Why the increase in inspections is damaging for Ofsted

Schools are still hugely impacted by Covid - so why is Ofsted so keen to ramp up inspections, asks Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Covid and schools: The increase in school inspections will damage Ofsted, warns Geoff Barton

Here’s a true story from a headteacher.

Earlier this year his school was on the receiving end of a bomb threat. On the advice of the police, he was told to put the school into immediate lockdown.

He called his senior leadership team together for an urgent meeting and, ashen-faced, they gathered in his office. “We’ve had a bomb threat,” he told them. “The police have said we need to lock down the school."

When all of this was safely dealt with, several of his team confessed to a sense of relief. They had thought they were being summoned to an urgent meeting because Ofsted was coming.

The fear of Ofsted school inspections

That tells us a lot about the pervasive anxiety that inspection can induce – when a bomb threat is somehow less worrying than the prospect of an Ofsted visit.

Now, of course, no leader or teacher is ever likely to relish the thought of an inspection. It is a judgement by outsiders on the school or college into which you pour your heart and soul, day after day.

But most educators also accept the necessity of having a system for externally checking standards in an important public service responsible for teaching and safeguarding the nation’s children and young people.

All that they ask is for that system to be fair. And there’s a growing sense among many of us that the inspectorate is currently passing judgement in circumstances that are anything but fair.

It's not business as usual in schools

Schools and colleges are coping with unpredictable bouts of absence among their pupils and staff caused by Covid-19. Leaders and staff are often on their knees after 20 months of battling through the pandemic delivering remote education, public health duties and meals to their pupils.

The thought of being grilled by an Ofsted inspector while endeavouring to cope with staff absence, delivering online and in-class teaching to different pupils simultaneously and all the other expectations being piled upon them makes inspection feel like the final straw.

Ofsted, however, is ploughing on regardless. It has rejected the Association of School and College Leaders’ (ASCL) modest suggestion that it should grant deferrals on request – a request that would place trust in the judgement of leaders and governors about whether inspection in their context at this time was appropriate.

That’s because we know from some of our members that the prospect of an inspection – where Covid has affected them less – has actually enabled them to maintain a focus on the curriculum. So this isn’t a rerun of the "Pause Ofsted" campaign. It’s a request for a deferral process built on empathy and trust.

Hence the reasonableness of our request.

The 'right reasons'?

Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman assured an audience at the Schools and Academies Show this week that Ofsted responds sensitively when schools are facing particularly acute challenges.

“But it’s absolutely right that we look at each request individually. Not every school is the same, and we have to make sure – for children’s sake – that inspections are being postponed for the right reasons,” she said.

What do you make of that phrase "for the right reasons"? What is being implied there about the leaders of schools and colleges, the people who have dedicated their lives to education and have shown some of the most courageous and public-spirited values of the pandemic?

No wonder that delegates loudly applauded a deputy headteacher who told Ms Spielman that he “profoundly disagrees” that now is the right time to roll out inspections.

This deputy, Matthew Chancellor, said: “I cannot explain to you how differently our school is operating during the Covid climate…I do think you should wait until we are back to normal a little bit more before you decide to go into schools and change judgements on schools, which would have a profound effect on them.”

Indeed.

Loaded dice

And then there is Ms Spielman’s comment to BBC Radio 4's Today programme a couple of weeks ago, when she said that cutting the proportion of "outstanding" schools by half might be a “more realistic starting point for the system".

Whatever she meant by this, it is – surely – decidedly odd to suggest that a certain number of schools will be downgraded before they have even been inspected.

The inspectorate already accepts that a school moving from "outstanding" to "good" may simply be a result of the application of a different inspection framework rather than any change in standards.

The idea that there is some sort of notional number floating around about how many schools will be downgraded will reinforce the feeling that the dice are being loaded in a certain direction.

The public will find all of this baffling. Leaders and teachers affected will find it deeply unfair. It doesn’t seem to be of any help to anybody at all.

Of course, the fairness of Ofsted inspections has long been a source of controversy. But through normal times ASCL has supported the new inspection framework. But these are not normal times

A vicious circle

And, of course, schools in deprived communities facing the greatest challenges have tended to fare worst under the system.

Ofsted’s defence is that it has to draw attention to schools where children are not receiving the standard of education they deserve, regardless of the circumstances that caused this.

The trouble, of course, is that Ofsted judgements often stigmatise these schools and make improvement harder to secure. It is a vicious circle.

But the current rift between the inspectorate and the profession suddenly feels more serious, possibly because the experience of the past 20 months has been so bruising.

Ofsted insists it recognises this. 

“I know this really isn’t ‘business as usual’,” Ms Spielman told the Schools and Academies Show.

And yet that is exactly how the resumption of Ofsted inspections feels, and, as a result, it is hard to remember a time when the profession’s opinion of the inspectorate has been quite so low.

Directions from above

Of course, this isn’t all Ofsted’s fault. As Ms Spielman pointed out, the reinstatement of routine inspections was a ministerial decision.

And the government has yet again managed to display its ability to be tone-deaf at all times by splashing out £24 million on accelerating Ofsted inspections over the next three years.

But from me – a grizzled former headteacher – a word of advice to the new team of ministers: if your answer is “hold more inspections”, then you’re asking the wrong question.

This is the same government, after all, which has failed to invest anything like the amount of funding that is required for education recovery following the pandemic.

Talk about wrong priorities.

And, frankly, all this talk of how much Ofsted or ministers are to blame is immaterial. What matters is that schools and colleges feel dumped on again, as they have so often been dumped on over the past 20 months

If ever there was a time for empathy from Ofsted in recognition of what life is like for all of those in our schools and colleges, then it is now.

And without it, from where I sit, it feels that the damage to Ofsted’s reputation may just prove irreparable. 

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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