ASCL’s Brian Lightman argues for a leaner Ofsted that determines whether schools meet the expected standard or not.
Mike Cladingbowl, national director for schools at Ofsted, has called for views on how school inspection should develop. The debate about school inspection has intensified over the last few weeks, with fundamental questions being asked about Ofsted and the future of the school inspection system.
Despite the undoubted contribution Ofsted has made, and in many cases continues to make to our education system, there are a number of significant problems with the current approach. There is inconsistency in inspection judgements. There is still confusion about what Ofsted is looking for, especially around lesson observation. There is lack of clarity about the role of performance data, and the extent to which it pre-determines inspection outcomes. The quality of inspector training, especially by inspection service providers, is not up to standard. Finally, there is a culture of fear around inspection which hampers innovation and sensible risk-taking.
It is now time to re-think what inspection is for and how it is conducted. It is time to consider how a school-led, self-improving system should be regulated and regulate itself. I’d like to propose three ideas.
Currently, Ofsted carry out a 'risk assessment' of good and outstanding schools on the basis of data and where this throws up questions, a full inspection is carried out. I suspect this is wasting money and human resources. Where concerns arise, the first step should be for an inspector to investigate further with the school to see how it is addressing apparent shortcomings. This could be done without a full inspection that involves the equivalent of eight person-days. If concerns still exist, then a full inspection would be triggered. In addition, Ofsted should publish and share clear criteria that they are looking for as part of the 'risk assessment'.
The role of the HMI could move from one of quality control, to that of quality assurance of a school's own self-evaluation processes and whether it has the capacity to improve. HMIs would contact every school on a regular cycle or when a cause for concern is identified. The HMI could then either ‘sign the school off’ or decide that a more in-depth inspection is required, led by the HMI. This would reduce the unhealthy extent to which the threat of inspection dominates many school leaders' work and makes teachers afraid to try new approaches in case they do not meet with ‘Ofsted approval’.
In addition, in order to attract the best leaders into challenging schools, there could be an agreement with Ofsted that the school is inspected early on into a new headship and then left alone, in the recognition that it takes time to improve. This would help to lessen the threat of ‘career suicide’ that discourages many good leaders from taking on challenging schools.
Ofsted should be a lean organisation. Currently it relies heavily on three inspection service providers, contracted to hire and train inspectors and carry out inspections. When the current contracts come to an end, Ofsted should not engage in further procurement of inspection service providers. The inspection workforce should instead involve serving or recently retired school leaders who work directly for Ofsted and who receive the calibre of training needed to create a cadre of skilled and knowledgeable inspection teams, led by HMIs.
I have always believed in the need for publicly funded schools to be regulated by an independent inspectorate that operates ‘without fear or favour.’ This is because parents have a right to the most effective education provision for their children. Young people have a right to the best possible education, regardless of their background. Taxpayers have a right to know how their money is being used. Schools help shape the social and economic future of the country and all sections of society have an interest in this. For these reasons, I am not calling for an end to school inspection by an independent regulatory body.
But it is essential that school inspection helps to build public trust in the education service. Teachers and school leaders are regarded by the public as among the most trusted professionals. The tone of public debate about inspection needs to recognise this.
I share this government’s aspiration to make UK schools among the most successful in the world. That is precisely what school leaders work for. Accountability is most effective for all parts of the education service when there is a climate of mutual trust and respect. This should involve schools holding themselves and each other to account through ever more focused self-evaluation and self-regulation, quality assured by an independent inspectorate.
This is a starting point for debate and ASCL will be discussing the proposals further, with the final, detailed proposals to be released at our annual conference in a few weeks’ time. We would be keen to hear your views as well.