'In the aftermath of the Durand ruling, we need an open discussion about what purpose Ofsted should serve'

Ofsted’s complaints procedure must finally be scrutinised if we're to move our good but increasingly stuck and fragile education system forward

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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. 

In many ways, it's 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 exhortations and speeches.

Out of sheer arrogance or a misguided belief in their quality assurance processes, Ofsted considered itself infallible once it has 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.

Ofsted complaints

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 they were 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 lost pension contributions and the initial claim may well be 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 25 years of making them, would be intensely scrutinised in the court proceedings.

While 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 is capable of leading this review, but it should be able to contribute evidence to an independent body, set up to review the future of the inspectorate.

Humane accountability

Headteachers’ Roundtable has long considered safeguarding an audit, not an inspection issue. Safeguarding needs continual vigilance and strengthening, not an inspection three or 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, an 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 (HMIs) 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.

Stephen Tierney is chair of the Headteachers Roundtable think tank.  He’s on twitter as @LeadingLearner and regularly blogs at www.leadinglearner.me

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