In 2020, the Headteachers’ Roundtable asked Ofsted to pause; to stop what it was doing and think about the harmful consequences of what had become a painful and bruising inspection regime for very many headteachers. It invited all school-based employees to consider standing down as inspectors.
Just a few months later, a global pandemic meant a pause occurred anyway, but by 2022-23 we were back to the pre-pandemic routine of regular school inspections and career-breaking and community-destroying school gradings. The Roundtable continued to call for a removal of the grading system, for a re-introduction of the notion of ‘context’ into inspections, for a commission to reframe school inspection and for a separation between inspection and annual safeguarding audits.
In 2020 it felt brave for school leaders to speak out in that way, but since the tragic death of Ruth Perry in January 2023 the calls for an end to grading have become deafening from many quarters, including ex-inspectors and HMIs. The removal of school gradings in favour of a school report card is one of the significant policy changes proposed by the Labour Party if it wins the general election. Pausing Ofsted has become a mainstream idea.
I was delighted, therefore, to be asked to represent the Headteachers’ Roundtable on the advisory board of the Beyond Ofsted inquiry launched in the spring. The board, which was brilliantly chaired by former schools minister, Lord Jim Knight, met regularly and picked its way through a body of research on inspection including global alternatives, an extensive survey of educators’ views of inspection and feedback from focus groups of teachers, parents, governors and school leaders.
What was fascinating about the advisory group is that we did not agree on a whole range of educational issues depending on our professional experiences and the bodies we represented. But when faced with the research, the international inspection models and the survey outcomes, we each concluded that England was an outlier in terms of the way it inspected its schools, that the mechanisms of Ofsted have a number of negative effects including on teacher wellbeing, school improvement and performance and that without substantial reform it had outlived its usefulness. There was not one voice of dissent in the room over these conclusions.
The advisory body was keen not simply to provide a critical analysis but to be practical in offering solutions and alternatives to the current Ofsted regime. It did not call for an abolition of Ofsted. Instead, it pragmatically and moderately agreed that schools need to be accountable to their communities and that parents have a right to know key information about their local school: its contextual challenges, what it does well and what it is working on.
It was also agreed that, while schools should carry out robust self-evaluation, an expert outside eye would ensure that there would be challenge to internal perceptions and performance data. If this challenge is to be meaningful and result in improvement, it needs to happen over time and in partnership with the school.
Additionally, it was felt that, in common with financial audits, safeguarding audits should be conducted annually by a separate body. This would mean that safeguarding assurance could be communicated more regularly to parents so that any issues arising can be speedily addressed.
The full report is worth reading. It is timely and The Headteachers’ Roundtable strongly believes that its recommendations should be adopted by whichever government is formed after the coming general election.
It’s now no longer radical to be asking for these changes, but any departure from the current model will feel radical to many. It is up to us as a profession now to make the case that the crises in recruitment, retention, wellbeing and more that characterise our system demand it, to show that we don’t shy away from accountability and to convince our communities that they have a right to expect so much better than what they are getting.
We are making a winning argument. With this report in hand, we can seize the political moment and turn the tide.