Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said Ofsted “often becomes a sort of lightning rod” where “tensions and frustrations can be discharged” when there is wider unhappiness in the school sector.
Speaking publicly for the first time since news of headteacher Ruth Perry’s death, Spielman appeared to partly blame criticism of the inspectorate with wider discontent behind teacher strikes and school funding woes.
When challenged about one-word grades, she said that was a decision for government – not Ofsted.
The under-fire chief inspector also stood by the inspection at Perry’s school, Caversham Primary, in Berkshire, and admitted she hadn’t reached out to Perry’s family because she didn’t want to “intrude on their grief”.
‘Perceptions exacerbated by external narratives’
When asked if the sector was in bad shape on the BBC this morning, Spielman said: “I think there’s a lot of unhappiness.
“Obviously there are disputes with government about pay and funding, there’s clearly a lot of bad feeling around and when there’s bad feeling around Ofsted often becomes a sort of lightning rod through which the tensions and frustrations can be discharged.”
When asked if Ofsted had been “unfairly blamed”, Spielman said: “I think it’s really important to understand that there’s a wider disagreement here between different factions, about how schools should be run, about how school accountability should be run more broadly.
“We’re just one part of that system. We’re not the regulator, we don’t make decisions about what happens in schools, we’re just the inspectorate.”
Spielman was asked if she understood the depth of feeling towards Ofsted from the sector. She said: “I absolutely do, but I also look very hard at what we actually hear back from inspections on the ground.
“It’s really difficult when you’ve got both the reality on ground and also perceptions that can sometimes get exacerbated by external narratives.
“If people hear about inspection, but haven’t actually experienced it, especially not experienced it in recent years, they may come to believe things that aren’t actually true.”
Caversham school rating was ‘secure’
She pointed to a “big Covid suspension” of inspections, which means only a small proportion of schools have been inspected for “quite a long while”. She also claimed inspection “only touches a small proportion of people in a school”, typically the most senior staff.
She said there may be a “really constructive conversation, but there simply isn’t the capacity in the system” to meet or talk to every teacher.
In relation to the inspection at previously ‘outstanding’ Caversham primary, where the school was rated ‘inadequate’ over safeguarding issues but all other areas were rated ‘good’, Spielman said the findings were “secure” and the inspection team worked with “professionalism and sensitivity”.
Ofsted reform ‘essentially a political debate’
Spielman has so far resisted calls for wider Ofsted reform, particularly dropping one-word grades. She said today that any changes would be a “bigger government decision”.
She said inspection has a “tough job” but “it’s essentially a political debate about the right way to run the schools system”.
She said every judgment “has a use at the moment, not just parents but government in allocating support or deciding where interventions are necessary”.
Any changes would have to “be a bigger, wider reform of the education system. We have designed the inspection model and set of judgments to fit the current system.”
Inspection is ‘positive and affirming experience’
Perry’s family have criticised Ofsted for not reaching out to them. Spielman said the inspectorate did not want to “intrude on their grief. We haven’t ignored anything and would happily speak to them.”
Asked about whether she believes a culture of fear exists around Ofsted, Spielman said that inspection is a “positive and affirming experience” for the “vast majority of schools”.
“It is designed to be a constructive professional dialogue that really helps people think about what they’re doing, that’s the essence of how we design it and train people.”
She added it was a “really hard time to manage a school, especially when the external services you need more of sometimes aren’t fully back on stream so it’s a tough, tough time out there.”
On teacher strikes, she said it is “so important” that the education of children who have already “missed a great deal over the last few years” is “interrupted as little as can be.
“I hope disputes can be resolved rapidly and constructively.”