Editorial: Ofsted inspectors should trust their instincts

What does a good school look like? What does it sound like? What does it feel like? If you're partial to school dinners, you may even have an idea of what it should smell and taste like.

The truth is that within a few minutes of walking through the gates, most teachers and headteachers will be able to tell you if a school is any good.

Unfortunately, this isn't true of parents, politicians or the wider community. Although many people will get a gut feeling for the school on an open day, they also rely on the twin teacher nemeses: league tables and Ofsted. Thus, for the English education community, the changes in the pipeline for both of these systems are a very big deal.

Perhaps surprisingly for an initiative born out of Michael Gove's generous reforming bosom, the government's new accountability measure, Progress 8, is hard to argue with. It is, as its name suggests, rather progressive. Gone (hallelujah!) is the obsession with the C-D boundary that stemmed from hanging everything on five good GCSEs including English and maths. In its place will be a system that attempts to measure the improvements a school achieves with the raw material of its intake.

Of course, there are pros and cons. For example, the worry that the lowest achievers may not garner the attention they deserve because it is easier to make progress with more able children is a valid one. Similarly, some schools will be winners and others losers. Certainly, some teachers will be horrified by the outcome for their school.

But let's not be picky. Unless some awful glitch emerges in the coming months, overall the new system will be better for schools and better for pupils than its predecessor.

The fact remains, however, that when Progress 8 is introduced from 2016 it will have something very striking in common with the former system. It will not reflect the look, sound, smell or feel of a school: it will still be a number based on data.

This is why visits by Ofsted's army of flesh-and-blood inspectors are so important - and why they are so distrusted. Many in the education community will have been surprised to discover yesterday that changes to the inspection regime currently being considered are largely positive. For example, most will welcome the end of the torture of individual lessons being graded. Most will be pleased that no-notice inspections are not being introduced across the board. Few will want to argue with a greater emphasis on curriculum.

But nothing in the document addresses perhaps the most significant criticism of Ofsted - that its inspectors are far too reliant on the data when they make their judgement, that they arrive prejudiced by spreadsheets. One teacher I know emailed me earlier this week to describe how his colleagues were "running around trying to get their data in order" because they'd just heard the inspectors were due.

We rely on inspectors to see beyond the data on a school visit, to have the eyes and ears of the teachers and headteachers most of them once were.

Perhaps we should construct a system in which inspectors arrive at a school data-blind and instead rely on their instincts. Now that would be interesting.


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