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Forget a new framework – we need to revisit accountability

The problem of paralysing schools lies in inspection itself, not the framework in use at any one time, writes Bernard Trafford

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An old friend of mine was obliged to retire from journalism by the onset of leukaemia. He survived it, but occasionally the disease returns. Fortunately, he’s an optimist; asked how a recent battle was going, he replied, “At least the latest recurrence has killed off my diabetes!”

It’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good, and we might apply that old adage to Ofsted’s proposed new framework. One might hope that any new look at inspection would bring about improvements, and this new focus may do so – but it threatens to create as many problems as it solves, if not more.

In a thorough and trenchant critique of the new framework, the Headteachers' Roundtable group and the WorthLess? campaign listed many of the problems that those redoubtable school leaders anticipate, and with good reason. Three stood out for me.

Their view of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) as a problem accords with mine. That arbitrary selection of “more worthy than other” GCSE subjects has become a government benchmark, and the basis of the league tables that exert such a powerful (and malevolent) influence on what schools do.

However, it’s not part of a regulatory requirement, merely a Govean whim now set in stone. I’ve written previously about the damaging effect of creating a hierarchy of subjects – the fears of Roundtable-WorthLess? that the EBacc’s establishment as a quasi-official measure will see Ofsted become its official enforcer, compromising the inspectorate’s independence.

The next concern is workload. As many commentators have observed, many schools are already labouring to review their curricula. Previously satisfied with their offer, they’re now examining what they need to change. Why? Not for the good of pupils and their educational experience, but because they’re trying to second-guess what Ofsted’s expectations will be. Forget children, pupils or local community, it’s all about feeding the insatiable rottweiler of inspection.

I can already hear robust right-wingers pouring scorn on any headteacher so craven as to be pushed hither and thither by every change of direction by Ofsted. But such critics lack any concept of the pressures on schools and their leaders not merely to achieve certain measurable standards, but additionally now to demonstrate the curricular pattern that they think/hope the inspectorate will expect to see. When reputation, funding and jobs may all depend on the outcome, it’s a rare institution that’s strong-minded enough to be totally unswayed by the threat of an impending Ofsted visit.

The threat remains potent. Ofsted is no one’s friend – but neither is it a truly impartial judge of school quality or performance, since it is essentially an arm of government. Thus the Roundtable-WorthLess? verdict is also against the proposed short-notice visit from the lead inspector in advance of full inspection the following day: it’s a dangerously short step from that position to no-notice inspections.

Again, those harsh voices may ask, what’s the problem with no-notice inspection? Health inspectors come without notice to inspect kitchens (in schools, as in the finest restaurants in the country). And so they should. But it’s a very simple operation to examine absolutely measurable standards of cleanliness, food preparation and storage – and a “failure” is easily rectified. Judging the performance of a school, with its millions of personal interactions every day, and its kaleidoscope of pupils’ backgrounds and circumstances that powerfully affect the way school works for them, is a very different matter.

No-notice inspections can conceivably work. After all, restaurant critics do it (back in 2011, I wrote an only slightly tongue-in-cheek piece advocating an AA Gill approach to school inspection). More seriously, former HMI Roy Blatchford has pioneered so-called “blink” inspections. Light touch, a swift in-and-out, an impression formed and advice given founded in huge experience.

All useful stuff – but you can’t do it when the stakes are as high as our accountability system renders them. The problem of paralysing schools lies in inspection itself, not the framework in use at any one time. It’s time to revisit and revise the purpose and nature of school accountability. Until we do, we’re merely rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets at @bernardtrafford

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