'It’s time to put Ofsted out of its misery'

Schools need to be accountable, but the current system doesn’t sharpen accountability – it muddles and confuses it

Bernard Trafford

It's time to put Ofsted out of its misery_editorial

Few teachers will have resisted a feeling of schadenfreude on reading how Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman “disappointed” MPs, according to a report published by Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.

Little appears to please the honourable members. Short of cash and inspectors, Ofsted is struggling to maintain its inspection programme. The committee report says the inspectorate’s lost 52 per cent of its funding in real terms since 2000. Currently, it has a mere £44 million (from its overall budget of £151 million) to spend on schools.

Far be it from me to suggest that those millions might be more usefully employed in providing three additional classroom assistants in every school (even shared among some 20,000 English schools, £151 million is a tidy sum), or that inspectors might cover the shortfall by behaving like teachers in underfunded schools, working ever longer hours for no additional pay.

MPs disapprove of the fact that schools previously rated outstanding are not re-inspected, and are unhappy that one-day short inspections provide insufficient information. Above all, they complain that Ofsted is “not providing the level of independent assurance about the quality of education that schools and parents need".

There’s more grief for Ms Spielman. MPs want her to use her position more to “speak freely, without fear or favour”. By contrast, her predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, was seldom short of an opinion, frequently to MPs’ chagrin.

She says it’s not her role to generalise. Sticking rigidly to the HMCI brief – to make judgements based solely on evidence rigorously (we’re assured) gathered by her teams of inspectors – she declined to offer broader views about the effectiveness of the school system or the effects on schools of the funding squeeze. 

This week saw the publication of NAHT’s Accountability Commission report. This important and welcome document urges a complete rethink of inspection. But for me, it doesn’t go far enough.

Ofsted is failing in its mission. Its schedule is slipping. MPs reckon one-day inspections aren’t delivering the goods: and schools know that such snapshot judgements are dangerous when the stakes are so high. The Inspectorate and the Department for Education are at loggerheads about both the narrowing of the curriculum and the very nature of inspection.

It gets worse. MPs’ insistence that inspections must give “valuable information to parents” is founded on the deeply flawed assumption that it’s possible to do that in the required shorthand, that one-word overall judgments have any useful meaning. The NAHT commission rightly deplores the use of “outstanding”.

The early 1990s saw huge teams of inspectors diving into every aspect of schools’ operation. Laudable thoroughness, perhaps, but it was clear such massive operations would quickly collapse under their own weight. The cumbersome system was saved by the exponential growth of computerised data-collection, though that technological breakthrough brought a damaging consequence in its wake. Over-reliance on data created intolerable pressure on schools and teachers: in Tes this week ASCL’s Geoff Barton rightly complains that Ofsted has become synonymous with teaching, rather than learning.

Ms Spielman wants to turn the clock back and revert to a broader, more qualitative judgement of schools. We’ve been there before: the proposal would merely rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic once more. How many times must we go round the same loop before someone has the courage to admit that inspection itself will never be made to work satisfactorily?

Make no mistake: schools must be accountable – accountable above all to the pupils and parents they serve. But our centralised and expensive top-down mechanism doesn’t sharpen accountability, it muddles and confuses it, promotes the measurable over the important – and pushes schools in directions they shouldn’t take.

Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee appears to have glimpsed this truth momentarily but remains stubbornly blind to the fact that it is scrutinising what Boris Johnson might term a turd – one which, moreover, will not be improved by any amount of French-polishing.

Schools know the truth: it’s time to put Ofsted out of its – and their – misery.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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