'The fairy tale of the short Ofsted inspection is unlikely to have a happy ending'

The proposed 'good-ish' Ofsted judgement will be seen as a mark of decline – it will damage schools, warns Nick Brook

Nick Brook

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We like short inspection. It is a more proportionate check on "good" schools and, on the whole, it seems to work. Unfortunately, having implemented it, Ofsted now says that the model is unsustainable and needs to change.

The problem for Ofsted is that it simply cannot make short inspection work.

Short inspection requires additional inspectors to be on stand-by for rapid conversion to full inspection. As schools have an annoying habit of remaining "good", in more cases than not these inspection teams-in-waiting are stood down. This is proving to be costly and inefficient. But, as responses to the first consultation made resoundingly clear, Ofsted’s first stab at a solution fell well wide of the mark.

Today, Ofsted has published its second consultation on short inspection with a new offer on the table. And, on the face of it, these new proposals look promising.

If "good" schools look like they have declined, then, instead of immediate conversion to full inspection, they will be told that they are keeping their "good" rating for now, but that they should expect a full inspection next time around. The argument follows that this will give the school and governing board time to address their shortcomings before they are judged – possibly up to three years later, depending on where they are in the inspection cycle. The feedback they receive may well give some insight as to where their vulnerabilities are.

At the end of it, inspectors leave feeling a warm glow, as they are imparting wisdom and doing "good as they go", without having damned the leadership team to an RI judgement or worse (and all that might follow that). Or so the story goes.

'A new unofficial Ofsted rating'

Unfortunately, this story is unlikely to have a happy ending. And it will be in the inspection letter that the seeds of future tragedy will be sown. Ofsted will be compelled to caveat the "good" judgement with a narrative that makes clear its misgivings. Not least to distinguish those "straight-pass, good" schools from the "good-ish" schools that will be getting a follow-up visit. However coded the language is, this will inevitably become an unofficial fifth judgement, sat within the grey area between "good" and "requires improvement".

However it is spun, Ofsted will be saying that it is not certain that the school remains "good". And the public uncertainty of the quality of education provided is the last thing anyone running a school wants to deal with.

I fear that the "good-ish" judgement will come to be seen as a mark of decline and, in turn, become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Anything short of a full-throated, unequivocal "good" will weigh heavy on the shoulders of the leader who presides over a school that was "good", but might not be now. Unfortunate analogies with sinking ships will be made and schools will find it harder to recruit good new teachers, who may be put off from joining a school that may well decline to "requires improvement" in the near future ("Surely better to join a school on the way up, than on the way down," many will argue).

Teacher retention issues may well increase, too. And school leaders might do well to look to the sky as the more unscrupulous academy vultures begin circling at this first sniff of blood, ready to offer a new direction to anxious governors. 

Some will argue, what is wrong with that? Wake-up calls are helpful, aren’t they? And surely better to be branded "good-ish" for a few years than face a "requires improvement" or, even, "inadequate" judgement within days? 

That might follow, if the only outcome of converted inspections was decline, but it is not. Conversion from short to long inspection occurs not just when there is suspicion of decline, but when inspectors simply haven’t been able to form a view. Putting to one side the short inspections that convert because the school has improved to "outstanding", a third of converted short inspections result in the school being confirmed as "good". In 33 per cent of cases, inspectors have simply not been unable to make up their minds in the limited time available during short inspection or, once they have had a fuller-look, have revised their initial concerns and confirmed that the school is still doing well. 

These are not small numbers. Since September 2015, 374 schools were confirmed as remaining "good" following conversion from short to full section 5 inspection. That is 374 schools that, under these proposals, would receive an ambiguous judgement, categorised and treated as something different to other "good" schools, perhaps for no other reason than the indecision of an inspector.

An Ofsted non-judgement will be a sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of leaders, hampering not aiding their efforts to address shortcomings and disrupting improvement. Far from being a force for improvement, Ofsted risks becoming a force for decline. And many genuinely good schools may suffer unfairly. 

I started by saying that we liked short inspection. But what is proposed today is something quite new and must be appraised on its own merits. The erosion of equity, fairness and clarity are surely a price too great to pay.

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

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