I have hesitated from joining the conversations about the proposed new inspection framework because to be honest I am really struggling. I respect Amanda Spielman’s recognition of the need for things to change and the direction of travel she seeks so I want to support the changes. But I share her pain. This is difficult. And there is a lot of noise out there as a result of a genuine commitment to consult. How representative some of that noise is remains a question.

I have many years of experience on both sides of inspection. I believe in the principle of an external view so I want inspections to continue and I certainly don’t want to see Ofsted abolished but I do want to see a radical change in the culture. Perhaps this is already coming.

As a newly appointed headteacher I and the school benefited greatly from an early inspection which confirmed the direction of travel we were taking in a school where there was no shortage of issues to address and recognised our leadership. This helped us greatly to win back the confidence of our community and address the challenges. I described this in detail in my book(p129+)

I have been an inspector for Estyn in Wales. It helped me personally to become a better headteacher and I was often told that my involvement as a serving headteacher was helpful and constructive.

So why am I hesitant?

I think there are a number of serious flaws in the current system. Until these are addressed the system cannot improve.

  1. LikeStephen TierneyI agree that the grading system has to go. It is having a disastrous effect on many schools which are being led in absolutely the right direction but in challenging circumstances and need to change. Too often I see them placed in a category leading to loss of confidence in the community, loss of staff and intake, not to mention the head’s livelihood. On the other hand I see schools with the ‘outstanding’ label which aren’t – simple as that. And I see really exceptional schools which are not given that badge.
  2. In spite of the efforts of Ofsted to address this there are still some inspectors (including I am afraid some serving headteachers) who are not acting in the way that Ofsted say they should. Though it was the right decision to bring inspections in house we are still missing the kind of experienced individuals who used to be HMIs and are still seeing too many contradictory behaviours.
  3. Though some will disagree I have never been a fan of the short notice approach. It is about low trust in professionals and reflects the prevailing culture in government. It is ridiculous that heads have to leave valuable off-site activities when they receive the phone call at midday because someone thinks they will be able to hide dodgy students if they have more than a day’s notice. If that were the case it would be an indictment of the quality of inspectors. No notice inspections are a different matter. They should only be used in cases where there is genuine cause for urgent action such as a breakdown in behaviour or critical safeguarding issue.
  4. The inspection period is far too short to make the kinds of judgements with the stakes they carry. This prevents the kind of in-depth discussion that would be an essential basis for an informed judgement. It is a major problem.
  5. Ofsted cannot operate effectively unless funded to do so.

These are all big issues but there are other great barriers which are beyond Ofsted’s power to change.

  • Performance tables remain the driver of practice.
  • Examination and test results overshadow almost all qualitative assessments of successful schools. It is naïve to suggest that schools should not explicitly prepare students for these high stakes exams and the removal of coursework has raised those stakes further.
  • Progress 8 and EBacc are determining curriculum design and will do until a government stops using performance indicators as a lever for practice. I see no sign of this happening. Ofsted itelf has a mountain to climb to reverse this kind of correlation between P8 and Ofsted grades https://t.co/5H7wZlTxGQ
  • The government consistently promotes preferred pedagogical approaches whilst claiming that it believes in autonomy. As widely publicised it regularly  ignores evidence.
  • The data driven work of RSCs often conflicts with Ofsted’s direction of travel .
  • The indiscriminate use of emotive terms like ‘gaming’ displays a lack of respect for the vast majority of teachers and school leaders that undermines their professional status.

In my book I proposed the following twelve proposals for the future of inspection:

  1. All schools should be subject to a degree of external scrutiny by the inspectorate.
  2. All inspections should be led by highly trained HMIs who are experienced in that sector.
  3. The length and of the inspection should be proportionate to the performance of the school.
  4. All schools should be required to put in place effective self-evaluation processes. That is more than filling out a SEF. These should the starting point of inspection which would validate them by sampling aspects of the school’s work. The aim of this would be to judge whether the school knows its strengths and areas for development and had identified appropriate priorities for further improvement.
  5. Where inspectors have concerns about a school’s capacity to improve, a full inspection should take place and government should fund this.
  6. The outcome of inspection should not be summarized with a single grade. This is simplistic and misleading. Instead it should focus on assessing whether or not the quality of education meets a clearly defined standard which might equate with the current grade 2. (This would be comparable with a ‘clean audit’ rather than a number. The report itself would be in narrative form).
  7. The inspection report should focus on the school’s capacity to improve, describe any aspects of outstanding practice and areas for development.
  8. Best practice should be shared by Ofsted in the form of case studies and survey reports.
  9. Ofsted must be allowed to assess the impact of government policies on the quality of education without fear or favour.
  10. Compliance with regulatory requirements , safeguarding etc. should be the subject of annual audit rather than part of inspection which should focus specifically on the quality of education.
  11. Where schools are in formal federations or Multi-Academy Trusts inspections should assess the impact of that structure on standards and not just the individual school. Equally the same approach should apply to schools maintained by the local authority.
  12. The inspection should be conducted as a constructive, courteous and respectful professional dialogue. That does not in any way preclude the need for challenging questions to be asked or decisive action to be taken when the quality of education falls short of the required standard.

How would this be as a criterion for the success of Ofsted’s new framework?

A school in a disadvantaged/challenging context with outcomes including progress as currently measured are well below average receives a ‘clean’ report from Ofsted. It is recognised that the leadership are doing everything that needs to happen but have not yet had time to address it.

In terms of recommendations the inspectors could identify what additional support might help these committed professionals with their work.

I wish Amanda Spielman and her team well with this important work. As a profession we should do everything we can to help.

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