Ofsted has become too pervasive. It is time now for it to become a regulator, rather than a school improver
Ofsted has recognised the need for reform. It has said that good schools will face frequent but shorter visits in the future, and it will give more weight to subjects such as music. But in my view, while Ofsted calls these reforms “radical”, they do not go far enough. We need to go back to first principles and ask what is Ofsted for and what should its role now be?
CfBT Education Trust has been carrying out inspections on behalf of Ofsted for the past 10 years. We have seen first-hand the significantly positive impact that Ofsted has had in raising standards in schools and we are pleased to have been a part of that. However, it is now time for fundamental reform. In an age when we have far more detailed and accurate information about pupil performance than ever before, and at a time of increasing strain on education funding, we must give serious consideration to an important but different future role for Ofsted.
We should stop looking to Ofsted for accolades
The inspectorate has become too pervasive an influence. Its 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 when making a strategic decision. Why has a regulator become so influential? Would famous writers for television, such as Sally Wainwright or Steve Moffat, look to Ofcom to make their programme outstanding? Of course not – they would take into account the basic requirements of the regulator but would look elsewhere for their ideas. Schools also should look elsewhere for inspiration.
The judgments Ofsted makes are also contestable. Are we clear from the research evidence about what great teaching looks like? What outstanding leadership looks like? What counts as exceptional behaviour management? So far it seems that this cannot be captured in a reliable way.
Ofsted is also too open to political interference. Both the Labour and the coalition governments have changed the Ofsted framework to take into account the latest priority from government. Time and money has then to be spent retraining inspectors.
Rather than being a school improver, or a way for successive governments to force through policy, Ofsted should be a regulator. Its role should be ensuring that government and parents have confidence their children are learning.
It needs to be about pupils’ progress over time and to be based on evidence of progress in books, as well as evidence of progress and added value in external exams. The report on progress in learning, which should take Ofsted no more than a day in a school to complete and to verify the school’s self-assessment, should be robust, rigorous, and transparent.
There should be two grades only: adequate or inadequate. Some may argue against the best judgment being “adequate” but we should stop looking to Ofsted for accolades – there are all kinds of ways to recognise excellent schools without relying on Ofsted.
If the judgment is “inadequate” there should be a requirement on the school to improve by the following year or face intervention. Intervention may be needed immediately in extreme cases. Each year schools should publish their latest audits, including the grading of adequate or inadequate.
This would put an end to an opaque Ofsted system and would empower the profession to take the lead on researching what great teaching and great leadership looks like. Schools would increasingly challenge and support each other through peer review instead of relying on Ofsted. They could try out different approaches to teaching and would not be judged on those approaches, only on whether the children are safe and are learning effectively.
Now that England’s education system has (according to Ofsted’s own figures) improved significantly and now that we have a rich source of data on children’s progress, it is time for a fundamental rethink. Let Ofsted monitor outcomes in a robust and transparent way and let the profession take control of teaching and leadership through a school-led system.
Steve Munby is chief executive of the CfBT Education Trust