Analysis: How might Labour reform school inspection?

Labour is developing policy plans on the school inspection system, which the political party says needs 'radical reform'

John Roberts

How might Labour reform school inspection

The Labour Party has said it is committed to radical reform of school inspection.

It is understood to be having discussions about the future of Ofsted as it develops plans for a national education service. 

But what are the options available to them to change how school inspection and accountability system works?

Scrap inspection grades?

Some critics of Ofsted have suggested the inspectorate need to stop giving schools an overall inspection grade.

The report by the EDSK (Education and Skills) thinktank made this recommendation on the basis that the watchdog has never produced research to show its inspection grades are reliable. It argued that parents can be given false assurance through Ofsted grades.

And there have been several calls in the past year for the inspectorate to no longer attempt to boil down its findings into a single grade.

Pros: It would deal with the criticism that some have about the reliability of inspectors’ judgements.

It could also end the exemption on outstanding schools being inspected.

Cons: Ofsted stays – a problem for some critics – and Labour would still face questions about what the replacement system would look like and whether they were letting down parents by taking away graded reports.

Ofsted has also warned that if grades are replaced with a pass/fail system, it would counterintuitively make the inspections even more high stakes for schools.

Abolish Ofsted?

The most radical reform Labour could propose would be to abolish the inspectorate altogether.

The NEU teaching union has repeatedly called for this and has made representations to Labour about the need for radical change. It is also already a policy of the Liberal Democrats.

Pros: It would be a very popular move with some teachers and some teaching unions.

It would appeal politically as it could be seen as a decisive move to improve recruitment and retention and a way of demonstrating that the party backs and trusts teachers.

Cons: Like its recent announcement on scrapping Sats, Labour would face serious questions about what it was intending to replace Ofsted with.

How would schools be held to account? 

Where would parents turn to for information about schools? 

And how would Labour deal with the accusation that it was going soft on school standards?

Peer Reviews

In a self-improving school system, could peer reviews be used to replace or complement independent school inspection?

The NAHT heads' union, which has been one of the most high profile critics of Ofsted, has suggested creating a national programme of peer review to lead on school improvement.

Its accountability commission suggested that existing peer-review programmes in schools be evaluated to establish what works in order to then develop a national accreditation programme of peer review.

Pros: This would signal to the teaching profession that it has the trust of politicians. 

Peer review may prove to be a useful way of empowering schools to support school improvement.

Cons: There would be major questions about such a system replacing some or all of Ofsted’s work.

How do you select who carries out the reviews? How do you quality assure the findings? What would the consequences be for a school found to be failing? 

And, crucially, would parents accept and trust the findings of peer reviews?

Boost local accountability of schools

Labour is understood to be consulting on how local democratic accountability works under its new national education service; school inspection has been a part of this discussion.

Could the new NES create a new system of local oversight of schools to ensure that schools are held to account? Could the role of local councils be enhanced? Or could the NES involve the creation of new structures or decision making bodies?

Last year, education secretary Angela Rayner said that she was not looking to recreate the local education authority system.

She said the new service would not “sit within a local government setting but would be a national education service in its own right.”

Pros: Any policy that is seen to enhance local democratic accountability of schools will prove popular with those who claim there is a deficit of local public decision making or oversight in the current multi-academy trust model.

Cons: There are practical questions about how this would work. Local councils have seen their school improvement capacity severely cut back over the past decade.

And creating new systems or organisations with local responsibility could mean more disruption for the sector and another level of bureaucracy for schools to come to terms with.

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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