What next for Ofsted?

What next for Ofsted?
Date19th Jun 2023AuthorPeter TiltmanCategoriesPolicy and News

Ofsted inspections are deeply flawed and the system is broken and clearly unfit for purpose—but we seem to be trapped in it as a profession, as making improvements requires us to get heavily involved ourselves, at a time when we are struggling to recruit and retain staff and there is constant crisis management. However, I believe that with a few changes, the inspection process could actually become a force for positive change, with institutions and heads having ownership and agency over the process.

How can we compare a small village primary school with a large sixth form college? How can we compare schools in very deprived areas to those in leafy, rich suburbs? These are all very different institutions facing very different problems, and that needs to be recognised within the framework. Curriculum for a challenging school may well look different to a top-performing school, and rightly so. For anyone who has watched Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares, you will know that when he goes into a struggling restaurant, the one piece of advice he almost always gives is to reduce the size of the menu – do a few things and do them well. This is sage advice for schools which may be struggling, whereas schools which have some success should be looking to offer more – expand their curriculum or extra-curricular provision. There is no way a ‘one-curriculum for all’ model fits everyone.

The current system will never lead to good quality judgements across the board. Inspectors have to go into a school and make a decision on what grade they are going to give in a very short time, and then make sure the evidence fits the facts. Is it better for a student to get 3 A* or 2 A* and 2 A grades? One has 100% A*, the other 50% A*, yet the student who studies four A levels may have a greater breadth of knowledge which may be more beneficial in the long run. We have to accept that there are plenty of areas where there are not simple black and white answers, and most things fall into the grey in between. Two people can look at the same information and make very different conclusions. 

If we remove the need for grades and have a report which gives facts rather than opinions, then inspectors can actually focus on quality conversations to understand what a school does well at, and what it does badly at, producing far better, more insightful, balanced prose. As a profession we have known for a long time that feedback is ineffective if given as a grade, as a student will ignore the areas for improvement and focus purely on the grade. Ofsted currently seem not to be aware of such a basic premise, as they are sticking to providing one overall grade.

We also need to remove political interference from the system. All this leads to is schools swapping from one focus to the next as governments change, not concentrating on what is best for the students, but on what they think Ofsted want to see, spending a ridiculous amount of time and money trying to second-guess them. Heads need to be far more involved in the process – it should be a dialogue between professionals with genuine room for discussion and negotiation over what ends up in the report.

There is no one-size-fits-all version of education which suits every student we teach, and we should be afraid of a homogeneous education system where every school/college is exactly the same. We need a diverse education eco-system with everything from forest schools to Michaelas. 

Changes that need to happen:

  1. Safeguarding to be removed from the main inspection and done separately. This could be a much shorter ‘check-in’ inspection, which is purely pass/fail, and if a school fails then there are obvious significant concerns - so an action plan is set out with a very short time frame to act on those concerns.
  2. An initial data-gathering exercise (including parent voice) to be conducted by the inspectors a week or so before the inspection. Areas for concern as well as positive aspects should be communicated to the head at least a week before the inspection. This can include areas for focus in the inspection, such that concern over History results means meeting with the Head of History, while excellent Drama results mean meeting with the Head of Drama to see best practice. This allows heads time to prepare, knowing what the inspectors are looking at. The previous report should be referenced – have colleges/schools acted on previous concerns?
  3. An ungraded report which highlights positive aspects of the current provision as well as areas for improvement. This would entail far more of a real discussion with the head/principal, where concerns can be raised, and answered or not, and would also allow heads/principals to express their views and have them heard and noted, as opposed to the inspector enforcing their opinion. This can allow context to be added to a report, e.g., there are concerns over History results as the school has struggled to recruit History staff.
  4. Headteachers should be called upon (like jury duty) to perform Ofsted duty – although there would still be a central team of inspectors, this would be good professional development for heads as well as allowing them to see good practice in other schools. It would also increase the diversity of the inspection team and allow a greater range of voices to be heard.
  5. Appeals - there needs to be an independent body which oversees any complaints; however, you would hope there would be very few appeals if factual reporting is correct.

One of the two main arguments given for the grading system is information for parents; we should not insult their intelligence, and if you have good factual reports then it should aid and improve parental choice. Does a school offer dual languages? Music lessons? How do grades compare?. From personal experience, my brother was looking for a secondary school for his son and was more interested in the range of subjects offered at GCSE than focusing on the Ofsted grade – he didn’t want to send his son to an outstanding school which only offered one language. The second is that it identifies which schools need help. There is no reason why this cannot continue with an ungraded report: if there are significant concerns raised on the report, then inspectors report to the LA/MAT/DfE to alert them. 

Overall, a system which allows a greater dialogue for schools and colleges to show the best of their provision would mean less to fear for everyone, and reports which can actually aid improvement, rather than the current system, which seems only to do the opposite.

Peter is head of Lancaster University School of Mathematics, a 16-19 maths specialist school in Preston in partnership with Cardinal Newman College and Lancaster University.

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