Should it stay or should it go? Or should it be reformed? The debate on the future of Ofsted continues, this time between Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, and Steve Mastin, chair of the Conservative Education Society

Mary Bousted: The question isn’t quite whether Ofsted should exist, because it does; the question is “should Ofsted continue in its present form?” In other words, is Ofsted an organisation that can redeem itself from the negative effects it has on our education system? My view is that it cannot.

Ofsted makes the right noises – it’s got a very strong PR campaign that says “we are reforming ourselves”. But I don’t believe that story. It’s like St Thomas when Christ comes to him and he says, “show me the wounds”. I need to see the concrete evidence.

Schools need a very good accountability framework, but the evidence shows that the current accountability system causes far more harm than good. It won’t be turned around by tinkering at the edges.

Steve Mastin: Schools should be inspected. But I don’t want the Ofsted regime that I have lived through . . . the fear, the knots in stomachs. It has become this very unwieldy beast that I think Amanda Spielman recognises, and she’s making changes. One example is reducing the use of results in making judgments.

The renewed emphasis on the substance of what is taught – on curriculum design – is music to my ears.

 

So is Ofsted’s focus on curriculum a positive move?

MB: I have no confidence that Ofsted is going to be able to do that validly, fairly and reliably. I also don’t believe it can look at curriculum without looking at pedagogy, which is very difficult to assess.

It is setting itself a very ambitious goal it will not be able to attain. For schools, it will be even more of, “find the answer inside my head – oh no, it’s not that one!”

SM: You have always had to second-guess what the inspector wanted to see in your lesson. But the emphasis was on genericism, rather than subject specificity. Now, for the first time, Ofsted will ask me about the design of the history curriculum in my school.

MB: What you are saying about the pedagogy of your subject, I absolutely agree! But how on earth do you know, particularly with the turnover of inspectors – on average 15 months – that you’ll get one who will actually be able to understand your explanation?

I trust Amanda Spielman who says there’s going to be evolution

SM: But in your Alice in Wonderland world of a local inspection system, you still can’t guarantee a subject specialist. In the new framework, subject specificity will be valued.

MB: How? And with a much more difficult thing to inspect, such as the curriculum? I think what you’re saying is Alice in Wonderland, and you’re looking for the white rabbit to pull the Ofsted magic trick out of the hat. You’re saying, let’s forget the bad old past, and move to the sunny uplands where subject specificity will be respected and I will be able to have those conversations.

SM: I’m not! I’m trusting Amanda Spielman who says there’s going to be evolution, not a revolution. I think the noises coming out of Ofsted are long overdue and should be welcomed.

I hope you’ll agree that a lack of emphasis on curriculum knowledge and design has led to the curriculum being confused with assessment. You end up with schools so focused on tests that they’re reducing key stage 3 to two years, and some are even using GCSE-style questions in year 7. That’s perverse. It’s the tail wagging the dog. If we focus on curriculum instead, there will be some really tough conversations with school leaders. The same in primary schools with SATs.

 

Are many of the criticisms about the “old Ofsted”?

MB: The problem is that Ofsted can debunk myths as much as it likes – the quality of its control over its inspectors and what they demand is very weak. And when we raise that issue, Sean Harford says, “Give us a name!” and that’s not the answer: the answer is not to dob in inspectors who are inadequate.

SM: Yes it is! just like bad teachers should be chucked out of the profession, bad Ofsted inspectors should be chucked out of the inspectorate.

MB: The fact is your inspection judgment depends on the quality of the team that walks through the door. I would be very interested about the Ofsted inspector who went into a school with low Progress 8 data, and to see if he or she can say it’s a marvellous curriculum. It would take a very brave inspector to do that.

 

What would an alternative look like?

MB: It would require schools to work in collaboration rather than competition. You need an area-based accountability framework, where the inspectors really know the schools and are able to make judgments in a nuanced way.

If you’re not going to get thousands of extremely experienced HMIs, which is a big ask, then you do want people with a better understanding of their local community.

The quality assurance regime doesn’t rely on a day visit, but on an ongoing relationship over a sustained period, with long-term data collection. When a school is running into difficulties, support is brokered from other schools – very much as was practised in the most successful school improvement mechanism there has ever been in England: the London Challenge.

But there is a danger of cosy consensus in that system. So you add HMI, independent of that local area inspection, to quality assure the system.

SM: Reforming Ofsted is the way forward. But something that isn’t in the 2019 framework, as far as I know, is that I would like to see fewer lesson observations.

Senior inspectors should be judging some really basic things like behaviour, leadership, health and safety. If the school has good behaviour – which you can see from walking the corridors – and if the leadership has a performance management system where bad teachers are got rid of, struggling teachers are supported, good teachers are left to thrive, and heads of department are encouraged to have curricular conversations, then unless the inspection team has a reason to doubt the judgment of the senior leaders, I would go into very few lessons.

MB: I agree with that!

Points of agreement:

  • We need a strong accountability framework
  • Workload in schools is a problem
  • Subject expertise of inspectors is important
  • There should be fewer lesson observations
  • We need better quality inspectors