Editorial: No one likes Ofsted - but should it care?

Ask most people in England to compile a list of their least favourite organisations and they would probably nominate the European Union, all the main political parties, HM Revenue and Customs, National Car Parks and Fifa. Ask teachers, and Ofsted would most likely trump the lot.

So imagine the confusion in classrooms this week as teachers digested the unexpected but welcome news that Ofsted would no longer grade individual lessons but assess teaching across the whole school instead. Christmas had come early and the Grinch had pulled a cracker. After a year of sustained criticism, the schools inspectorate found itself in the unusual position of coming in for a little praise.

Normal hostilities will doubtless be resumed shortly. The underlying dynamic that pits inspectors against the profession, and latterly against politicians too, isn't going to go away.

Ofsted finds itself in an impossible situation - between a rock and an even bigger rock. It constantly comes under attack from all sides. Some people want to reform it; others to drastically curtail or even abolish it. It unites the reckless Right and militant Left in shared hatred.

It is touted as an independent body. Yet the previous education secretary managed to oust its chair, Baroness Morgan, and the current one has said that she plans to use Ofsted to penalise schools failing to enrol all their pupils in the English Baccalaureate GCSEs. Compared with chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw's task, Sisyphus had it easy.

Much of the criticism has been justified. The inconsistency of judgements, the variable quality of inspectors and the tinkering with reports post-publication have undermined confidence in Ofsted's ability to deliver fair and reliable assessments.

But Sir Michael seems to have taken these complaints on board and has now come out fighting. He wants legislation to force schools to join small clusters, led by a new corps of exceptional headteachers (financially incentivised). His plan is for these clusters to be inspected rather than individual schools, and ongoing changes to be made to how "good" and "outstanding" schools are inspected to eliminate "cliff-edge" inspections.

These measures, together with the abolition of graded lessons and contracted inspectors, are a step in the right direction. But as the inspectorate is carrying out a frank appraisal, perhaps the profession should, too.

Let's be honest: in its 22 years, Ofsted has never been popular, nor is it ever likely to be. Inspections haven't got worse; the consequences of failing them have. Bad judgements these days are career-limiting events. But should those found wanting vent their spleen on those inspecting them?

People resent being judged and they're not going to stop just because Ofsted has updated its procedures. Outrage is suspended, of course, when it confirms long-held prejudices. Exposing dodgy free schools excites the Left as much as highlighting lacklustre local authorities delights the Right.

And if the profession is really being honest, perhaps it should acknowledge one final truth: like HM Revenue and Customs, Ofsted isn't there principally for you; it's there for everyone else.


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