Accountability

Safeguarding should matter to Ofsted as much as to schools

This week’s announcement doesn’t inspire confidence that Ofsted and the DfE get the impact accountability is having on headteachers, says Duncan Spalding

This week’s announcement doesn’t inspire confidence that Ofsted and the DfE get the impact accountability is having on headteachers, says Duncan Spalding

18 Jun 2023, 5:00

With both main parties’ general election campaigns centred on five key priorities, the Headteachers’ Roundtable sets out their own five urgent concerns for education. Read each in turn this half term, and visit them at the Festival of Education to add to the discussion.

Primum non nocere – first do no harm – is an axiom that has come to underpin modern medicine, and it is one that Ofsted would do well to heed.

A recent British Medical Journal article identifies eight potential cases in addition to Ruth Perry’s where Ofsted has been identified as a significant causal factor in a headteacher’s suicide. It highlights cliff-edge judgements and unnecessarily combative inspectors as key problems and concludes that it would be negligent not to take serious steps to reduce the potential for harm.

The authors also pointedly note the discrepancy between Ofsted’s emphasis on safeguarding by school staff and its apparent lack of reflection on its own safeguarding responsibilities. This week’s announcement of rapid changes to the inspection framework begins to acknowledge the enormous professional and emotional harm our accountability model is doing, but falls short of a proper plan for sustainable renewal.

Proposals for achieving this are not new. In an ‘Alternative White Paper’ published in 2021, the Headteachers Roundtable  suggested possible reforms to accountability which remain as valid after this week’s announcement as they have been for the past two years.

Annual safeguarding audits

Ofsted has recognised that the limiting judgement for safeguarding can be problematic, especially when the overall quality of education a school provides is at least good. But quicker re-inspection is a patch rather than a solution.

What everyone surely wants is for safeguarding issues to be picked up in a timely fashion. The separation of accountability for quality of education and safeguarding by implementing annual safeguarding audits would ensure this was the case. It would avoid unnecessarily blighting schools with stigmatic labels and imposing the repeat stress of another inspection.

Remove the grades

The purpose of inspection should be to identify excellence and areas requiring support. Instead, our system is geared towards giving a summary judgment that proffers to help parents choose but does little to ensure they get the information they need.

Recent cases of inadequate judgments being quickly overturned, including one only last week, bring this harmful practice into sharp relief, and this week’s announcement does little to mitigate the problem.

Revoking academisation and re-brokering orders after re-inspection takes place does little to alleviate the high-stakes nature of the judgment to begin with. And it does nothing at all for all the other schools who are subject to Ofsted’s unreliable grades. The methodology used to arrive at them is inadequate to the task, and they should be halted altogether.

Contextualise school accountability

Judgements are meaningless if they are not informed by a full appreciation of a school’s unique circumstances and contextual challenges, not least the sector it operates in and levels of disadvantage among its community.

A growing body of evidence suggests Ofsted’s one-size-fits-all methodology makes it harder for schools in certain contexts and teaching certain phases to achieve well. This is simply not good enough for hard-working colleagues in these schools.

A leadership recruitment and retention strategy

A better idea of when we will be inspected, ‘de-personalising’ reports and increased investment in the Education Support charity are welcome, but they read like an effort to make the system a little kinder by helping leaders to pick up the pieces after devastation.

What we really need is root-and-branch reform to remove the cliff edges and make the job sustainable.

Reframe accountability

What education needs is a more coherent and purposeful accountability. Our current system seems premised on the idea that we are shy of it, when the truth is that we are held to account every day by our communities. Reversing the current assumption that we are poor until proven effective would go a long way towards creating a better balance.   

As Sam Strickland wrote in these pages last week, accountability must change to reflect the challenges schools face today, not those of 30 years ago or more. We couldn’t agree more. Our practical ideas have been on paper for two years, and as the BMJ authors wrote: “It seems reasonable that we should listen when school leaders tell us, in different ways, that enough is enough.”

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