it from the other side of the table too.  Since 2012, when @headsroundtable was first formed it has become increasingly clear, in all our discussions about moving the system forward, that the high-stakes nature of the inspection system is frankly disabling and disempowering headteachers and schools from getting on with improving the lives of their staff and their students.

As a core group we have made an effort to make sure we have secondary and primary heads, special school heads, heads of schools in rural areas, suburban areas, inner-city areas and areas of deprivation around our table.  Understandably we do not always agree with each other; but over time we have discovered that the one thing we are unanimous about is the pernicious effect inspection is having throughout the system.  We have engaged with OFSTED and had meetings with them, both formally and informally.  This week we decided that our Chair would open the summit by making a request that colleagues who work as inspectors simply pause their involvement.  To be clear we have not asked anyone to resign, nor have we asked anyone to make a public statement or self-identify as making themselves unavailable (although some may wish to do so).  We have merely called for school leaders to make a moral and private decision to pause their involvement in inspecting schools for the common good.  As Stephen made very clear in his speech, this is a ‘quiet revolution’, not a noisy protest.

People have asked us ‘Why now?’  The reason we believe this call needed to be made at this time is essentially for two reasons: firstly every single discussion we have on whatever topic (and this was reinforced in all the workshops at the summit this week) always reverts to the problem of inspection preventing heads doing what they believe to be right or having to adjust priorities for no other reason than fear of inspection, and secondly because the credibility and confidence in the system is at an all time low and rapidly worsening.  It is our strong belief that this is a dangerous situation which benefits no-one.

Others have asked us what we hope to achieve and we need to be clear about this – all we are calling for is a PAUSE in the involvement of serving school leaders in inspections.  As a group we are not ideologically opposed to inspection (although some who align with us may be); we believe strongly in the need for a regulator and for accountability, but right here and right now the impact of the current inspection system is harmful – it needs to take a breather.

We are acutely aware that there are a whole variety of opinions and reasons for the growing lack of confidence in the inspection system, and that as well as the various diagnoses there are a plethora of proposed remedies.  The one opinion common to all the voices is that the current impact of inspection is damaging to too many schools and headteachers, destroying careers and paralysing school improvement.  We believe that it is therefore a requirement of ethical leadership to refuse to be complicit and to support a pause in the involvement of school leaders.

My personal view is that OFSTED is a well-intentioned organisation, led by good people but that it attempts an impossible task.  This is why each new framework tries to re-dress the poor practice caused by the previous iteration.  We have moved over the years from preferred teaching methods (‘too much teacher-talk’, demonstrating progress every 20 minutes) to the industry of data collections (which has been a huge factor in a damaging culture of teacher workload), to ‘flat judgements’ (if the exam data is inadequate everything flows from that – this happened while I was being trained to inspect), to the current curriculum focus which we are seeing so poorly applied.  It is also why poor practice caused by OFSTED inspection keeps demanding that ‘OFSTED myths’ are dispelled.  The simple fact is that the so-called ‘myths’ have been rooted in the implementation by inspection teams of each framework and in the dreadfully high stakes of inspection itself.

I am tired of hearing that OFSTED is not the reason for good headteachers losing their jobs when we all know so many examples of this happening.  Indeed, even when an OFSTED report is complimentary about the leadership of the headteacher, the pernicious impact of an unfavourable overall judgment has frequently led to the head quietly leaving, and the system losing a good school leader.  As a system leader I am deeply concerned about the unattractiveness of headship, about how difficult it is to recruit headteachers and about the loss of talent in the system.  As Steve Munby puts it – the balance between accountability and capacity-building is wrong.  At a time when we need to make the profession attractive, teachers and headteachers find that inspection, and the impact of inspection, is the primary reason for not entering the profession and for leaving the profession.  This is simply unsustainable and morally wrong.

