Let’s give Ofsted’s short inspections two cheers (for now)

The lighter-touch regime is a welcome move, but why is the chief inspector still obsessing over pupils being well behaved and showing respect when finding after finding shows this is the norm in the vast majority of schools?

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted’s chief inspector is right to point out that since September 2015 it has been inspecting schools judged “good” in a radically different way. He explains the introduction of these changes as testament to an overall rise in educational standards to which he has previously claimed Ofsted has made a major contribution. He does not discuss other factors that have contributed to these changes, such as the well-founded criticisms by Ofsted’s detractors, Ofsted’s perilous credibility or the increasing pressures on its own diminishing budget.

It is reassuring to read that inspectors are prepared to go beyond performance

This lighter-touch, short inspection regime for at least a proportion of schools is welcome. It does represent a marked departure from the inflexible, resource-consuming, “one size fits all” approach of previous inspection regimes. To use the chief inspector’s own words, the short inspections should “encourage challenging, professional and, above all else, honest dialogue between HMI and senior leaders, including governors”, though in so doing he unwittingly(?) implies that in many previous cases dialogue was less than “honest” and not “professional” enough. If true, that would be a very significant criticism of both inspectors and school leaders under the previous inspection regimes.

Sir Michael claims that the feedback received from headteachers has been “largely positive”. I don’t doubt that (especially when heads’ previous experience of inspections is considered) but it would be helpful to know in more detail the strengths and shortcomings of the new arrangements.

This reported welcome raises the issue of why the same dispensation should not apply more widely. Wouldn’t so-called “outstanding” schools also benefit from challenging professional dialogue (as would the inspectors visiting those schools)? The chief inspector’s rhetorical question: “How many schools can genuinely claim to be perfect institutions with no room for improvement?” applies to every school, even the most outstandingly “outstanding”.

It is reassuring to read how, on short inspections, inspectors are prepared to go beyond performance data, do not expect every problem to have been resolved and are giving schools credit for “robust and practical” plans to address areas of concern. But it is less welcome news to find that Ofsted comments are still expressed in formulaic terms, which fail to give the promised vivid, bespoke picture of the inspected school. Readers may be irritated too by the references to the chief inspector’s obsessive preoccupation with pupils being well behaved and showing respect, when finding after finding suggests this is normal in the majority of schools.

It is welcome too that inspectors are engaging in short inspections of “good” schools under the assumption that they will remain good. That’s a very different, and more positive, stance than that taken until recently. But it raises a further question. If Ofsted has confidence in the beneficial effects of its own inspection system, shouldn’t it also assume that the schools “requiring improvement” have moved to “good” as a result of acting on Ofsted’s findings, and only refuse to confirm that grading if a one-day inspection followed-up by section 5 inspection find otherwise?

According to Sir Michael, inspectors are telling him that “a one-day inspection is usually enough time to make a proper assessment of the school”. That begs the question of what constitutes a “proper assessment”, but pre-1992 inspection experience strongly suggests that a tentative but reasonably authoritative assessment can be made – provided the inspectors have appropriate experience of the age range and have visited a wide variety of schools (including “outstanding” ones).

That kind of overall assessment should not claim too much. It cannot possibly, for example, claim to report “consistently high quality teaching as well as impressive pupil progress and outcomes” on the basis of a few lesson observations, a learning walk or two and a brief work scrutiny.

It is still early days for these new arrangements but two, though not three, cheers may be in order.

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