My first experience of Ofsted was as a teacher in 1996. In those days, the visit was announced many months in advance by ‘the brown envelope’, but the staff got to know about the impending inspection through the paint colour chart circulated to all classrooms, heralding the arrival of the decorators.
Section 10 inspections, as they were called, lasted for a full week. In secondary schools a huge team turned up with specialists in every subject and I remember having at least five full lessons observed. Every subject was graded on a seven-point scale with proportions of ‘good’ teaching recorded in the report. A very thorough approach, although the pre-inspection stress was enormous.
When the new-style Section 5 inspections were introduced in 2005 I had been working for Ofsted for four years. HMCI David Bell announced that these were short, sharply focused inspections based on published data and a school’s self-evaluation, with the old seven-point scale to be replaced by a simpler four-point scale. He made the point, very firmly, that inspectors must not try to squeeze a Section 10 inspection into two days. At the time this seemed to a sensible approach, with less stress for schools and easy-to-read reports.
Over the following ten years I led many inspections under a series of ever-changing frameworks. We’ve had two-day inspections, one-day inspections, long reports, short reports, letters to pupils. As far as data is concerned, we’ve had contextual value added, value added, transition matrices, Progress 8 and big changes in ‘key measures’. There was the framework based on ‘Every Child Matters’, with over forty separate graded judgements (remember the phrase ‘good with outstanding features’, subsequently outlawed by Ofsted?). We graded separate lessons, then graded teaching and learning separately and then graded the overall quality of teaching; after all that, in the current framework, the phrase ‘teaching and learning’ is conspicuous by its absence. At times it certainly felt – to inspectors and schools alike – that we were trying to squeeze a Section 10 into a few days. Every time a framework is launched, schools hurry to become familiar with the new criteria, turning themselves inside out and changing their own approaches with the sole purpose of ‘pleasing Ofsted’. Make no mistake, Ofsted are very firmly in the driving seat and the incredibly high stakes system of graded published reports mean that schools are under tremendous pressure to consider the consequences of inspection above all else.
I cannot say, hand on heart, that these changing frameworks resulted in an evolving continuum of increasingly effective approaches to inspection. Looking back, it seems more like a quasi-experimental series of exercises with limited attention being paid to thorough evaluation of previous frameworks. The current framework seemed to promise much at its launch, but the reality, half way through the academic year, is extremely worrying. Every week seems to bring fresh reports of staff who have been demoralised and headteachers who are totally exasperated. Some schools have reported positive experiences, but the variation in approach by different inspectors only adds to our concern.
Last week a teacher in Scotland asked me to explain the roles of Ofsted and the DfE and I realised that I could not do this. Were inspectors there just to make judgements or could they give advice? (There is much conflicting evidence on this).Do DfE advisers step on Ofsted’s toes when they visit schools? Is Ofsted all about regulation, or is its purpose to impose policy through inspection? If Ofsted’s purpose is to judge, who is providing support and advice to schools? Good questions. We all need to know the answers.
As an inspector, I believed in Ofsted’s mantra of ‘improvement through inspection.’ I now struggle to sustain this belief as I see the effect on a number of schools. Some, by Ofsted’s own admission, have been “stuck” for years and so the system has clearly not worked for them. Some schools graded as Requiring Improvement or Inadequate find themselves in a downward spiral of stress and anxiety as they struggle to recruit capable teachers in a hugely competitive market. Recently I have had to discourage several good teachers from resigning following what they described as ‘belittling and unprofessional’ treatment by inspectors. When great teachers need counselling after a school inspection something is clearly very wrong indeed.
Headteachers, teachers and inspectors must surely have a shared aim of providing our children and young people with the best education possible, setting them up as lifelong learners. We urgently need to consider how we can best do this – and it is unlikely to involve belittling or demoralising our teachers. But if we came together and shared our extensive knowledge and experience, the potential for creating a great system that genuinely supports school improvement is massive. We need an effective approach to regulation; one that enables schools to provide exactly what their pupils need and trusts teachers to work as mutually supportive professionals.
A headteacher once said to me, “In education, you have to run very fast to stand still.” In relation to Ofsted, this has never been more true. Right now, we are running very fast but in different directions; if we want to make a real difference to children, it’s time to stand still for once. It’s time to #PauseOfsted.
Julie Price GrimshawFebruary 2020
Julie (Twitter: @Julespg) was a classroom teacher for 16 years before taking up post as a PGCE course leader at Manchester Metropolitan University. She worked as HMI for six years and, after leaving Ofsted in 2007, carried on leading inspections until 2015. Julie currently lives and teaches in Scotland and also works in school governance and teacher training in England.