I know that Ofsted are no longer interested in viewing the internal data that schools routinely collect (because they are sure Ofsted will ask for it.) I know that they are all about the intent and the implementation these days, and not just the impact. But will their apparently good intentions mutate into strange forms in schools, and will the impact of all of that be that we are all left in a worse place than the one we started in?
While their efforts have been focused on the bright future of their new inspection framework, Ofsted may have failed to notice the increasing calls for their summary demise.
“We would abolish Ofsted and we would replace it with a different system,” Angela Rayner told The Observer before the Labour Party conference. Mary Bousted of the NEU has called the inspectorate ‘a weapon of fear and terror.’ Recently, in the Tes, Frank Coffield called for its replacement by an Education Improvement Agency, whose remit would be to‘shift the focus from blaming individuals to improving systems by restoring trust to professionals.’
In my 22 years of teaching, the call came seven times. I am not an expert in inspection, but I do know a thing or two about being inspected. I have had the content and delivery of my history lessons criticised by people who have never taught a history lesson. I have had people sit expressionlessly behind a clipboard and fail to be moved by the quality of the discussion around them. I have co-observed lessons with inspectors, second-guessing the grades I assume they have in their minds (and I have reported back ‘Satisfactory’ to one science teacher whom I know to be great at what she does.) I have consoled colleagues who felt they let the team down because they were not observed, and others because they were and they crumbled under the strain. Every school I ever worked in was good, but Ofsted did not always agree.
I now work with dozens of schools, mainly in London but also across England and further afield too. Every week I meet dozens of teachers and leaders who are passionate, creative and almost superhuman in the lengths they will go to improve the life chances of their students. They have one other thing in common: they have Ofsted on their minds.
It does not take an expert to see the peculiar leadership behaviours which are driven by the ‘fear and terror’ of Ofsted. Unsustainable expectations of staff that drive so many out of the profession; the mad search for an extra 0.2 on their Progress 8 scores that persuade some schools that it is ethical to off-roll their GCSE students: these are not the values that draw idealistic young adults into teaching, but it’s where many of them end up under the perverse pressure of Ofsted. It is plain to me that very many school leaders behave in ways they know to be counter-productive in the long term, because there might be some short-term boost to progress.
I want Ofsted to go. Whatever replaces it should have a minimal remit. My list is short.
- Schools must be safe for children to be in. Behaviour should be excellent, bullying should be driven out. The highest standards for safeguarding should apply. Good mental and emotional health should be a top priority.
- Schools must spend public money wisely. There is not much of it, it has to go a long way and schools ought to be able to account for it all.
- They must teach a curriculum which meets their students’ needs and prepares them for exams and the world beyond. And they should be helped to get ever better at it.
- Schools must be fit places for adults to work in, free of bullying, unethical practices and cultures which overburden staff. All too often this is not the case now. We need only consult the figures for staff retention.
- Inspection should not discourage – should in fact encourage – experimentation, cooperation, community engagement, cultures of professional development and enquiry.
If inspection were fair, non-threatening, conducive to sustainable improvement and light-touch, we might then get schools that good teachers were desperate to stay in.