Pause Ofsted? We need to accelerate it

16 Mar 2020, 5:00

A recent experience with Ofsted has convinced Daniel Wright that we should be working to strengthen, not to undermine, the watchdog

I’ve been a headteacher for six months, and I’m learning at pace. I had imagined myself, two days after “the call”, standing Russell Crowe-like, bloodied but unbowed, shouting “Are you not entertained?” at inspectors across the conference table. In truth, it was more Good Will Hunting than Gladiator.

Leading a newly defined “stuck” school that was heading for “special measures”, I had my hand almost literally held on a regular basis by one of the most understanding human beings (let alone Ofsted inspectors) that I have ever encountered. I have great staff, but a curriculum needing an overhaul. At each feedback session the inspectors almost winced as they delivered their verdicts. There was a sense of compassion in the way they went about their work.

The lead inspector changed the entire inspection schedule on the second day to add in a one-hour context session with me. In order to understand the school, she said, she had to understand the context of how it had arrived at this point so that we could “get all the drains up” and give us a decent shot at finally moving it towards ‘good’ over the next three years – something the school has never achieved. When the local authority failed to show up, either for the inspection or for the final judgement, she did not hold back in showing the level of her disappointment.

Throughout the whole experience, I saw an Ofsted team who genuinely had children’s best interests at heart – critical when needed, supportive where they could be, and above all fully human.

So while the Headteachers’ Roundtable were launching their campaign to pause Ofsted, I was coming to the opposite conclusion.

Ofsted isn’t perfect. But an accountability Wild West would be worse

Ofsted’s inconsistency is its biggest weakness, and my own experience will only add to this argument because for every one of me, there will be another with an opposite story to tell. But if other headteachers could have encounters with Ofsted like mine, then they wouldn’t be asking to pause it. Surely we should be working towards that, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Imagine all headteachers in my position doing what I’m doing – opening lines of communication with the lead inspector over email in genuine dialogue. Imagine wanting to tell all and sundry about the long-overdue revolution in the way school leaders are treated.  Imagine the catharsis for those in retirement or in other careers as a consequence of Ofsted judgments.

Yes, the report was positive about me and my role. And of course, I am biased by my experience. But so is everyone who’s had a negative experience. This isn’t about us. For our school, it’s about an academy order that hasn’t been enacted in five years – a full generation of schoolchildren. It is about our year 7s who need help now.

Ofsted isn’t perfect. At times it can be downright destructive. So can HMRC, and I still have to pay my taxes. So can governments, and they aren’t going anywhere because we live in a parliamentary democracy. We don’t improve things through knee-jerk actions but through ongoing engagement as active citizens.

Ofsted isn’t perfect. But an accountability Wild West would be worse. I’ve been known to rail against the inspectorate at times, but some good has come from every inspection I’ve been through over the years, and that’s why I won’t join my voice with those wanting to stop the organisation.

In fact, I want to accelerate it. How can any organisation that has seen its budget cut by 52 per cent between 2010-11 and 2017-18, according to the Public Accounts Committee, be expected to perform consistently if it wasn’t even doing it before? With a new framework in place that values wellbeing, workload and curriculum, how much would it cost to provide inspectors with the training to provide consistency of personal touch?

My HMI emailed on day two to say that as a lifelong Leeds fan, she could take no enjoyment from my beloved Manchester United losing that night because she knew what I was going through.

I’ve seen what Ofsted can be, and it gets a thumbs-up from me.

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