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'Ofsted's culture change will be treated with suspicion, but teachers should welcome it'

Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

After many years of ignoring criticism from teachers, academics and others and resisting fundamental changes through a never-ending series of minor piecemeal adjustments Ofsted is finally proposing major changes to inspection.

It appears to be moving from what has too often been a negative approach focusing on what is wrong to a more supportive developmental one focusing far more on celebrating success in most schools and how to work with those schools to make them even better. That’s a profound mind-shift – which some inspectors will find difficult to make and which some school leaders will find hard to acknowledge after years of suspicion, anxiety and even hostility to Ofsted inspection teams.

The proposals are part of what I have previously described as a cultural shift in Ofsted. It is planning to alter the frequency and pattern of its inspections, to devise a common inspection framework, to take on more HMI and to directly employ additional inspectors, including an increased number of school and college leaders on brief attachments or longer secondments.

There are very real benefits to the proposed changes. Perhaps most importantly they should enable many more schools to focus on the further improvement of teaching quality and educational standards rather than devoting disproportionate amounts of time and anxiety preparing for inspection.

Those schools requiring intervention and advice based on expert classroom observation are more likely to receive it. The new arrangements should also improve Ofsted’s knowledge of local developments and better inform government of what is happening, including the effects of its policies on the education service as a whole.

My only major reservation relates to Ofsted’s proposal to restrict its remit to non-association independent schools, rather than the whole gamut of private provision. There can be no educational justification whatsoever for treating independent schools differently from state schools in terms of inspection.

Leading independent schools are quite happy to quote examination data when justifying their privileged position; they should be equally happy to quote comparable inspection outcomes. Ofsted needs to rethink its position and to work “without fear or favour” to develop a reformed inspection framework which does justice to all schools – LA, academies, free schools and independent ones. The challenge for the whole of the private sector is to accept it – with good grace.

The chief inspector has been wise not to proceed to introduce routine use of no-notice inspections. Once the culture of inspection has changed these should not prove contentious in principle but changes of mind-set take time. A culture of mutual respect between schools and inspectors needs to be in place and it isn’t there as yet. Ofsted should allow time for its other changes to take effect before re-considering this issue.

Changing the culture of Ofsted and its relationship with schools will not be easy; it will be met with suspicion, even denial, by those within and outside the organisation. But these proposals represent a major opportunity for inspection reform which the teaching profession should welcome.

Related stories:

Ofsted announces another U-turn over no-notice inspections - 09/10/2014 

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