This year’s Headteachers’ Roundtable summit will question Ofsted’s legitimacy and efficacy. Stephen Tierney explains why we need to #PauseOfsted, and how to make it happen
Some seventy per cent of inspectors are current practitioners. So what if we all said no? What if we chose to answer the call to beneficence differently? What would the school system lose, and what would it gain by such action?
The Ofsted system depends on us. But why do we really do it? Is it because it’s excellent leadership development? Or is it for the advantage of insider knowledge of the inspection process? Privately, many admit they are simply grateful for the extra bit of money it pulls into the school’s stretched budget. But what of our colleagues who can’t access those extra pounds? Whatever our reasons, they are ethically dubious.
The inspectorate wishes us to think our participation ensures the legitimacy of the process. Indeed. But is it a legitimacy we wish to grant it? Knowing the systemic disadvantage of schools serving poorer communities, are we doing good by inspecting and grading other schools? Knowing the effects of high-stakes accountability on retention, especially in those same schools, are we actually doing harm? Knowing that for all its intent, the implementation and impact of the new framework are already perpetuating this inequality, are our actions just?
And in the end, is it really the best way to improve school performance?
Without doubt, the school system needs a regulator. It’s a question of being realistic about what it can and can’t do, and clear about what it should and shouldn’t. Ofsted has done important work around illegal and unregistered schools. This is the true work of a regulator. There are also incidents and issues that require detailed investigation and reporting, but these don’t need frameworks, grades or categories. They need insight, wisdom and reports that set out lessons learned and ways to improve.
The system needs – and can be forced into – radical change
For all its engagement with the profession, the new framework is already being dubbed the SW1 Framework. And for all the denial, it is in effect developing a new orthodoxy – a one-size-fits-all ‘Ofsted Curriculum’. What we need instead is a new orthopraxy, and Ofsted is incapable of it. The knowledge sits with leaders and teachers working in their contexts and with their peers.
To truly improve our schools, we need a system founded on the principle that there is no single way to improve a school. Peer-to-peer accountability is far better suited to reducing the significant variability found within so many schools and between them, and a much more ethical and effective use of school leaders’ time.
As to so-called ‘stuck schools’ – perhaps better labelled let-down schools or left-behind schools – the last thing they need is more Ofsted. What links so many of them together is the crushing poverty that blights the lives of the young people attending them. They need whole-community intervention, and for too long Ofsted has provided political cover for that uncomfortable fact.
For sure, Ofsted is not the only problem. But be it the inspectorate’s judgments or our performance metrics, we are assessing at the wrong level. Parents may appreciate school reports, but strong policy needs to balance individual wishes with the needs of the majority, and the major issues with education are systemic. Anything else will continue to lead to perverse incentives that marginalise, punish and shame the most vulnerable. Sadly, these are the very same that are doing the most for social justice.
So whether it’s the leaders of Harris, Outwood Grange and Inspiration trusts deciding to withdraw their staff currently working as inspectors; or the leaders of our professional associations and unions acting to ensure no school-based employees involve themselves in inspection; or a grassroots movement of school leaders refusing to carry them out; the system needs – and can be forced into – radical change.
It could be the ultimate perverse incentive. As school teachers and leaders reach a point of total lack of agency, we may just come to see that the answers are in our own hands.