Ofsted says you can see their evidence – but should you ask?

Complaints about schools inspectorate Ofsted are ten-a-penny. It was therefore a shame to see good news buried in the final section of a letter sent by Sir Michael Wilshaw to the education select committee.

As our cover story reveals, it read: “”Ofsted has, for some time, been providing inspection ‘evidence bases’ to the public on request”.

Some time? This was a surprise. In the several hundred conversations I’ve had with school leaders over the past year about the inspectorate one of the common complaints is a lack of transparency. On several occassions I’ve spoken with people who said they’d tried to access information about inspections, but were unable to get any further.

Perhaps they didn’t know about the freedom of information act? It was good of Ofsted to remind them.

With great power comes great responsibility, though. It is one thing for the public to be given the right to access information, but should they?

The comments made by Geoff Barton, an executive headteacher who earlier this year complained when his school received what he felt was an unjust grade for pupil behaviour, are apt. Mr Barton argues the information should be proactively released by Ofsted to keep the sector’s confidence.

Several years ago, in my previous teacher life, I rather noisily made a similar suggestion which was taken up by the then-education secretary’s special advisor, Dominic Cummings. Over several months we emailed and he corresponded with Ofsted asking it to more proactively share observation notes from the best lessons, with a view to showing the diversity of teaching approaches beloved of inspectors.

When he left the position in early 2014 it seemed likely it would go ahead. Unfortunately, it never did.

Why the secrecy? Why not simply release everything? A common excuse is that if inspectors knew their every word would be opened to the public they might become counter-productively cautious. A second excuse is cost. Personal data has to be redacted from the forms and this takes time. To do it for every document would make Ofsted even more expensive.

Is that enough to defend a request-by-request approach? Maybe. But at least people now know their rights, and that Ofsted isn’t hiding in a barricaded castle. The doors are open. You’ve just got to ask to go in.

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