Critiques of Ofsted are widespread and last year must rank as the toughest year the inspectorate has ever faced (see Andrew Old’s blog for commentary and Joe Kirby’s blog for a collection of posts). There are numerous calls ‘out there’ for how Ofsted might be reformed, ranging from minor tinkering through to having the whole institution abolished. I would certainly not see the inspectorate abolished, but I would argue strongly that it needs to be slimmed down significantly. I want to use this post to explain why, and to give an idea of what this might look like.
One of the things that would need to be lost in a slimmed down inspectorate would be the judgement of the quality of teaching and learning in a school. The main critique raised of Ofsted in 2014 was that its tools for judging the quality of teaching in a school were neither valid nor reliable. Ofsted’s recent move to have independent double inspections might resolve the reliability issue, but it would not solve the validity issue. As I have explained in a previous blog, I think the validity problem comes down primarily to the fact that inspectors are nearly always non-specialists. Heather F wrote a good post on why you need to be a specialist in order to judge the quality of teaching. In my own recent post I argued that an inspector cannot judge whether a school’s internal progress data are valid or not. To do this an inspector would need to make judgements about the validity of the assessment tools being used to produce the progress data and they can’t do this without in-depth knowledge of (a) the subject, (b) the ways in which that subject can and cannot be assessed and (c) what we know about what ‘getting better’ at a subject looks like. I am just not convinced that the world would fall to pieces if we scrapped Ofsted’s need to judge the quality of teaching and learning.
So what would that leave? For starters, it would make Ofsted’s job much easier and much less contentious. If Ofsted were slimmed down, it could instead focus on the following:
- Behaviour, safety and child protection
- Governance, management and finances
Behaviour and safety is an obvious starting point: a school where children are poorly behaved is not a school where pupils are learning things as well as they might. I would be happy, therefore, to have Ofsted coming in, putting their head around some classroom doors and spending time in the corridors and playground between lessons. It is not difficult to gauge quite quickly whether behaviour is acceptable or or not. The same is true of safety: one can normally establish easily whether or not a school is a safe place for pupils. Child protection is similarly vital, and inspectors ought to be checking that schools have the appropriate procedures in place to deal with any issues that arise.
Finances are also a matter of appropriate procedures: schools spend public money and lots of it, and I would expect an inspectorate to be making sure that accounts are properly audited and that money is not being spent on a head’s private party, or that a head is managing his or her private consultancy through school resources. Similarly, I would expect Ofsted to make sure that a school has reasonable governance and management (I use the term deliberately instead of ‘leadership’) systems in place to ensure that school leaders are held to account and are not abusing their position.
Concerns about what is taught in school have made headlines over the last few months, and I think there is some justification in having an inspectorate that makes sure, for example, that creationism is not taught as science. The National Curriculum is, for this purpose, perfectly adequate. I would be content, for example, for an inspector to make sure that the National Curriculum is being taught by checking schemes of work, resources and pupil work. If a school is not following the National Curriculum, then it should be able to show an inspector how its curriculum differs, which again allows an inspector to make sure that there are no major problems.
And that would be it: that’s all I want an inspectorate to do. If schools have good behaviour, are safe, have proper procedures in place and teach the National Curriculum (or a curriculum better than the National Curriculum) then I’d be satisfied that a school can pass its Ofsted inspection. I would not bother with grades: thing like behaviour and procedures are either acceptable or they are not. Having the result of an inspection as either pass or fail would be quite appropriate for the kind of inspection I propose here.
Importantly, this kind of inspection would not be a judgement of whether or not a school was a ‘good school’. Parents, the government, academy chains, local authorities and so on need access to a range of measures to allow them to make this judgement. ‘Progress’ measures based on GCSE results, for example, could be displayed alongside whether or not a school had passed its inspection. Passing Ofsted in my system would be a necessary but not sufficient tool for school accountability. I would argue that the best ways of managing school accountability is to adopt a ‘mixed constitution’ which does not peg everything on to the judgement of one single measure, like an inspection result. With a range of measures in place, of which an Ofsted inspection is but one, we are more than capable of holding schools to account.
The potential benefits for the whole system of a slimmed down Ofsted would be considerable. In my proposal here, teachers would not need to worry about an inspection: as long as their classes are behaving and they’re teaching the curriculum, they have nothing to worry about. School senior leaders, administrative staff and governors would need to make sure that they kept all their paperwork and that this was readily accessible should an inspector call, but is this not something we’d want anyway? I would be comfortable with no-notice inspections under my proposal here. Perhaps most importantly, in a system such as mine there would be no need for teachers and senior managers to be ‘playing the Ofsted game’: the criteria would be clear-cut and, for this reason, inspections would be less subjective. Inspections could be smaller, and therefore cheaper. A system such as this would rip the carpet out from under the ‘Ofsted consultancy’ industry, which would save schools lots of money and spare teachers from ‘Mocksteds’ and alike.
The problem with Ofsted, I would suggest, is that it has simply become too big and too complicated. There is a vital role for an inspectorate, but we can do without the regime we currently have.