A new Ofsted framework is due in September 2019 and both within and outside the organisation, there seems to be an appetite for change in order to better position inspection as a “force for improvement” , as HMCI Amanda Spielman put it. Until then, schools should be able to look forward to some incremental shifts designed to rebalance the impact of inspection.
Sitting in on Ofsted’s Schools Remit Conference on 7 September, I saw the organisation immerse itself in the challenges of inspection, grappling with case studies on thorny issues like safeguarding and the shifting sands of pupil outcomes. Juggling consistency with professional judgement is hard and not something the inspectorate has always got right. Promisingly, and without wishing to judge on rhetoric alone, there are signs that a more balanced approach to inspection may continue to emerge this year.
So, what is different and how might this impact on schools? Little, if anything, appears to be changing in the handbook itself but the narrative around inspection has seen a palpable shift, at least at this theoretical stage. One key theme from today was that of ‘proportionality’ – something ASCL has been talking about and pushing for in its ongoing dialogue with Ofsted, particularly over the past year.
Safeguarding – the big picture
In terms of safeguarding, proportionality means ensuring that inspection is not just a checklist. We should expect that inspectors look more at the big picture of safeguarding rather than obsessing over a single policy or procedure which could be improved. Clearly, if serious failings put children at risk then schools will be vulnerable to being judged as inadequate, but single issues, such as the absence of a perimeter fence or a missing reference in a personnel file, should not land a school in trouble.
There is a balance to be struck here. The inspectorate can’t say that they don’t have the highest expectations of safeguarding in schools, but they do recognise there is a difference between best practice and what seems to be doing the job. If the impact of safeguarding culture in the school is that pupils are safe and not at risk of harm then safeguarding should be deemed effective, even if there are a few areas for improvement. How this plays out in practice and how it affects inspection consistency remain to be seen, but the theory at least is encouraging.
Data and proportionality
Proportionality should also be reflected in how inspectors use and interpret outcomes data. The new Inspection Data Summary Report (IDSR) replaces the inspection dashboard but this is more than a change in graphics. Underpinning the new format is the understanding that inspectors should not draw big conclusions from small -and sometimes invalid - pieces of data.
Inspectors will continue to explore the performance of all students and particular groups within schools, as you would expect, but should not insist that you don’t meet a particular grade criteria because three students adversely impacted a particular group’s data. Again, proportionality is the key.
The outward-looking perspective at the conference was encouraging; alongside their own reflections, Ofsted had reached out to experts such as Daisy Christodoulou and ASCL’s Malcolm Trobe to provide useful insight. However, as Ofsted would say during inspection, a good plan is one thing but it’s the impact that counts.
Hopefully, the impact of this rebalancing will mean schools, pupils and communities will benefit from a more proportionate approach in 2017/18.