I like our current HMCI enormously and I believe the current framework is extremely well-intentioned.  I believe in a knowledge-rich curriculum and at first I was very heartened to read the new framework; however, as soon as I read the handbook, I feared what may happen and sadly my fears have come to fruition.  We are now seeing a clear ‘preferred curriculum’ in exactly the same damaging way as we saw ‘preferred teaching styles’; we have so-called ‘deep dives’ conducted by people who do not have the expertise nor the time to do so, and (something which concerns me greatly) the removal of the freedom to contextualise to individual and local need.  I feel let down by the implementation of this framework, as do so many colleagues who have been working in the knowledge-rich curriculum movement, but I have come to realise that the problem is not the framework.

For me the problem is threefold:

  1. Applying judgement is not something about which we can be scientific or consistent, and variability is only to be expected. We should not, therefore, attempt to make any judgments other than those which can easily be judged to meet or fail a set list of criteria.
  2. The high-stakes nature of an OFSTED judgment creates worry and fear which negatively impacts workload, stifles innovation and destabilises school leadership and school improvement.
  3. Curriculum is our most important input and it needs to be of the highest quality, but this necessitates it being in a constant state of review and improvement according to the context and need of those we serve; not something that can be reduced to any checklist.

 I have written and tweeted this before about what is currently happening:

Intent – Outstanding

Implementation – Requires significant improvement

Impact – Disastrous

Colleagues – I do confess to having a wry smile about those among our number who had no problem with OFSTED when it was so dependent on data and who are now complaining.  I understand that some find this galling; however, let us be clear about this – the inspection system is being asked to do something it shouldn’t be asked to do, and what is currently happening is that more of us are seeing how dangerous this is.  I hate the lack of credibility and confidence and the worsening situation – it is deeply, deeply damaging for all of us, and we must not be complicit.

This is our #QuietRevolution.  Simply #Pause your involvement

Ros McMullen


4 thoughts on “#PauseOFSTED

  1. […] The original piece reported by Schools Week can be found here and a great follow up blog by Ros McMullen here […]

  2. […] Finally, a quick word on the question about the call by some heads for teachers to withdraw from participating as Ofsted inspectors. We tried to write it in a neutral (non-leading way), but this meant we didn’t give much context so lots of you found it difficult to answer. For starters, many of you didn’t realise how many Ofsted inspectors are also jobbing teachers/leaders! Others felt they needed time to learn more about the origin of the question. You can read about the campaign to #pauseOfsted here. […]

  3. John Mountford February 10, 2020 at 1:32 pm Reply

    A very interesting piece, Ros. As a retired primary head myself and a former Ofsted Additional Inspector (from year one of that initiative – giving away my age here!) I have watched and listened with increasing concern, noting the impact the inspection system has had, and continues to have on our profession.

    The high stakes nature of the inspection process now has a toxic effect on heads, teachers, schools and even on the pupils. Any inspection regime that has the capacity to impact so negatively on schools and their leaders to this extent, is not fit for purpose. Were I still in post, I would not support it as a trained inspector. You are right to point to the pressure it generates. We must acknowledge that it utterly ignores the fact that each school exist in a unique community. Heads, governors and teachers are best placed to grasp the significance of this fact and to tailor their efforts to align with the local character and characteristics of their school to better serve their pupils.

    Schools cannot exercise this freedom, based on professional experience and vision, when the problem of inspection prevents heads doing what they believe to be right. It is inappropriate that heads have ‘to adjust priorities for no other reason than fear of inspection.’ Time and again we see that fear breeds mistrust and resentment and diminishes trust. This is as true for adults as it is for students. All who ignore this do so at their peril and imperil others in the process.

    It is time to release education from the clutches of politicians who have damaged the profession, frustrating teachers and students alike with their incessant, poorly timed, inappropriate “reforms”. We would all be better served by a National Commission for the Governance of Education, thus downgrading the political influence on the marathon that is evolving an education experience fitting of an uncertain future.

  4. Charles Bloen February 15, 2020 at 10:31 am Reply

    Ofsted ruins lives, causes heartache and ends careers.
    It is neither consistent nor fair.
    There are FAR too many inspectors with their own personal and professional agenda who abuse their power and interpretation of the framework to bring about a usually-already-devided outcome
    I am in education and have lost count of the horror stories regarding lack of parity.
    It does not uncover the coasting schools.
    It does not help the schools facing challenges.
    End it NOW.

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