Many of the “desperate” reforms are welcome, but on their own do not re-establish the watchdog’s credibility

Ofsted is in a critical condition, educationally as well as financially. Its credibility is at risk. The measures introduced last week are a generally commendable, but somewhat desperate, attempt to shore up a problematic and contestable inspection system. Currently Ofsted is at least as much part of the problem as part of the solution to issues of low morale, high workload, disenchantment and lack of trust in too many schools. I strongly suspect that many senior Ofsted managers realise this but cannot acknowledge it publicly. They must realise that they are facing “high noon”.

My overall view of the proposed reforms echoes the comments made in a book review some years ago: “It is a curate’s egg…. While the whole may be somewhat stale and addled, it would be unfair not to acknowledge the merits of some of its parts.”

Ofsted is as much part of the problem as part of the solution

The introduction of a common inspection framework is welcome, even though it leaves many privileged, independent schools untouched and even though the framework itself is, inevitably, full of formulaic generalities susceptible to a variety of interpretations. The introduction of more frequent but shorter inspections – with schools judged good to be inspected about every three years – seems sensible, proportionate and economical. So much so that they need to be extended to so-called outstanding schools. However, it’s unclear how the HMI engaged in such inspections are to come to their overall judgments; they can scarcely apply the full inspection framework on their brief visits. Nor has Ofsted made it clear how those HMI judgments themselves are to be quality assured.

The revised framework, presumably only to be used in full in inspections of those schools not considered good enough, places a welcome emphasis on the importance of independent, external evaluation and on the centrality of judgment. There seems to be somewhat less emphasis on performance data and rather more on judgment – which is welcome, provided those judgments are sound and quality assured, and provided data are used to inform, not determine, them.

However, that framework still claims too much for inspection and expects too much of its inspectors. To take just one example, inspection is said to “test the school’s response to individual needs by observing how well it helps all children to make progress and fulfil their potential”. But how can inspectors know what those individual needs are (given their limited contact with the children)? How can they possibly evaluate the progress individuals make and how can they, or anyone else for that matter, evaluate the school’s contribution to the fulfilment of individual potential – a meaningless notion that has never been achieved anytime, anywhere, in any school?

The employment of school leaders on full inspection teams should help to improve their credibility and the willingness of schools to act on their findings, provided they aren’t all “outstanding” (as opposed to “good”) practitioners tempted to impose their own “outstanding” visions on very different schools. Ofsted also needs to consider the employment of good, not necessarily “outstanding”, classroom teachers.

Ofsted’s decision to open up its complaints procedure to greater (note the comparative term) scrutiny is long overdue. The proposed scrutiny committees should help matters, though the devil will be in the detail, especially the transparency of the process of review.

The recent announcement that about 40 per cent of existing inspectors will not be taken on in-house from September is also welcome, but also disturbing. It casts doubt on the validity of many past inspection grades but also on the effectiveness of the procedures Ofsted has been using to ensure the quality provided by independent inspection agencies. The organisation will need to be much more
open and provide much more detail about its future quality assurance – and how it applies not just to Ofsted inspectors but HMI themselves. “Who guards the guardians?” remains perhaps the major silent question posed by the reforms.

Sir Michael Wilshaw once compared himself to Clint Eastwood. To continue the western analogy, Ofsted inspection is in the last chance saloon. If these desperate measures fail to re-establish its credibility, what then?