Can Ofsted cease to be part of the problem?

You can't really expect school leaders to fall in love with Ofsted. However, if we work together...

Nick Brook

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Yesterday, at the launch event of the new mental health charity, Invincible Me, Amy Shocker, their inspirational founder, provided the following advice: 

"Fall in love with the problem, not the solution"

It’s an interesting reflection. How often do we become so invested in a solution that we become unable to take an objective view as to whether it is working? How easy is it to see and hear only what we want to when we’ve invested our heart and soul into an activity or project? How difficult is it to encourage honest appraisal from others for our pet projects, when to receive criticism would be akin to hearing our baby described as ugly?

Over the last few months, I have been critical of Ofsted for their proposals to change short inspection. Along with many of NAHT’s members, I like short inspection. But as argued elsewhere, I think we need an honest appraisal about whether the cost of new proposal outweighs the benefits. I suspect that, when it comes to short inspection, we may have fallen in love with the solution, not the problem.

Today’s announcement of a new five-year strategy for Ofsted is very welcome, and suggests that the chief inspector has both fallen in love with the complex problems of making Ofsted a force for good while having also had a good look at the barriers that are getting in the way. The ambition that Ofsted should be a force for improvement, and implicit acceptance that they can sometimes act as a brake on progress, is extremely welcome.  Let me draw out three points of particular significance:

Firstly, Ofsted has said that they will work on improving reports to parents – to say more clearly what makes that school distinctive, unique and exceptional and be less reliant on data to do so. We’ve argued long and hard for an acceptance of the inherent limitations of data as an indicator of school effectiveness so this is a step in the right direction.

We’d encourage Ofsted to be bold and go further and remove the "outstanding" grade altogether. The grade boundary is so blurred that there is often little that sets many outstanding schools apart from those judged "good". A single-word judgement hides the truth that there is much that is exceptional within less-than "outstanding" schools, and there is many an Achilles heel within even the most successful schools in receipt of the top judgement. Research into the impact of grading and key judgements may well open the door to this prospect.

Secondly, Ofsted wants to be able to scrutinise multi-academy trusts in the same way as they currently inspect local authorities – we’d strongly agree. The NAHT view is that the trust that runs a MAT should be subject to routine inspection, and such inspections ought to include an element of rigorous financial accountability. However, to get the power to inspect a MAT is likely to require legislation and it is highly unlikely that this would be prioritised and brought forward whilst Brexit dominates parliamentary time.

Thirdly, Ofsted is serious about looking at the "Ofsted deterrent" that dissuades good people from working in tough schools. It has said that it will take a hard look at the validity of judgements and the undesirable incentives emanating from fear of Ofsted. The inspectorate has pledged to get underneath the issue of unconscious bias among inspectors to prevent inaccurate and unfair judgements on schools in disadvantaged areas.

Ending this Ofsted deterrent could be the single most important improvement that could be made to inspection. Encouraging, not dissuading, great people to work in tough schools is key to increasing equity of opportunity between schools and supporting equality of opportunity for all students. These problems run deep, as research by the Education Policy Institute demonstrated earlier this year, which suggested that the inspection system may not be fully equitable to schools with challenging intakes.

It is clear that it will take much more than myth-busting to solve this problem.

There has been a seismic shift in approach at Ofsted since Amanda Spielman took over from Sir Michael Wilshaw nine months ago. Amanda has shown a strong desire to talk and a willingness to listen. Unlike announcements of old, Ofsted’s new strategy has not been developed in the dark but is the result of open discussion with the profession and leadership associations.

The strategy is well worth a proper and full read, the new chief inspector’s assessment of the challenges is refreshingly honest. There seems a clear desire on the part of to work collaboratively, openly and respectfully with the thousands of professionals who are charged with the responsibility of educating our nation’s children. Our regular discussions with Ofsted will now focus on how its new strategy can be achieved, so that where a school demonstrates particular strengths, this can be recognised for the benefit of that school’s community, and shared so that all schools can benefit from what Ofsted learns in every school it visits.

Ofsted has been seen over many years as the problem, and I don’t think that school leaders have ever fallen in love with it. However, in working together, we hope inspection will cease to be part of the problem, the profession can take ownership of standards as they ought, and everyone will have a stake in arriving at the solution.

Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union. He tweets at @nick_brook 

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