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'Let's have a sensible conversation about Ofsted. And avoid sounding like Donald Trump'

We need to think carefully about what we do about school inspection, writes the leader of a heads' union. Abolition could lead to over-reliance on data

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Reliable sources inform me that the government has a secret plan to appoint Donald Trump as the next chief inspector of schools. His evidence-based policy, dislike of the limelight and familiarity with the diversity of the English education system are exactly what we need at this point in time. 

This is no more a serious suggestion than some of the others made at the weekend. The point of such announcements at this stage is not to secure a successor but to divert attention from the current incumbent, whose criticisms of free schools, academy chains, teacher recruitment and selective education are increasingly inconvenient for the government. 

Be careful what you wish for

There is little doubt that the next chief inspector will both signal and be expected to deliver a radical change in direction for school inspection. Some will call for the inspectorate to be abolished or dramatically reduced. To many teachers, smarting from poor inspection results or some less than nuanced policy pronouncements, this may seem attractive. But be careful what you wish for.

A world without inspection is not a world without accountability. It is a world where accountability is delivered via the league table alone. A world of data rather than insight, focused on quantities rather than qualities. Is this really a step forward?

Even a slimmed down inspection service has its risks. It depends on the choice of diet. Slimmed down via a narrow regimen of raw data – the reform equivalent of the cabbage diet – and it becomes little more than a verification exercise, checking that the numbers add up. That's a very expensive way to crosscheck a spreadsheet. There are ways to slim down the inspection burden but doing it via a greater reliance on data carries high risks.

Ofsted undermines itself

If poor data is the only trigger for an inspection, for example, how do you spot schools where the results are being achieved in the wrong way – at the expense of a broad curriculum for example? And why would you want to wait for years before you become aware of a problem and need to provide a brutal intervention when agentle nudge would have worked at an earlier stage? There is no substitute for understanding what is happening inside a school. This is why Ofsted undermines itself when it relies too heavily on published statistics and why I welcome the recent shift away from 'data' to 'evidence' in the new framework. 

What might be the right steps in reforming inspection? It can be toned up. A regulator like Ofsted should concentrate on spotting shortcomings not defining excellence. It should focus on the RI/Good borderline and promote and moderate peer-review for other schools. Poor data or concerns during a peer review could then trigger formal inspection in other circumstances. 

Balance ends and means

We should reduce our reliance on the outstanding grade. It has become a bottleneck in school-to-school support. There are many good schools with much to offer other institutions, and opening up their involvement could help make educational excellence everywhere a reality. Outstanding in Ofsted terms is in any case no guarantee that you'll be a great teaching school or coach. 

We also need to strike a balance between ends and means. Ofsted has attracted criticism in recent years for promoting a particular view of education practice. In part, having a view about how results are achieved is one of the advantages of inspection over raw data. But there are two sorts of 'how'. There are values and principles and there are methods and practices. A value might be equality - that no pupil is discriminated against - or integrity - that high results are not achieved by excluding low performers. A method or practice might be a particular style of classroom management, direct instruction versus project work, synthetic phonics. The deal could be this: where a school is delivering good results it is assessed on results and values. Where a school is not delivering good results it is assessed on values and methods. You win the right to determine your own methods when they work. If you're not delivering, however, then you do need guidance on how to adjust to improve rather than just being told you're not good enough.

Pass ownership to the profession

This is really just a restatement in the context of inspection of the old principle of earned autonomy. It will make inspection far more about engagement with the understanding, planning and values of the leadership team.

Over time I would hope that ownership of methods would pass entirely to the profession, through the mediation of institutions like the College of Teaching and the Education Endowment Foundation. Methods should be evidence based. An autonomous profession fairly held to account for results delivered with principles, and with access to a rich source of evidence for what works will not need to be coerced. We have long passed that point. 

Inspection is not a remedy for all our problems and not the source of all of them. It is part of the mix of institutions and agencies that surround schools. But our education system has transformed itself from the era when Ofsted was first designed. Old battles have been won and new ones are emerging. Ofsted must change too. 

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union. He tweets as @russellhobby

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