I have been thinking for some time about writing a blog about Ofsted. Ofsted is a highly emotive subject in education circles with often binary perspectives: Those who believe Ofsted is a great thing (mostly Ofsted) and those who despise the organisation (mainly teachers). The binary debate about Ofsted is not helpful in analysing its role in the ever changing educational landscape. The pantomime of views often shared on social and mainstream media about Ofsted paint a simplistic ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ series of arguments. For this short blog, I want to suggest that Ofsted can be a force for good if it dares to reform and argue it is deserving (despite eye watering senior manager bonuses) of substantial additional funding to achieve its aims.
Why do I think Ofsted can be a force for good?
Many would argue that Ofsted already is a force for good. After all, its primary aim is to report on the quality of educational standards in our schools and through its inspection protocols, common held opinion is that it achieves this fairly adequately. I would argue that this optimistic view is a little dated and that Ofsted must IMPROVE significantly to be a REAL force for good.
Ofsted has several problems in my opinion that need to be fixed in order for it to be a real force for good:
- Inconsistent Inspectors who are not trained adequately
Many Inspectors do not follow the framework effectively and are not trained adequately in the interpretation of data. They don’t exercise good judgement and can’t see ‘nuance’ in context. They apply a rigid framework ‘one size fits all’ approach to inspection. In recent years Studio Schools and UTCs have been hammered by Inspectors for poor P8 scores at end of year 11 despite only educating the children for 2 out of the 5 years. I am pleased to hear from colleagues that Ofsted is now considering a greater range of metrics such as destinations to off-set against these issues. Inspectors have also turned up at schools with often unconventional views on what constitutes progress which has presented problems. The subjectivity of what constitutes an ambitious curriculum has also played havoc with Headteachers.
- A culture of arrogance and self righteousness
Sadly, the organisation is viewed in professional circles as having an ‘arrogance’ problem. Social media activity has not helped where Ofsted can come across as ‘lecturing’ and to be ‘obeyed’. This riles teachers who often rightly or wrongly judge Ofsted to be out of touch with their reality. If Ofsted were to show a bit more humility and maintain its right and proper ‘hard edge’ for judging standards, it might just solve its perception problem. This requires the leadership of Ofsted to alter their approaches to social media and communication generally and engage in a more productive manner as a partner for change and force for good in education. Communication and effective PR from Ofsted needs to improve dramatically to overcome prejudice and negative perceptions.
- A perceived ‘nasty’ culture by teachers
Teachers on the whole don’t really like the Inspection process. It causes enormous stress and anxiety and these mental health issues are compounded further by a perception that some Inspectors ‘get off’ on delivering bad news and have a ‘nasty’ attitude. Now this is not endemic across the Inspection work force but I have certainly experienced and witnessed an HMI enjoy telling people bad news and gaining some sort of strange satisfaction. There are some who let the power ‘go to their heads’ unfortunately.
- A framework for Inspection which is too rigid and uncompromising
The framework is very much outcome driven and although this is important, it does not encapsulate all aspects of good education provision. Curriculum offer is a key priority but Ofsted must not be deluded by the EBACC or other key Minister preferences for curriculum. The curriculum of a school must fulfil key tests of breadth, balance , knowledge, understanding and skills. It must also satisfy opportunity and where appropriate niche subject matter or specialisms. This is a complex matter and my worry is that Ofsted in its 2019 reforms is pursuing a rather narrow definition of what is an adequate curriculum. By doing so it will disenfranchise many schools. I also believe that it should reform grading and have three main grades. School is not yet good; School is good; school is outstanding because it is adding value across the system. Such an approach focuses on development and does not stigmatise schools with labels that undermine their progress.
- A complaints process which lacks transparency
The complaints process needs to be totally transformed. Having made a complaint to Ofsted I have first hand experience of the protracted experience. Make the process transparent and independent from initial stages. The complaints process is simply not fit for purpose. The evidence of successful appeals says it all.
- A paradigm of Inspection which is punitive
At the moment, the system is designed to be punitive and not based on improvement. The gradings can condemn a school to years of problems with morale, recruitment and negative media coverage. The school improvement landscape is very fragmented and the brave new world of MATS are not yielding positive school improvement results. Ofsted has a key role, as it did previously with HMI’s supporting RI schools by offering conferences and training. I believe Ofsted needs funding to support training and be an advocate for support and improvement as well as judging standards. This is more pressing in our MAT led dysfunctional school system.
- A flawed model which employs Headteachers/CEOs of trusts who have potential conflicts of interests
Get rid of serving Headteachers as inspectors. It is a clear conflict of interest. CEOs and Executive Heads could influence outcomes of inspections in such a way to accelerate academisation and benefit their own or other’s trusts. They should be in their own schools full time working with children. There should be a separate Inspection work force. Its a bit like patients taking on the role of GP’s after a few weeks training. It is daft, expensive and not good enough.
Why does it need to reform?
To be relevant today, it needs to reform and respond to the above issues of concern. Ofsted is necessary and I believe should not be disbanded. I would argue it needs to be strengthened if it is to do its job properly to report on standards. I believe it should be allowed the capacity to also help schools improve in the absence of any coherence in the MAT environment.
What are the compelling arguments for more funding for Ofsted?
I believe Ofsted needs more money to recruit a great team of inspectors. It needs more money to ensure it is meeting its statutory obligations. It needs more money to focus on support and improvement. Ofsted’s future is perhaps more at risk not from an unforgiving teaching profession, but from government starving it of effective funding. If Ofsted is bold, determined. properly funded and dares to reform, it really will be a force for good in raising standards in education. I’m optimistic that the current leadership can grasp the challenges.