The watchdog’s new consultation on short inspections needed to be much further-reaching, says to Colin Richards

Almost all schools and inspections are “-ish”. Only a few schools are clearly and uncontroversially ‘outstanding’, and only a few are undoubtedly ‘inadequate’. The vast majority are ‘good’-ish or ‘requiring improvement’-ish. Inspection is not a science but an art; it involves complex judgements which don’t necessarily point in the same direction.

Does the recently announced new consultation on short inspections recognise this?

Because of the value judgements involved, inspectors can never claim that their interpretation of a school is the only correct one. Nor can inspectors claim a monopoly of objectivity or authority, as expressed in an overall grade or description. Equally importantly, the unique judgements each one gives cannot be directly or robustly compared with the equally unique opinions of the same school inspected the previous time, or the next. Each inspection is in a sense sui generis. Direct comparison over time is at best problematic, and at worst invalid.

Direct comparison over time is at best problematic, and at worst invalid

But of course Ofsted does not recognise this. It persists in wanting to place schools into one of four supposedly water-tight categories, or it has until now, now it has announced a new consultation on changes to short inspections. Under these proposals, ‘good’ schools that are not definitely good (whatever that means) are to be given two years to prove their ‘goodness’, making them in the meantime just ‘good’-ish or, more likely ‘probably in need of considerable-ish improvement’. Similarly, ‘good’ schools that are ‘outstanding’-ish are promised a full inspection later to confirm their status.

While the issue of grading remains contentious, more short inspections for more schools should be widely welcomed. But let’s be clear: the new consultation did come from Ofsted rethinking the effects of short inspections on schools and students. They resulted from the logistical difficulties created by the uncertainty of conversion following an initial inspection and the fact that considerable numbers of would-be inspectors would not be fully employed.

The new proposals may resolve the logistical issue but will result in a three-tier split in overall ‘good’ judgements, considerable uncertainty and desperate efforts by schools for the two years before the follow-up inspection in order to retain their ‘good’ or have their ‘outstanding’ confirmed.

The answer to Ofsted’s self-created problem is not to come up with another sticking-plaster fix to an insoluble problem: it’s to reconsider the terms in which schools are evaluated so as to avoid the -ish issue, and other problematic notions.

Inevitably and, in my opinion rightly, inspection judgements are not only tentative but qualitative. On an inspection nothing speaks for itself: everything needs interpreting and value judgements, using descriptors such as “good”, “very good”, “excellent”, “satisfactory”, “reasonable”, “fair”, “poor”, etc. There can be no stipulation as to which qualitative terms are to be used; they must “fit” the perceptions of the activities being evaluated.

They cannot be reduced to just four numerical grades, as they are under the current Ofsted regime; reality is much more complex than fourfold categorisation.

Oversimplification may be useful for the purposes of educational accounting but fails to take into account the varied facets of educational reality which can only really be captured (and then only in part) in well-crafted prose. Inspection teams need the freedom to dispense entirely with artificial, misleading constructs such as overall grades, and to present schools in their idiosyncratic variety with idiosyncratic descriptors to match. Each inspection report has to be bespoke – not a formulaic account with minimal variation from school to school. Misleading, over-simplistic grades should make way for prose which gives a vivid sense of what a particular school is really like – as witnessed by a group of expert observers.

Through this consultation, Ofsted is trying – I suspect vainly – to get out of the hole it has dug itself. The real answer is both deceptively simple: abolish overall gradings and the angst that goes with them, and hellishly difficult: creating credible word portraits of schools’ inevitable peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses.

Colin Richards is a former professor and HMI