Ofsted Reforms: Is this the right way to inspect, or respect, schools ?

Earlier this year Ofsted claimed “the reforms we will introduce in September 2015 are intended to enable us to inspect the right things in the right way”. That was a rash claim – based on two highly contestable assumptions.

First, that there is one right way to inspect and, second, that after almost yearly revisions to both the inspection framework and guidance, the new version, finally published today, has at long last got it right.

It hasn’t; it can’t. Inspection reform, like school reform, is always “work in progress” (or as some cynics might say “work in regress”). Be clear there will inevitably be a re-revised framework and guidance in x months/years’ time.

Michael Wilshaw’s comments today about the post-September inspection regime need to be seen in that context.

He announced some welcome changes. Ofsted has decided to introduce a new “common inspection framework” – but remember this is only “common” in the same weak sense as the national curriculum is “national” – the framework will not apply to large, privileged section of independent education.

However, the use of that framework is a useful step if it means inspectors can make graded and, hopefully, comparable judgments on the same areas for all but privileged independent schools.

Ofsted is introducing frequent but shorter inspections – with schools judged good to be inspected approximately every three years. This seems sensible, proportionate and economical.

Hopefully, though, such visits will not be confined to dialogue with senior leaders and interrogation of data, as Wilshaw implies but will also involve visits to classes “to get a feel” of the school, including the quality of its teaching.

It is very unfortunate that Ofsted has decided not to inspect routinely so-called “outstanding” schools, some of which have not been inspected for some years. All schools, however good, stand to benefit from dialogue with skilled inspectors who can disseminate information and insights into interesting practice.

Inspectors, too, need to routinely visit outstanding schools so they have the full range of experience on the basis of which they can calibrate their judgments of all the schools they inspect.

Ofsted’s failure to do this cannot be excused by a cop-out sentence such as “any change of approach would require legislative change”. Where there is a will, there is a way. There clearly isn’t a will.

Even more than Wilshaw’s comments, Ofsted’s revised inspection framework and guidance will, and, should, be scrutinised closely since the fate of so many schools and their leaders may depend on its interpretation.

Therein will lie the rub. The language is likely to be formulaic and inevitably to be shot through with ambiguities, imprecision and the near certainty of being differently interpreted (to some degree at least) by different inspectors, school leaders and teachers.

Properly understood the framework and guidance should be seen, not as recipes which can, or should be be slavishly followed, but as principles to be flexibly applied and negotiated between the inspectors and the inspected in the light of a school’s particular context.

Hopefully that will happen but there is no guarantee, even with Ofsted’s new cohort of in-house inspectors “trained” (an inappropriate term) and “quality assured” by HMI in their interpretation.

Properly conceived inspection is a judgment-saturated art, not a measurement-oriented science. So don’t expect absolute clarity or absolute consistency in interpretation and application.

They are unattainable. But do expect reasonable clarity, reasonable consistency and reasonable understanding of the unique circumstances of any particular school. There will, of course, be inevitable disputes as to what constitutes “reasonable”.

In this respect, Ofsted’s decision to open up its complaints procedure to greater (note the comparative term) is also welcome. The proposed scrutiny committees should help matters, though the fact they are to involve both HMI and “leading” headteachers and leaders, themselves identified as “leading” by Ofsted itself, suggests they are not likely to be as independent of Ofsted as Wilshaw’s rhetoric suggests.

When I came to re-read the first sentence of this piece before submitting it to Schools Week, I found that my computer had presciently replaced “inspect” by “respect”. I may have doubts about Ofsted’s right way or whether the new regime will inspect, let alone respect, all the right things but I have no doubt that respect is a fundamental pre-requisite of any worthwhile inspection system.

Let’s hope that through their sensitive interpretation of this framework and guidance the new in-house inspectors deserve respect, as well as showing it to those they inspect.

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