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'Ofsted must trust schools to be agents of their own accountability. Here's how.'

Suzanne O’Farrell, inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders, writes: 

This week, Sir Michael Wilshaw will appear before the Parliamentary Education Select Committee. While the scheduled topic is his annual report into state schools, no doubt there will also be questions raised by MPs about the reliability of inspection, which again recently has been called in to question.

What is interesting is that this time it was Ofsted’s national director, Sean Harford, who publicly acknowledged that the inspectorate does not “directly [ensure] that different inspectors in the [same] school on the same day would give the same judgement.” Ofsted has also admitted that the weakest inspectors have been guilty of using published data as a safety net and not making fully rounded, professional judgements.

As ASCL prepares to share with politicians its blueprint for moving towards a self-improving system, it is timely to reflect on how an inspectorate needs to change in this new landscape to ensure that it is reliable and trusted.

The primary role of the inspectorate is to independently hold schools to account on behalf of taxpayers and parents, and report on the quality of education. As schools become increasingly autonomous, supported through strong strategic partnerships, ASCL believes the role of the inspectorate should no longer be one of both reporter and improver.

Inspectors should report only on the effectiveness of the school based on an assessment of its outcomes – they would not attempt to recommend particular improvements. Intervention, improvement and support would be commissioned and delivered by the profession itself in a way that is sustainable, insightful and relevant.

Inspectors would focus primarily on the review and validation of school leaders’ own self-evaluation of provision and outcomes, and would not award different grades for different aspects as it does now. This would ensure inspectors focus on evaluating outcomes rather than processes, which are open to subjective interpretation and increase unreliability.

Inspectors would not inspect lessons and would not judge the quality of teaching – the impact of the quality of teaching is reflected in the outcomes. It is up to each individual school and leadership team to determine the best way of improving the quality of teaching and developing their staff to suit their school’s journey.

Behaviour also would not be judged separately. In the short time inspectors spend in school, behaviour is often inconsistent which leads to subjective reporting. Inspectors do not have sufficient time to evaluate it thoroughly and effectively. However, checks of equality of access and safeguarding would be undertaken by the appropriate body.

Leadership and management are inevitably synchronised with outcomes and the level of leadership capacity would be determined through a professional conversation with inspectors, reflecting on actions that are contributing to improvement, supported by rigorous evidence-based self-evaluation.
Consequently inspectors would only award one overall grade for the effectiveness of the school based on reliable and valid evidence and discussions with school leaders.

With a slimmer and more realistic brief in the time available, inspectors who are highly trained and fluent in data analysis and assessment would be able to fully understand a school’s journey, its context and its outcomes. Consequently inspectors would be able to report more accurately on their findings against a transparent framework.

The outcomes that an inspector reported on would reflect core defined areas agreed on by the profession; these outcomes would be published for each school each year and form the basis of an annual risk assessment. Where progress and outcomes are secure, schools would not be inspected but where there is a persistent weakness, inspectors would explore this through professional dialogue with school leaders to inform the subsequent report.

Outcomes assessed by inspectors would need to be properly scrutinised and moderated and take account of rich data sources, including a nationally agreed progress measure as well as performance measures which demonstrate that the school is achieving its own vision and aims.

In this self-improving system the credibility of the inspectorate would be increased, as judgments would be transparent, inspections would be proportionate and the framework both stable and respected. The fear associated with unreliability would no longer dominate inspections, and we would be able to move away from a narrow compliance culture.

In this new culture of trust and collaboration in the profession, school leaders can build capacity and develop a growth mind-set which does not have to conform to perceived preferred practices. In this way teachers and school leaders really do become agents of their own accountability.

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