On Ofsted’s future, there’s everything to play for

Ofsted is currently subject to much speculation and scrapping. How this will play out is anyone’s guess

Inspectors to monitor handover of power to heads

I’ve written a lot about Ofsted this summer – and discussed it even more.

Everywhere you go in the world of education policy, educationists, wonks, civil servants, trade unionists, journalists and school leaders have wanted to chat about what’s going on with Amanda Spielman and Ofsted’s plans for a new inspection framework.

This framework, which is likely to give “curriculum thinking” primacy over both exam results and teaching and learning when inspectors report, is due to be given its first public airing with a public consultation at the start of 2019, and then become formalised in the autumn that follows.

So much, so good. But over recent months – as London has baked – it has become clear that this is far from a done deal. Certainly, the new framework is not enjoying an unchallenged procession into the inspectorate’s modus operandi.

So, what’s going on? Well, it’s become close to common knowledge that the Department for Education is far from keen on any change of framework, mainly because it thinks the change could have a big impact on workload – and therefore teacher recruitment and retention. There are also those who doubt Ofsted’s ability to successfully undertake such major, and sensitive, reform.

Ofsted, in turn, has made it clear that it is determined to push on with its reforms, whatever education secretary Damian Hinds and his people may want. Spielman and her entourage believe that their proposals would in fact cut workload by reducing pressure on data and exam results.

But these are not the only two players in the “What Should Ofsted Do Next?” game.

The NAHT schools leaders’ union, which under its previous general secretary Russell Hobby became quietly adept at influencing DfE thinking (see recent, sensible changes to primary assessment), will in the coming weeks publish a report from its accountability commission. Sitting all summer, this commission was made up of many of education’s great and good and can be expected to come up with a radical-but-sensible vision that goes to the very heart of inspection.

And then there’s a completely unrelated pincer movement from the right. I understand that one right-leaning, and influential, Whitehall think tank is considering publishing a report in the coming months that calls for a total overhaul of the inspectorate and how it works. 

It is possible that rather than simply rejecting Ofsted’s attempt at self-improvement in favour of a defence of the status quo, Hinds’ DfE might be seduced by an altogether different vision. Not least of all because everyone knows that something has to be done about reintroducing inspection into those schools previously judged as outstanding. They can’t be left to their own devices forever.

Quite how the next few months play out is anyone’s guess.

Brexit might be occupying many of Westminster’s brightest and maddest minds, but at some stage the powers that be in Whitehall are going to have to turn their thoughts to 2018’s other intractable political problem: what to do about Ofsted?

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes

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