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Time to Seriously Question Ofsted?

Speaking at the Headteachers’ Roundtable Summit in February 2017, I mooted the idea that someone would challenge Ofsted in the courts and that Durand Academy may well be the first.  They were already set on that course; now it has happened.  This post was written for the TES and was published on the 15th August 2017.

In many ways it is a damning indictment of the teaching unions and professional associations that they have not taken Ofsted to task more robustly over the years.  The lack of reliability and validity in Ofsted’s judgements and reports has long been an issue of contention; the lack of a “rational and fair” or independent complaints procedure also gave course for litigation rather than simply exhortations and speeches from union/professional association leaders.

Credit: TES (click the image to read the full report)

Out of sheer arrogance or a misguided belief in their quality assurance processes, Ofsted considered itself infallible once it decided a school was inadequate.  Judge McKenna’s view couldn’t have been more different.  A combination of basic common sense and natural justice led to his determination that Ofsted’s complaints procedure was inadequate.  He also questioned whether the actual judgement should have been more “requires improvement” than special measures.  How many more schools if they had the financial resources and support, to challenge Ofsted, like Durand, would currently not be sponsored academies?  A lot of negative publicity, unnecessary upheaval and vilification could have been avoided.

I hope Ofsted will accept the judgement about its flawed complaints procedure; saving the tax payer a lot more money in legal fees.  However, I fear the costs to the taxpayer if they do not might be even greater.  Imagine a senior leader who has recently been “let go” following an adverse Ofsted Inspection reading the court’s judgement.   If s/he was on circa £60,000 per annum and lost their job at 50 years of age; a claim for 15 years loss of earnings (£900,000) may well form an interesting test case.  Add in lost pension contributions and the initial claim may well be for in excess of a million pounds.  If the teaching unions and professional associations don’t eventually step up to the plate a “no win, no fee” legal firm may well see this as an opportunity.  Ofsted’s complaints procedure and the dearth of evidence about its reliability and the validity of the judgements, after twenty five years of making them, would be intensely scrutinised in the court proceedings.

Whilst this court case about the complaints procedure is important it must not become “a dead cat on the table” of Ofsted reform.  The root of the problem is arguably a culture that has developed in Ofsted; “We must not be questioned and we are unquestionably right”.  What is needed is neither simply a rewrite of the complaints procedure nor another revised inspection schedule.  Rather a much deeper more honest debate about what purpose Ofsted should serve (I choose this last word with care), if any, in helping improve the education of children and young people in England.  I do not believe Ofsted are capable of leading this review but should be able to contribute evidence to an independent body, set up to review the future of the inspectorate.

Headteachers’ Roundtable has long considered Safeguarding an audit not an inspection issue; Safeguarding needs continual vigilance and strengthening not an inspection three of more years apart.  Equally, there is so much data available on every school; there is too little to be gained and too much to be lost, by one or two inspectors visiting a school to make idiosyncratic subjective judgements that a different team, on a different day may not agree with.  The education system and politicians could help by ceasing to hanker after cliff edge judgements that produce perverse behaviours, unnecessary workload and a culture of fear that is driving much needed people out of the profession.

A more humane accountability system is required if we are to move a good but increasingly stuck and fragile education system forward.  Imagine a system where the schools in need of significant support were fairly and accurately identified; no inspection grade is needed, they need support not judgement.  Her Majesty’s Inspectors would support the school by providing a narrative based report, from data and after considerable time actually working in the school, identifying key steps in the improvement journey.  The HMIs work with the school over whatever timescale is required to make it a school that would “be good enough for my children”; the touchstone judgement I have used throughout my career.



14 thoughts on “Time to Seriously Question Ofsted?

  1. I would be very interested in talking to you about this article and my experience as a headteacher.

    Posted by Dale Barrowclough | August 20, 2017, 11:10 am
  2. Thank you so much for this – I am head of a church school. Trafford has just lost all 4 advisors. I feel increasingly isolated as schools around me are academies/ supported by Catholic sector . The job relies increasingly on linking into posts like yours or TES / NAHT to keep the big picture . I could never afford to challenge Ofsted financially and wouldn’t have the confidence to dispute a judgement alone. It gives me heart that you and others have a voice and financial backing to begin the road to reform.

    Posted by Alison Drayton | August 20, 2017, 4:33 pm
  3. In a talk to Nigerian educationalists this week one of the key features of the UK education system that I pointed out to them was the complete failure of government and regulators to understand what motivates people in a knowledge based economy and that good teachers needed room for self-development along with autonomy, mastery and a sense of purpose https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6XAPnuFjJc . No amount of central control will make an excellent education system.

    Posted by Charlotte Davies | August 20, 2017, 8:15 pm
  4. Stephen, have you every seen the Council of International (CIS) model? While it is not all applicable to the context of a state education system my experience is that by having a visiting team of professional colleagues from other schools naturally leads towards a model that provides both supportive, collegial scrutiny and a development based focus. Wouldn’t something similar be workable, particularly where you have a huge network of schools across what is a short distance? England is not very big. For those worried that the state would lose a simple mechanism for accountability surely a form of quality control could be developed?
    My school is just about to go through an joint-visit in a similar context (not CIS though). There will be 16 professionals (headteachers, heads of department and classroom teachers) in our school for a full week (plus the weekend before and after). Yes, we have had a long process of reflection as a school beforehand (one year long at all levels) but it has been worth it, as we do this every 10 years. I believe we have been incredibly tough on ourselves as a school and certainly our self-review pulls few punches. As I keep reminding everybody, the main questions to answer are: ‘Do we know who we are as a school?’ (strengths, weaknesses, closeness to the mission etc.) and ‘Are we heading in the right direction?’ (are we on the right track).
    There is another advantage to a system of peer-review. Staff from our school who have been on such visits (unpaid, in school time and intense) come back energised, inspired and affirmed in equal parts. Some of the best CPD they’ll get.

    Posted by muchwhat | August 20, 2017, 9:51 pm
  5. Do you mean like the old ( pre – Ofsted ) LA inspectorates did and did well? Does anyone else remember that system?

    Posted by Francis Verity | August 21, 2017, 12:00 am
  6. I have been considering betting my house on the fact that we will one day look back at Ofsted’s judgement system as a transparently ‘false science’ (Note – Stephen Hawkins and Jeremy Hunt this week), that is clearly flawed and can easily be proven to be highly subjective. With time and perspective we will also be shocked at how accepting we have been of this fallible system. Support not judgement – yes please.

    Posted by Anna McDonnell | August 21, 2017, 9:24 am
  7. Reblogged this on rwaringatl.

    Posted by R Waring | August 21, 2017, 10:16 am


  1. Pingback: Time to Seriously Question Ofsted? | Thoughts on everything and anything! - August 20, 2017

  2. Pingback: Let’s get radical on Ofsted reform. Power:reliability:impact ratio is wrong. | teacherhead - November 9, 2017

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