Have Ofsted's problems only just begun?

The watchdog survived a term of its controversial new inspections largely unscathed. But, with MATs on the attack and an overflowing in tray, Ofsted is entering dangerous waters

William Stewart

Have Ofsted's problems only just begun?

Ofsted should be riding high. It has survived an election in which its very existence was called into question and emerged with the full backing of the victorious party.

That is quite a turnaround. It wasn’t that long ago that a Conservative government was considering drastic surgery on the inspectorate

Department for Education unhappiness with the way the watchdog was being led was such that one adviser wrote that it was "worth thinking about the whole Ofsted approach with a blank sheet of paper".

Today that same adviser, one Dominic Cummings, is master of all he surveys across Whitehall. Yet the government is happy not only to mount a fierce defence of Ofsted, but it is prepared to cough up to expand the length of its inspections.

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Better still for chief inspector Amanda Spielman, ministers are backing her own long-held ambition to go back to routine inspection for "outstanding" schools.

She has also managed a term’s worth of school inspections under a radically different approach that has been relatively trouble-free when compared with the huge levels of trepidation among heads its introduction first provoked.

But real discontent can take time to fully emerge. And now it really is beginning to.

Last week’s Tes exclusive about aggrieved teachers complaining the new inspections were “drawn up over a middle class dinner table” by people with no idea about challenging schools was swiftly followed by two of the country’s most influential academy trusts condemning Ofsted’s "middle-class framework for middle-class kids”.  And then an academy chain founded by schools minister Lord Agnew weighed in.  

And that matters.

England’s largest teaching union complaining that the inspections have created a “tsunami” of extra work for primary teachers could always be batted off with a “well, they would say that, wouldn’t they”. But when the likes of Harris, Outwood Grange and the Inspiration Trust start to get involved, things become much more serious for Ofsted. These organisations will be listened to by ministers, and their intervention means that the watchdog is now under fire from all sides.

And this comes when its stock with teachers is already at a low. Ofsted may have survived the election but it is worth stepping back to reflect on how it could have got to the point at which two out of the three main parties were prepared to abolish it completely.

Extra duties may only make things worse for an inspectorate where money is already tight. The cash injection needed to enable Ofsted to re-inspect "outstanding" schools is subject to the outcome of the government’s next Spending Review, and therefore, by definition, to negotiation.

That is ominous for an organisation that has now been committed to re-inspecting 3,700 schools and colleges by 2025; not to mention its own idea of taking a new approach to “stuck” schools.

And don’t forget that the DfE is already expecting Ofsted to extend the length of inspections at secondaries and large primaries to three days, and to pilot no-notice visits.

Asked by Tes whether the extra £10 million in funding pledged by the Tories to do all this would be enough, Ofsted was tight lipped. The next year could be Ms Spielman’s biggest test yet.

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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