From The Editor - It is up to Ofsted to pour oil on troubled waters

Gerard Kelly

Ofsted has never been popular. Inspectors never are. But the chorus of disapproval it has endured recently is unprecedented. Kinder things are said about the Murdochs. Secondary heads vented their fury at the inspectorate in March. Their primary colleagues, it seems, are no less outraged.

Ahead of its conference, and in a fine display of chutzpah, the NAHT heads' union has echoed Ofsted's invitation to parents to rate schools by asking its members to do the same for inspectors (see pages 32-34). It diplomatically calls this website School View, although HowduffwasyourHMI would probably better capture the spirit.

With commendable sangfroid, Ofsted has welcomed the union's engagement with its work, while robustly defending the credentials of its staff. But even the most imperturbable inspector will find the results of the NAHT's accompanying survey a little hard to brush off. Headteachers, in proportions that would embarrass a North Korean politician, think that Ofsted's judgements are unsupportive, unacceptable and politically offside. Significant minorities even believe that the inspectorate does nothing to raise standards. Ouch.

Many of these criticisms are not new. Schools have long complained that Ofsted is happier with raw data than considered judgements; more accustomed to ensuring compliance than offering advice; delighted to accuse but reluctant to support. Previous chief inspectors were also accused of being too close to the government and too remote from the profession.

Some complaints should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Individual examples of HMI lunacy, although gleefully reported in TES, are hard if not impossible to quantify. And however genuinely angry those failed by an Ofsted inspection feel, there is no objective way of knowing if those feelings are justified. Are they bitter because they were wronged, or because they lost?

Yet the sheer tsunami of fury directed at Ofsted recently is without precedent. And it's not hard to discern why. Not only does it have a new and vocal chief, but there is also a new inspection framework, which recently replaced the old new framework and which will shortly be superseded by the vastly improved totally new framework. All at a time when the government is overhauling the entire school system. The criteria have changed, the grades have been rearranged and satisfactory no longer is.

When the ground has shifted so much, is it any wonder that heads feel vulnerable? Of course, things will settle down; they always do. And before long, the totally new framework will look shopworn and in desperate need of replacement.

But in the meantime, Ofsted should pour oil on choppy waters. It should be more transparent about the experience of its inspectors. As it's demanding more of schools, why shouldn't it expect more of its staff? It should start to question whether, in an increasingly fragmented system, a watchdog can and should rely partly on private contractors. It might usefully pick a few fights with the government - over local commissioners or routine inspection for outstanding schools, for instance. Above all, Ofsted should rediscover balance. It would be much easier to accept its judgements if it was as vocal about celebrating success as it is in spotlighting failure.

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Gerard Kelly

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