For many school leaders, Ofsted inspections can be one of the most stressful experiences that they are likely to face during their professional lives. Typically, already high stress levels dial up to maximum the moment the call from Ofsted is taken and pretty much remain at that level until at least the end of inspection.
Now imagine if the process from start to finish took not three days, as is the case now, but well over three weeks. Unfortunately, Ofsted’s consultation on short inspection proposes to do exactly that for a significant number of schools.
A semi-skimmed alternative to full-fat inspection, short inspections were designed as a light-touch health check on previously good schools. And feedback from school leaders that we’ve spoken to has, on the whole, been very positive.
In around one in three cases, these short inspections are converted to a full Section 5. This happens when inspectors have been unable to gather sufficient evidence in the short visit to conclude that the school remains good, or occurs when there is reason to think the school may have improved to outstanding or declined. At present, this conversion happens within 48 hours.
While this process works reasonably well for schools, it is proving to be challenging for Ofsted. To facilitate conversion in one-in-three cases, inspectors need to be poised, ready to descend at a moment’s notice on any one of the schools inspected. And by the sounds of it, inspectors are getting more than a little annoyed at being stood down in two-thirds of cases.
Ofsted is therefore proposing to extend the period between short and full inspections from a maximum of 48 hours to 15 working days, to provide greater certainty and more notice to the inspection workforce about when they will or will not swoop.
A race against time
In potentially solving one problem, by creating greater certainty for inspectors over working patterns, other problems will be created: imagine what will happen in schools that are notified at the end of the short inspection that a full inspection will take place during the next three weeks.
The bold and the brave headteacher may well say "bring it on, we have nothing to fear". But for many schools, 15 days’ notice would sound the starting pistol in a race to plug holes, fill folders and check processes.
How many local authorities or academy trusts could resist the chance to provide "input and support"? Stress and anxiety levels will be at fever pitch – for leaders, staff and their families. With workload and pressure already at unmanageable levels, I fear this could and would drive more and more good people from the profession.
I also fear that Ofsted might well find a bigger problem emerging of perceived inequity in the system. The proposal is that conversion would happen within 15 days – should an inspector be in the area and available then it might well take place much sooner.
Is it fair that two similar schools might be notified of their vulnerabilities at the same time but have dramatically different periods of time to get their houses in order? I think not.
So what is the solution? To their credit, in launching this consultation, Ofsted have made absolutely clear that they value and are open to feedback from the sector. The answer must surely lie in reducing the number of short inspections that need to be converted in the first place.
Perhaps Ofsted needs to look more closely at which schools receive a short inspection. It seems that significantly more short inspections of secondary schools become full inspections, compared to primaries.
This is worth investigation. It is also worth asking whether inspection needs to be tailored more to each phase of education.
We are rightly proud of the diversity of provision in the state sector. We should not change the way schools are inspected just because of administrative convenience. It would be best if any changes did not add to the pressure that schools are already under.
The solution may not be obvious to Ofsted, but the answer cannot result in even more pressure on schools.
Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union. He tweets as @nick_brook