Ofsted’s 2017-22 strategic plan, published today, is available in two versions. One is a condensed single-page summary of the key values and principles, the other is a fuller document consisting of around twelve pages. Keen to get to the crux of it as rapidly as possible, I read the summary initially. Then, having grasped the basic plot, I reached for the longer document – the director’s cut. Let’s see what’s lurking under the surface.
I expected sharp teeth hidden in the darkest depths of the detail and braced myself for something at odds with the placid tone of the summary; I had anticipated an Ofsted shark.
But there appear to be none. There is little to disagree within Ofsted’s core values: ‘children and students first’, ‘independent’, and ‘accountable and transparent.’ Indeed, such values underpin many of the schools and colleges Ofsted inspects.
In terms of their strategic approach, Ofsted intends to be ‘intelligent’, ‘responsible’ and ‘focused’. In short, this is a commitment to evidence-led inspection methods, proper consideration of the costs and benefits of inspection, and the understanding that inspection should be targeted where it is most needed. Again, this seems agreeable.
It is also encouraging that Ofsted has been open in discussing the direction of their new strategy, seeking the views of ASCL at an early stage and listening to our feedback. One example of ASCL’s influence has been in encouraging Ofsted to address the disproportionate effect that minor safeguarding areas for improvement can have on a school or college’s overall effectiveness judgement.
In the short term, Ofsted has emphasised proportionality to inspectors during their recent training on inspecting safeguarding. In the longer term, Ofsted’s 2017-22 strategy suggests they will explore the feasibility of separating compliance from the inspection of quality of education.
In a recent interview with the TES, Luke Tryl, Ofsted’s director of corporate strategy, said “given that it has been suggested, it would be foolish for us not to look at it.” There are a number of ways such a model could work without increasing the burden of inspection on schools and colleges and we look forward to exploring this further with Ofsted.
What’s on the horizon?
If there is a problem with the full strategy document it is that it adds little extra substance to the summary, but perhaps we shouldn’t expect that at this stage. Schools and colleges know very well the risks of initiative overload and unbridled change. Given Ofsted’s clear intention to use evidence to inform inspection methods, it would be contradictory for them to set out the implementation of this vision in detail before the research has been carried out.
That said, within the full strategy document there are hints of the inspection world in the waters ahead. Notable themes include:
slimmer, more accessible reports
an evaluation of impact of the current grading system
a return of thematic overviews exploring what works in schools and colleges
building on the complaints policy to provide more opportunity for feedback and challenge
providing feedback schools and colleges can really use to inform improvements
more inspection of outstanding providers
possible lengthening of interval between inspections of good schools
a new approach to inspecting MATs
a new inspection framework for September 2019
longer-term consideration of separating compliance and quality of education aspects of inspection
The challenge for Ofsted will be in balancing their core values and strategic approaches with the competing demands of government, parents, schools and teachers when translating their vision into practical actions. But it will require openness from school and college leaders as well as Ofsted.
The adversarial relationship that seemed to exist between previous HMCIs and school and college leaders has left an understandable anxiety on both sides. The reporting of last week’s short inspection consultation was a case in point. At face value, the new proposals seem to reduce the ‘cliff edge’ nature of our high stakes accountability system. Quite rightly, commentators looked beneath the surface to consider possible unintended consequences.
However, having weighed these up, it is equally important to return to what exists clearly above the water line, an idea which may be of great benefit to a significant number of schools, colleges and communities. It’s worth consideration at least.
So too with Ofsted’s 2017-22 strategy. There may yet be sharks lurking but we must not be afraid to take a dip. After all, it looks promising on the surface.