At the ASCL Annual Conference in March, Sir Michael Wilshaw gave details about his review of the current Ofsted process and claimed Ofsted was being proactive and not reactive to the need for radical change to inspection. Interestingly, at the same time the Policy Exchange also produced a report ‘Watching the Watchmen: The future of School Inspections in England’ that criticises the current inspection regime.
Sir Michael spoke of a risk-based assessment being carried out on a school prior to a more light-touch inspection. Currently the algorithm for calculating this risk assessment carried out before inspections is not shared with schools. Given Sir Michael’s welcome commitment to establishing professional dialogue between Ofsted and school leaders at the moment, I would advocate that the criteria for this proposed risk-based assessment should be developed with the profession if we are truly moving towards a self-improving school-led system. Consultation around the factors that determine the success of a school is essential if the new assessment tool is to earn the trust and confidence of the profession. The move away from a top down system would lead to accountability that is more intelligent and enable school leaders to lead improvements in our schools.
The Policy Exchange report casts doubt on the validity, reliability and consistency of lesson observations carried out by Ofsted inspectors due to the brevity of the observation and the ongoing confusion about what is actually graded in a lesson observation. It recommends that in shorter light-touch inspections, Ofsted’s role should be to assess whether a headteacher and their leadership team understand their school and their teaching and consequently to validate their judgements. During this light-touch inspection there would be no need for formal lesson observation. However the Policy Exchange report also acknowledges that, where a short inspection raises an issue of teaching and finds reasons to investigate further, there would be a need for some, reformed, observation led by experienced subject specialists. I think this is a sensible approach and I would add that, for more focussed inspections, inspectors must be well trained to observe the quality of teaching accurately and understand its impact on learning and on progress. The focus must be, as John Hattie points out “much more on what is being learned rather than what is being taught.”
It was heartening to hear Sir Michael talk about inspectors engaging in professional dialogue with senior staff and we can expect this to focus on the senior team’s evaluation of their own performance and that of the school. I strongly believe that the role of the light-touch visit should be to validate the senior team’s and governing body’s own assessment of their school through its own processes of self-evaluation. Professional dialogue with senior staff and analysis of evidence provided by the school should give an indication into the capacity and readiness of the school to sustain improvement and enable the inspection team to recognise, where necessary, ongoing deep improvement and cultural change. It must be up to schools to determine how they evaluate and improve their work and there must be no thought of requiring schools to self-evaluate on a prescriptive or centrally produced format.
The DfE published a document in April entitled ‘Accountability and Governance – Research Priorities and Questions’ and it asks the question what can we learn from inspection in other public sector accountability systems? One answer to this would be to put in place a more sensible notice period to ensure the dialogue is constructive and informed and allows senior leaders to engage in work with other schools, partnerships or professional development without fearing the arrival of an Ofsted team in a few short hours’ time.
Sir Michael’s letter to Brian Lightman in April outlining the opportunity for new heads in schools currently graded as ‘requires improvement’ to engage in professional dialogue with regional Ofsted directors about the timing of their next inspection is welcome and indicates an appreciation of the challenges and timescales required to bring about change.
Finally, it was encouraging to hear Sir Michael’s plans to substantially increase the number of HMI posts over the next few years and include seconded ‘outstanding’ practitioners serving in our schools. For this to work in reality, there must be a clear career structure and incentives recognising the contribution leaders can make to securing ongoing improvement in all our schools. Having serving leaders or recently retired leaders in this role enables the profession to take more ownership of inspection and play a broader role in system leadership. Developing headteachers’ evaluation skills could lead to the development of peer evaluation and review of schools whereby good practice is shared and issues are addressed. Ofsted‘s own role would then become more supportive and developmental, challenging the process of self-review in ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools rather than undertaking direct inspection. Can we hope to see Ofsted’s role moving to that of verifier rather than judge?
Accountability remains a crucial part of school improvement and we must seize this opportunity to shape the future of inspection in our schools leading to an inspection model we can all subscribe to and believe in.