As a former HMI, I have gladly added my signature to the Positive Ofsted Reform open letter addressed this week to Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman.
Ofsted has grown in power and influence since its creation 30 years ago. Initial reactions mostly involved suspicion. But that soon grew into anxiety. Later, outright fear. Today, it’s rare to find a school leader without a personal anecdote to tell of emotional turmoil when thinking about an Ofsted visit.
Ofsted now stands in need of fundamental reform, and I support every effort to get its leaders to listen to concerns from educationalists and teachers on the ground.
Last week, Ofsted’s national director for education claimed that a return to routine inspections after the Covid-19 pandemic was “the best way for Ofsted to support the [education] sector”. Almost simultaneously, the government committed an extra £24 million to support an acceleration of inspections – and this at a time when schools are having to cope with ongoing Covid-related disruption and the long-term effects of closures.
“Support” is not what it feels like on the ground, especially to schools “in need of improvement”. Nor does Spielman’s threat to half of outstanding schools that they face a downgrade after undoubtedly the hardest period schools have ever faced. The only “support” the cash injection will provide is to reinforce the rigidity of a 30-year-old inspection system.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofsted has been largely absent. Initially praised for nothing more than not doing its job, the inspectorate failed to find any purpose when schools needed real support. Challenged about this in her September accountability hearing at the education select committee, Ofsted chair Dame Ryan could only listen as the watchdog was described as a “hedgehog at the back of my garden” by committee chair, Robert Halfon.
But the inspectorate is back in schools, armed with a broadly untested pre-pandemic framework that is known to be unjust to primary schools in particular (even in normal times) and fails to take the past two years into account.
And it is doing so not to support schools but to prop up a simplistic and misleading grading system designed to inform parent choice. Yet, only three weeks ago, YouGov revealed that two-thirds of parents don’t even look at their reports. Among the wealthiest, only 41 per cent do. Among the poorest, it’s 24 per cent. Given the rate of change in inspection frameworks , it’s hardly surprising.
We are also hearing more and more reports of teachers struggling mentally because of the stress of inspections. A UCL study shows that more than two in three teachers in England report being stressed, compared to a global average of 45 per cent. High-stakes Ofsted inspections play a large part in this.
Our letter stops short of calling for Ofsted to be scrapped. I, like many signatories, believe it can and should play an important role for schools, but it needs rebalancing away from undermining them and towards supporting them to improve the quality of education they provide.
To do so, its reports need to be far more informative to teachers and parents alike about why the school needs to improve and how that might be done. Stock phrases from a statement bank show just how impersonal current reports have become.
And when there is serious disagreement about a grade, schools need to know they can properly challenge inspection judgments, with a reasonable expectation that they can be overturned on appeal. The complaints process must be strengthened and include an independent layer to ensure that necessary accountability.
But accountability starts at the top, and we should expect the chief inspector herself, from whom the inspectorate’s whole ethos and approach flow, to be properly monitored too. Dame Ryan has only had two days’ physical interaction with Amanda Spielman since March. That’s just clearly not enough. The post is also held to account far too little by parliament.
With these reforms, the school accountability system can be re-made fairer, more sustainable and more consistent, with Ofsted at its heart. Change is desperately needed, and with it the rebuilding of trust.