Leaders of schools and local education authorities face enormous pressure to produce excellent children's services, but findings from a forthcoming DemosGatenbySanderson study suggest that the onus should now be on inspectors to take responsibility themselves.
We expect a lot of our leaders. In education, we expect them to motivate, to innovate, to hold and be held to account, to combine competition, collaboration and, increasingly, to align school standards with the needs of the "whole child". Yet we often forget exactly who all the leaders in an education system really are.
Heads have formal responsibility for their schools, and chief executives for their local areas, but there is another cadre of leaders who often find themselves free from such expectations: the inspectors.
Writing in The TES last month, chief inspector David Bell outlined significant changes to the school inspection regime. But further questions must be asked about the role of Ofsted in the education system. When it was established by John Major's government in 1992, Ofsted's remit was a simple one: to provide information to parents. Through providing clearer, publishable information about schools and LEAs, it was felt that professionals could be made more accountable to the public they served.
Rigorous inspection would replace complacency with excellence.
With experience, however, it has become clear that Ofsted's role can never simply be that of a public information system. Rather than acting as a fly on the wall, the Ofsted inspection team is unavoidably a tangible presence in every school. Inspection actively shapes the context in which it operates, through defining what will and will not be measured, and on what criteria.
Under such circumstances, it is inevitable that accountability will reflect a degree of control from the centre. Funding and official decision-making power may be "devolved to the front line" but, in reality, this is reflected only as far as accountability frameworks will allow it.
The key issue, then, becomes not whether inspection should shape and invigorate a school system, but rather how and to what extent this should play out in practice. Traditionally, government has exercised leadership through inspection. The primary and literacy strategies were good examples of this, as is the more recent instance of the Every Child Matters legislation that followed the death of Victoria Climbie.
The Children Act of 2004 placed no official duty on schools to co-operate with other service providers - the framework for inspection was simply changed to include a wider range of responsibilities for schools. But, as government seeks to specify the features of an excellent service through inspection, simultaneously asking schools to do more and do better, professionals often react by learning to play the system.
Understanding how best to be "Ofsted-ed" becomes an art as schools and other services feel backed into a corner and resort to managing their own reputation, avoiding risks and focusing on creative compliance with the rules.
In this situation, the "coasting" that Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, has described recently can become a way of life. Schools can feel disempowered by a culture in which trying something new, or addressing the wider needs of young people, can seem an unacceptable risk to their reputation, while, for its own part, government is left frustrated when increased effort and resources still produce fragmented services and only incremental improvements. So wherein lies the answer to this conundrum? How can government - which rightly argues that inspection has improved our public services - ensure that professionals are held accountable without suffocating their professional judgement?
Our research with GatenbySanderson suggests that the answer is fivefold.
First, a fourth day should be added to school inspection - exclusively for inspectors to give professional advice to both senior management and individual professionals. This might be understood as "assessment for learning" for teachers.
Second, government should make inspectors explicitly responsible for picking up excellent ideas and spreading them more widely across the school system. In recent years, government has invested a significant amount of time, effort and money in trying to achieve this, and inspectors represent an enormous potential resource in helping this happen. As schools gain greater independence but take on wider responsibilities, this could be invaluable.
Third, government should take steps to ensure that inspectors are credible in the eyes of those they inspect and advise. To this end, inspectors should be required to spend 60 days per year working in schools. This would help to ensure that they are up-to-date with the latest developments in teaching and learning.
Fourth, inspection should be tailored to each individual school in a further step to build credibility. To achieve this, inspectors should be assigned to inspect schools on the basis of their own professional experience. For example, wherever possible, inspectors with experience of working in a small rural school should not be assigned to inspect large schools in large urban areas.
Finally, we should make inspection an attractive career choice to those at the top of their profession, shifting the image of inspectors from hostile imposters to experts on loan. We should increase the minimum requirements for becoming an inspector and aim to make their status equivalent to other leaders in the education system.
David Bell has expressed his confidence in the new inspection arrangements, and they are a positive start. In particular, making self-evaluation the starting point of every Ofsted visit means inspection can start with a school's particular circumstances, objectives, and progress rather than a pre-determined checklist. Further, the introduction of School Improvement Partners (SIPs), whose role is to act as "critical friends" to schools, has set the precedent for the combination of challenge and support from an experienced and credible professional. Now, we must go a stage further and genuinely professionalise inspection to ensure that it really does drive excellence, as originally intended.
Duncan O'Leary is a researcher at the think-tank Demos and co-author of the forthcoming report with GatenbySanderson on leadership in children's services