I believe that Ofsted has had a significantly positive impact in raising standards in schools over the last 20 years or so. Expectations have been raised, mediocre practice has been challenged and schools that were letting down their pupils have been exposed. Moreover, any system that gives great amounts of autonomy to schools needs also to have clear accountability procedures.
Ofsted has been an important part of the accountability system, supported by successive governments of different political persuasion. But at a time when we have far more detailed and accurate information about school and pupil performance than ever before and at a time of a very significant recruitment and retention challenge, I believe that now is the time to give serious consideration to the future role of Ofsted and to go back to first principles when considering what is needed for the future. The Head Teachers Round Table have called for a pause in Ofsted inspections of schools, to give a time for reflection. I support that proposal – not to get rid of Ofsted but to think again about its purpose and its impact.
Ofsted has become too all-encompassing for schools. The Ofsted framework has become the means through which every aspect of school life has to be considered – “what would Ofsted say?” is too often the key question asked when making a strategic decision in school.
But why has a regulator become so powerful? Would famous writers for television look to Ofcom in order to make their programme outstanding? Of course not. They would take into account the basic requirements of the regulator, but they would look elsewhere for their ideas. Nor should schools look to Ofsted for their inspiration.
Like Ofcom, most regulators set out the required standards that providers have to meet; they don’t then go on to grade the quality of that provision. Moreover, in the complex world of education, the judgements that Ofsted makes are contestable. Are we absolutely clear from the research evidence about what great teaching looks like, what outstanding leadership looks like, what a great curriculum consists of and what counts as exceptional behaviour management? And does the Ofsted framework capture that in an incontestable way? Aren’t there different and, indeed, conflicting views on the purposes of education? Can a single grade sum up a school in any meaningful and reliable way? Is it really the role of the state to set out what “outstanding schools” should look like?
Ofsted is too open to political interference. Although Ofsted reports to Parliament and not to the DfE, both the Labour government, the coalition government and the Conservative government have overseen changes in the Ofsted framework to take into account their latest new priority, with the consequence that time and money has to be spent on inspectors and schools being trained and retrained accordingly, as schools across the whole system shift to make sure that they meet the new criteria.
The recent radical change in the Ofsted framework is leading to very significant workload in schools as they respond to the new requirements on the curriculum. Some schools that would have been judged as good or outstanding under the old framework are being downgraded to “Requires Improvement” and vice versa. The only consistency over the last few frameworks is that schools in more deprived areas are far more likely to be judged as less good than schools in privileged areas or schools that select their intake!
Moreover, those who believe that Ofsted enables us to track the quality of education in England over time are mistaken. The claims that our school system is improving because more schools are good and outstanding are highly dubious, since the frameworks have changed significantly, and many outstanding schools have not been inspected for years.
And Ofsted has become too high stakes. England has the highest stakes accountability system in the world. In no other system in the world is the head teacher so vulnerable to dismissal as a result of the examination performance of students in the school and/or as a result of inspection. Our current system means that a one-off judgement made by a very small team of inspectors over a day or two every few years is now either a career-threatening or a career-making event and can change the status of a school for ever. Other systems from around the world look on at the accountability system in England in bewilderment. It is no wonder that we struggle to attract and retain leaders and teachers, especially in our challenging schools.
So, I believe that now is the time to go back to first principles. What should be the role of Ofsted? Should it be the mechanism whereby successive governments ensure that their new policies or priorities are implemented by schools? No. Too much change and political interference in the Ofsted framework is expensive, prevents clear comparisons being made over time and diverts teachers and leaders from their core job of improving their schools.
In the light of the recent Ofsted report on “stuck schools” and their proposals for helping those schools, should Ofsted be a school improver? No. Combining the regulator role with the school improvement role leads to the danger of conflict of interest and confuses very different functions. We are blurring edges when Ofsted starts to inspect its own advice and the implementation of its own improvement strategy.
What does any government need from a school regulator function? Well it needs to be assured about three things in schools:
Confidence that the finances and governance are sound. An external financial audit.
Taxpayers and the government have a right to ask of any publicly funded school: Are the finances sound? Is there any fraud? Are all the legal requirements being met? Is the governance appropriate and is there any conflict of interest? These questions should be familiar to most organisations because they are the questions asked by external auditors. All academies are now required to have an annual external audit. I see no reason why this should not be an expectation for all schools, carried out by independent auditors, and for the report and the school management response to be published. This is not a role for Ofsted – it has neither the skills nor the expertise to perform that external audit role.
Confidence that children are safe. Safeguarding audit.
Parents and the government need to know that children are safe in school and that their well-being is of prime importance. This could continue to be part of Ofsted’s role in the future. However, the statutory power for children’s safety remains with the local authority –even for academies –and most authorities have good expertise in children’s safety. There is therefore an argument that local authorities should be given the powers to audit on matters of children’s safety, – across all schools – and publish reports on safeguarding in schools.
Confidence that the children are learning and making progress. A report on pupils’ learning and progress over time, benchmarked against schools with similar intakes.
This is a real challenge because it can’t just rely on external test or examination results or on the results of one year only. It needs to be about progress over time across the curriculum, not just in the core subjects, and be based on evidence of progress – benchmarked against schools with similar intakes. In my view Ofsted should report on progress in learning and provide an external quality assurance of the school’s self-assessment and self-reporting. This could be done, perhaps, every two years?
If the focus is on the regulatory function, then I believe that there should be only one grade: inadequate. If the judgement is inadequate there should be a requirement on the school to act to improve by the following year or face intervention. In extreme cases intervention may be needed immediately. All other schools should receive a report on their strengths and areas for improvement but not a grade. Every school should be required to publish the reports of their latest audits/inspections on their websites.
What would this achieve for the system?
It would empower the profession to take more of a lead. Teachers and school leaders, working with organisations such as the Education Endowment Fund and the College of Teaching would take the lead on researching what great teaching and great leadership in schools look like in different contexts. We would see far more schools increasingly challenging and supporting each other through peer review and through school to school support instead of relying on Ofsted for their thought leadership. It would release energy and innovation for action research in schools and for teachers to investigate their own practice-not to wait for Ofsted to give a judgement. It would refocus the system on capacity-building rather than almost entirely on accountability.
The parent voice is also important in all this. Under this proposed system, parents would still have the right to complain to Ofsted and, if the complaints are significant, to trigger an inspection. Moreover, government should still use Ofsted for two other purposes:
1. the publication of thematic reports on issues
2. to send an Ofsted team into a school where there is a crisis or very serious concerns so that a full inspection can take place.
Ofsted has helped to ensure significant improvements in our school system over many years. But now that we have a rich source of data on children’s progress, will a full blown, “all or nothing” inspection system un-leash the talent and skills of teachers and leaders or end up grinding them down? If we are to continue to improve and to rival other higher performing systems (very few of whom have school inspection) it is time for a fundamental re-think. Let Ofsted be a robust and challenging regulator and set the required standards in a transparent way and let the profession take control of teaching and leadership.
Steve Munby. February 2020