Accountability

Scrapping one-word judgments is just the start of needed reform

We have reached a crossroads for school inspection and the election must result in a genuine ‘Big Listen’ to the profession

We have reached a crossroads for school inspection and the election must result in a genuine ‘Big Listen’ to the profession

9 Jun 2024, 5:00

With Ofsted analysing responses to its Big Listen consultation and a general election weeks away, we could be on the brink of the most significant accountability reforms since the inspectorate was formed in 1992.

For too long, the inspection regime and its damaging labels have cast a dark shadow over schools, driving dedicated leaders and teachers to the brink.

Last week, NAHT responded to Ofsted’s consultation. Frustratingly, there was no specific question on the future of single-word judgements. Nevertheless, we have reiterated our call for an immediate end to their use.

While not the only issue with how Ofsted inspects schools, they are unreliable, overly simplistic and lie at the heart of a punitive and deeply harmful high-stakes accountability system. For the safety, health and wellbeing of leaders and their staff, their removal is an immediate priority.

Other nations are exploring and developing alternatives, and we are increasingly an outlier in using such simplistic labels to attempt to describe the complexity of school quality and performance.

We are also hearing more from parents who do not think these judgments provide the breadth and depth of information they need.   

Calls to scrap grades have become overwhelming, establishing a broad consensus for change. Even previously staunch advocates like former chief inspector Michael Wilshaw now accept a new approach is required.

That is why I was angered (but sadly not surprised) when the Department for Education signalled its commitment to their continued use despite a clear recommendation from the education select committee that alternatives should be urgently explored.

The government’s tin-eared response seemed calculated to stifle the Big Listen and was frankly outrageous. It led many to question the value of a consultation whose outcome had seemingly been predetermined by government.

By contrast, the new chief inspector had signalled a genuine intent to listen to the profession’s concerns, reassuring us that ‘nothing is off the table’.  

The government’s tin-eared response has been outrageous

In the meantime, these grades continue to do immense damage. Testimony from leaders and teachers paints a harrowing picture of sleepless nights, relentless stress and a climate of pervasive dread.  

They fear their careers could be shattered by a simplistic judgment made in less than two school days, potentially by an inspector lacking expertise of the phase, specialism or subjects they are inspecting.  

Last year, one in two (49 per cent) leaders told us they needed professional mental health or well-being support, citing Ofsted as the primary reason. Amid a spiralling recruitment and retention crisis, some choose to leave rather than face another brutal encounter with Ofsted.

Nothing less than fundamental reform is required. Beyond the immediate removal of single-word grades, that means culture change and the development of a new inspection framework and methodology in collaboration with the profession’s representatives.

The quality of a school’s curriculum is clearly important, but Ofsted’s narrow, over-prescriptive approach along with its subject ‘deep dives’ have proved unreliable and a driver of unnecessary workload, particularly in primary schools.

Schools should have a little more notice of inspection, so that leaders have time to make operational arrangements and no longer have to worry about ‘the call’ coming when they leave the building for any length of time.

They should only be inspected by those with extensive expertise of the relevant school phase and, where appropriate, specialism or size.

In addition, there is a desperate need to overhaul the toothless complaints process that lets the inspectorate be its own judge and jury and leaves leaders to resort to costly legal challenges.

It is our firm hope that Ofsted will reflect deeply on what representative organisations like NAHT tell it through the Big Listen. The chief inspector must resist forces of conservatism which cling to old ways of doing things.

We know reform won’t be easy and will need careful thought and meticulous planning. But we stand ready to work with the inspectorate to create a more humane, fair and reliable system.

The chief inspector has made clear change of this scale will also require political will. Ofsted has said it is willing to listen, will the next government be willing too?

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