The medical profession has now added its voice to the wide-ranging calls for reform relating to Ofsted that erupted following the death of headteacher, Ruth Perry. An article published by the BMJ this week reports an ‘almost complete loss of confidence in Ofsted’.
As school leaders in the East of England, we felt it important to undertake a structured inquiry to explore perceptions of Ofsted to discern common themes. A survey for leaders was designed by CEOs, headteachers and leads of headteacher associations. It was piloted with a range of professionals including Ofsted inspectors to ensure clarity and objectivity before being shared more widely.
We received 528 responses and have summarised the findings in a report. The participants are broadly reflective of the education sector as a whole, with a ratio of 1:4 secondary to primary colleagues. Special school and early years leaders were represented, 95 per cent of respondents were or had been headteachers and 53 per cent had led teams through an inspection under the current framework.
The ‘loss of confidence’ the BMJ refers to is unequivocally evident throughout the data. Responses are overwhelmingly negative and demonstrate a profession articulating deep dissatisfaction with the impact of the current inspection framework.
Using an effectiveness scale, we asked leaders to rate Ofsted on three areas that were cited as the core purpose of inspections in the last parliamentary review of the regulatory body. These relate to accountability, school improvement and providing information for parents. We used a seven-point scale, ranging from extremely effective to not at all effective.
The overall mean score was 1.8 (largely ineffective) with only 3.4 per cent of leaders judging the effectiveness of Ofsted as largely or extremely effective in all three areas. The lowest effectiveness rating related to whether Ofsted provides parents with the information they need to compare schools on a consistent basis. The mode here was 0 (not at all effective).
Lack of consistency is the most common thread across the data. This was apparent in open-text answers and in descriptions of incidents during inspections.
‘Inconsistent’ was also the word with the highest occurrence in answer to this question: If you were judging the overall effectiveness of Ofsted in meeting the aims above, what three words would you use? Nineteen per cent of answers included the word inconsistent. The next three most highly occurring words were: inadequate (18 per cent), requires improvement (17 per cent) and ineffective (14 per cent). Even the 2 per cent of respondents who stated they had no concerns with Ofsted in answer to another question used words like ‘stressful’ and ‘misaligned’, alongside ‘professional’ and ‘detailed’.
When asked to select their top three concerns from a list (including an option for ‘no concerns’), the top four were ‘one-word judgements’ (57 per cent), ‘reliability’ (43 per cent), ‘limiting judgements’ (38 per cent) and ‘impact on schools during inspection’ (34 per cent).
We also asked respondents to give their thoughts in just ten words on an inspection system that would raise standards and improve lives, as Ofsted’s tagline says it does.
Answers included: professional and supportive dialogue, a robust complaints procedure, and a reflection on other countries’ systems with ‘high-trust, low-stakes’ approaches. The ‘one-word judgement’ issue came through again and again, as did ‘unpredictability’, the strain of timeframes and the stress this causes.
These results contradict in no uncertain terms Amanda Spielman’s claim during her April interview with Laura Kuennsberg that “we get plenty of feedback to say that inspection is a constructive professional dialogue”.
In the East of England at least, this survey provides evidence of ‘an almost complete loss of confidence in Ofsted’. The unwillingness from Ofsted to engage with the sector at large, despite the mounting evidence that the system does more harm than good, is of great concern to the profession.