Bousted: 'Why Labour's plan is a body-blow for Ofsted'

The joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union outlines the thinking behind Labour's plans for schools

Mary Bousted

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What would today’s announcement that Labour will, if elected, abolish Ofsted mean for teachers and school leaders?

Perhaps most striking is Labour’s announcement that schools will cease to be awarded single grades. This is long overdue. Schools are far too complex, the aspects of their provision far too various, to be judged by a single grade.

Inspections will be conducted by Her Majesties Inspectors – experienced, knowledgable professionals who will replace part-time Ofsted’s additional inspectors, who, on average, fulfil 9 days inspection duty a year. Ofsted has simply been unable to solve the problem of the uneven quality of additional inspectors, with all the consequences this has had for schools in the form of bad inspection judgements. Labour’s proposals have the strongest potential to raise the bar on inspection quality.

Whole-school inspections will take place according to need rather than on a set timetable and will rarely be across a whole school. Qualified subject or age-phase specialist HMIs will conduct targeted inspections into those areas of a school that, evidence indicates, need improvement.

Teachers should be confident, under Labour’s proposals, that their work will be judged by inspectors who are specialists, with the essential subject knowledge and teaching experience to come to valid and reliable judgements – something that Ofsted’s generalist inspectors simply cannot do. (And something that Ofsted has, inexplicably, made worse with its new inspection framework where maths specialists, for example, will be making judgements on the intent, implementation and impact of a school’s English curriculum, or, even worse perhaps, FE managers coming to judgements on a school’s early years curriculum.)

Accompanying the proposed new inspection model, Labour is also committed to school-to-school collaboration – based on the London Challenge model that transformed school standards in the capital. Local authorities will be charged with brokering school partnerships and with supporting schools, through an advisory service, to work together to improve standards for all. No school, under these proposals, will be left abandoned by academy trusts, twisting in the wind and unable to access support from anyone.

Why has Labour made these bold and ambitious proposals? Because the teacher supply crisis is now so acute. The government’s teacher training targets have been missed for the past seven years.  Nearly half of those who do become teachers leave within 10 years of qualifying – and leaving rates are rising earlier and earlier in teachers’ careers with a third leaving within five years.

The government is acutely aware of the problem of teacher supply but its response has been completely inadequate. Ministers know that teachers identify school accountability as the key driver of excessive workload. Ministers know that, despite all their tinkering at the edges, and earnest words about reducing teacher workload, that nothing has happened and that teachers are working harder now than ever before. Ministers know that this situation is unsustainable. But ministers simply have not had the courage to do the most important thing to  raise school standards – which is to create the conditions for schools to be able to employ teachers in the right subject areas.

Speaking privately to me, a long serving government minister admitted that, in his view, Ofsted had, since its inception, been the biggest force for lowering educational standards. Department for Education officials admit, privately, that Ofsted grades are tied much more closely to a school’s pupil intake and that deprived schools are unfairly down graded for the poverty of their pupils.

Up until now, however, ministers and officials have shrugged their shoulders.

This has now changed. Both Labour and the Lib Dems have now committed to Ofsted’s abolition. Whatever the outcome of the imminent election, this is a body-blow to Ofsted.

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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