In recent weeks, those school leaders who are also Ofsted inspectors have been sent extensive pre-training reading material to digest, marked “Strictly confidential – not to be shared”.
I’ve seen some of this pre-training material. I’ve read the mock transcripts of the 90-minute pre-inspection phone call. I’ve seen detailed material for inspectors, to support them in forming judgements during subject “deep dives”. For the purpose of training to inspect, these materials look absolutely appropriate.
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Haves and have-nots
However, the existence of these materials may come as news to many school leaders, the majority of whom are not Ofsted inspectors. These school leaders are entering the summer break far less informed about new arrangements than their colleagues who inspect.
When it comes to inspection, ours is a system of haves and have-nots, where some schools have considerably greater understanding of what to expect from inspection than others.
This is an issue that is rarely raised, because it is as it has always been. From the moment serving school leaders were invited to take part in inspection, this has been an uncomfortable tension.
The problem is that becoming an inspector is an opportunity that is closed off to some school leaders. If you work in a school that has been judged less than "good", then you are unlikely to meet entry requirements, according to Ofsted’s inspector specification.
Given the correlation between deprivation and Ofsted grade, this means that those schools serving the most disadvantaged communities may well be more in the dark than schools in more affluent areas. If you are the headteacher of a school serving a deeply deprived community, the evidence suggests that, even if you had the time to do it, you would be likely to find yourself ineligible to join the inspection club.
Headteachers’ union NAHT is calling for inspector training materials to be made publicly available to all schools. It cannot be right that some but not all can benefit from access to these materials. Lack of transparency creates myths, and results in snake-oil peddlers selling their “insights”, often based on half-truths, to desperate schools.
Last week, we conducted a snap poll of members to ask them: do you think that open access to Ofsted’s training materials would be helpful to schools and school leaders? We received more than 300 replies within 24 hours, and without exception they all supported the call for Ofsted to make their training materials public.
Open access to these materials has enormous potential to bust myths, increase understanding of what "good" looks like and focus positive action in schools on improving aspects of practice that are lacking. Apart from anything else, it levels the playing field.
It is hard to see any good reason not to.
Some might argue that publishing training materials would add to school-leader workload. I don’t buy this. Uncertainty drives unnecessary workload.
A combination of the lack of clarity about what to expect and the high-stakes consequences of getting it wrong ends in too many schools setting hares racing in an attempt to cover all bases.
Defenders of the status quo might say that materials could be taken out of context or misinterpreted. In reality, not knowing or second-guessing how new arrangements will play out is far more problematic. The materials I’ve seen are well-written, and leave little open to misinterpretation. That said, it would not take much to work through them, with a wider audience in mind, and perhaps make available short training videos, taken at the training events themselves.
The weakest argument I’ve heard against openness is that it would in some way enable gaming of inspection. Inspection doesn’t follow a set path, but is tailored to individual circumstances. Like a driving test, you may well know what is expected of you, but you’ll not know what route the instructor will take.
And, if inspection were such a superficial process that knowing the answers could skew judgements, we’d be facing a much bigger problem than simple transparency of process.
Having common understanding between inspector and school on the process being followed has potential to improve the experience for all. The chief inspector has talked about the process of inspection being “co-created” and shared between inspector and school. Being on the same page, in terms of knowledge, should surely help make this a reality.
Inspection should not be a secret garden. It’s time to unlock the gates.
Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union