'Jenga tower or Weeble? With confidence in Ofsted waning, is a wobbly watchdog really a good idea?'

Headteachers are voicing concern over the damage Ofsted can do, the Commons education committee wants its remit reduced and the DfE is open to rating teacher training in other ways. TES reporter Helen Ward wonders what lies ahead for the inspectorate

Helen Ward

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If there is a precedent for the long-forecast crumbling of Ofsted, it may not be the expansion and collapse of empires like Rome, but rather Jenga – the game in which a tower is built upwards but only by undermining its foundations.

Seen this way, the resignation of David Hoare as the chair of the board, after his disparaging remarks about the Isle of Wight as an “inbred, poor, white ghetto”, was no more than another wobble, coming as it did after arguments about the appointment of Amanda Spielman to take over from Sir Michael Wilshaw as chief inspector.

Voicing his concerns over the top job, Commons education committee chair Neil Carmichael made the point that the Office for Standards in Education is not just about education any more – and repeated calls for its social care work to be split off.

In the past 11 years, Ofsted has taken on the inspection of childcare, adult learning and children’s social care and, Jenga-like, it has done this as its funding has been reduced by more than £100million from 2004-05 to 2015-16.

The funding is due to be reduced by a further £31.5 million over the next four years – something which, in April’s annual report, Sir Michael said would require “significant change” and a “major transformation programme”.

'Watchdog won't disappear'

Of course, the watchdog is unlikely to disappear. And nor should it: the idea of an inspectorate for institutions funded by public money, whether they are prisons, hospitals or schools, is sound.

But confidence in its ability to inspect, its core purpose, was shaken a few years ago when it failed to identify problems at the “Trojan Horse” schools in Birmingham on first inspection.

Ending the practice of branding teachers with an Ofsted 1 to 4, based on lesson observations, has helped – a bit – to move its image toward the "listening inspectorate", but as one blogger put it in TES: think how much better things would be if Ofsted helped schools improve rather than “just pointing out a school’s shortcomings and walking away from the problem”. 

When the furore around Mr Hoare’s resignation dies down, it is this, and many other small, quiet doubts, which will remain.

For example, the DfE is running a pilot project in which the Ofsted “outstanding” grade is no longer a requirement for a school to successfully apply for “Teaching School” status. This acknowledgement that “outstanding” is not the be-all and end-all – that it is possible for a school to be “good” and still be great, or even outstanding, at training teachers – is a diminution of the power of Grade 1.

The National College for Teaching and Leadership is currently in talks about how teacher-training places will be allocated in 2017, and the whispers are that the worth of the Ofsted grade is being considered there, too – it is not that no quality mark is needed, but what is the real value of the top Ofsted grade? What weight should it carry?

Ofsted still rules almost everything that schools do. But headteachers are becoming more outspoken about the damage it can do, the Commons committee wants to see its remit reduced and the DfE is open to other ways to rate teacher training.

Perhaps, however, Ofsted is less a game of Jenga, and rather more like a Weeble, the toys that “wobble, but don’t fall down”. But is a wobbly watchdog really a good idea?

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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