Ministers are due to start banging heads together this week to try to end an unprecedented row between Ofsted and some of the country’s most high-profile academy chains over three-year GCSE courses.
But while schools minister Nick Gibb might be trying to broker peace, what teachers want, need and deserve from Ofsted is some level of clarity, consistency and fairness on some of the most important issues facing schools today.
Under chief inspector Amanda Spielman, Ofsted has become an ambitious, outspoken and morally righteous organisation – quick to go into battle on everything from off-rolling to relationships lessons, illegal schools and league table gaming at the expense of a good curriculum.
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But despite the clear, uncompromising message from on high, when it comes to what the inspectorate is actually doing on the ground, the picture can be a confusing mess.
Off-rolling, we are told by the chief inspector, is not on. Schools should not be “pushing vulnerable pupils out through the back door with little thought to their next steps and best interests”, Ms Spielman said last May.
Ofsted and off-rolling
“Ofsted takes a dim view of off-rolling,” she continued. “When inspectors uncover evidence of this happening, we make it clear in our inspection reports.”
Except that in practice that’s not always proving to be the case. As John Roberts' investigation has shown, sometimes inspectors uncover evidence of off-rolling at a school but then actually don’t say so in their final report.
And the problem isn’t just a case of inspectors failing to follow their chief’s lead. If Ofsted had just quietly dropped its crackdown on off-rolling, that would be one thing.
But in some ways it’s much worse than that. Because sometimes Ms Spielman’s inspectors do what she said they would do on off-rolling. So how can schools and teachers possibly know where they stand?
We have already had an example of two neighbouring schools apparently doing exactly the same thing with the removal of pupils from their roll in Year 11, apparently because of the same local authority arrangements.
In one case "off-rolling" was called out and the school was rated “inadequate”. But in another there was no mention of the school off-rolling in the report and it was left with a “good” grade.
Asked by Tes to account for the inconsistency, Ofsted simply stonewalls, saying: “Our inspection reports speak for themselves.” But they don’t speak for themselves. They only raise further questions and they are questions that teachers deserve to have answered.
Jobs at stake
Some critics have their own theories about what the cause of the discrepancy could be. We may never know. But there is a wider and very important point at stake.
School leaders’ and teachers’ jobs, and sometimes their whole careers, can be ended because of Ofsted’s inspection grades. So the watchdog owes it to them to be consistent, fair and transparent when deciding these ratings.
Surely nobody would disagree with the rhetorical stand Ms Spielman has taken against off-rolling. But if her inspectors only sometimes follow through on it then that matters. This confusion is a problem – one that heads warned of months ago – and there are worrying signs that it could spread beyond off-rolling.
The day before the row over three-year GCSE courses and their impact on the key stage 3 curriculum blew up in public, Ofsted published a blog setting out its stance on the issue. It was almost as if the inspectorate knew what was coming as it sought to reassure schools that it had no “preferred length” for KS3.
Mixed message on three-year GCSEs
However, the message in that blog from Ofsted’s national education director, Sean Harford, was decidedly mixed. He also warned against schools simply extending GCSE teaching over three years. And Harris Federation – an academy trust taking on Ofsted over this issue – says that one of its schools lost its "outstanding" rating precisely because of three-year courses.
Ofsted will say it judges each school on its own particular circumstances and curriculum – which, of course, it should do. But there is a danger that it will be seen as trying to have its cake and eat it – reassuring schools on the one hand and marking them down on the other.
There are a lot of schools running three-year GCSE courses and if they do find themselves being failed by Ofsted as a result then Mr Harford’s words are unlikely to provide much consolation. And it is because the stakes are so high that the least these schools ought to be able to expect from their regulator is consistency.
Ms Spielman has shown no signs of backing down on this issue – quite the reverse – and is said to be prepared to take it all the way. But the Department for Education-brokered meetings between Ofsted and MATs, due to begin this week, are set to put the stand she has made under huge pressure. Ministers want this unseemly public row to end quickly.
It is easy to see how the result might be all parties reaching some kind of face-saving compromise – a fudge that means no one has to climb down in public but everyone gets something they can live with in practice.
That could be the worst thing of all for our system. Our teachers and schools deserve better than an opaque backroom deal. They need to know where they stand.