Seeing as this government has been endlessly accused of not doing enough to support creative thinking in schools, let us engage our collective imaginations for a brief moment.
Yes, policymaking is often hasty and short-term in nature. But even within the organised chaos of Westminster politics (where I spent most of the past decade), a confluence of events can emerge that was in no way intended, yet still presents an opportunity for those who wish to grasp it. So that you can see this for yourself, let us fast-forward a few years to picture what the education landscape might look like.
After a somewhat lukewarm reception from some headteachers, performance measures for primary and secondary schools based on the progress pupils make rather than raw test results have finally bedded in.
Now, schools and colleges are primarily judged on how effectively they support all pupils, not just those sitting near dubious grade boundaries. With the extensive use of progress data across the system, Sir David Carter and his team of regional schools commissioners (RSCs) – who struggled to gain the confidence of headteachers and ministers at first – have finally been given the resources and remit that they need to identify underperformance in all schools and colleges, not just academies.
Should underperformance or “coasting” be detected, the responsibility for improving pupil progress lies with the groups of schools and colleges (“federations”) that all education providers must now belong to in some form – be it a local community of schools or a larger, more diverse group.
Federation leaders must work together to provide better support for pupils within underperforming institutions and ultimately improve those pupils’ progress. This could involve changes in personnel in either the classroom or senior management teams, depending on the judgement of the federation members.
RSCs carefully monitor changes in pupil progress over the course of two or three academic years as well as assessing the impact of the federation itself on any poorly performing members. If the situation does not improve, the school or college in question – regardless of who owns or operates it – will be passed on to a more successful federation by their respective RSC.
Volley of criticism
Interesting, isn’t it, that you can describe the building blocks of a viable structure for monitoring and intervening in schools without mentioning Ofsted once. The watchdog still requires more than £140 million of government funding each year to perform its duties. It is only reasonable to ask what return we get on that investment.
With an ever-growing mound of research to suggest that lesson observations by Ofsted are painfully unreliable, plus the volley of criticism over just how much its judgements appear to correlate with examination results and progress data (which are available in advance), the question of whether the inspectorate should continue to exist – particularly in its current form – is surely inevitable.
The end of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s tenure as chief inspector in just 12 months’ time means that 2016 could be a defining year for Ofsted. Its fate will also be a defining moment for education secretary Nicky Morgan.
Aside from the Conservative Party manifesto commitment to “further reducing the burden of Ofsted inspections”, in the post-election period, there has been no public discussion from ministers about what lies ahead for the inspectorate.
Having been appointed just before a general election, Nicky Morgan would have been expected (possibly required) to sit on her hands and avoid confrontations with pretty much anyone and anything. However, she has now been in post for 18 months and, in doing so, has already survived longer than the likes of Ruth Kelly, Alan Johnson and Estelle Morris. The longer she stays in post, the more political capital she accumulates.
We will find out soon enough if Ms Morgan is willing to use up some of her political capital on reforming Ofsted, or whether she intends to merely stockpile it for a future role elsewhere in government. If she wishes to play it safe, the easiest option would be for her to appoint a new chief inspector in January 2017 and accompany this with some dreary demands for Ofsted to “listen to the profession” and “continue to evolve”.
In contrast, should Ms Morgan instead wish to create a new kind of inspectorate or perhaps pass its responsibilities to other (arguably better suited) organisations and bodies, she must act decisively and signal her intentions in the near future to avoid injecting a large dose of panic into the education system.
No one who genuinely believes in improving our schools and colleges would support the removal of all external accountability systems. They perform a vital role in identifying weak performance, tackling poor practice, protecting pupils and driving improvement. The decision for Ms Morgan in 2016 is not whether these functions should continue to exist but who is best placed to deliver them.
During my time as a ministerial adviser, I found Ms Morgan to be a thoughtful individual who genuinely wants to do the right thing and, like many politicians, she remains keen to win public approval. Seeing as how the inspectorate has few friends left in government and the wider education community, she could do her popularity – and perhaps even her eventual legacy – a world of good by slaying the Ofsted dragon.
This year, our education secretary has the opportunity to change our entire national approach to school improvement for the better. Let’s hope that she takes it.
Tom Richmond is a teacher and former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education
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This is an article from the 22 January edition of TES magazine. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Or find the magazine in all good newsagents.