Opinion: Ofsted expects? Forget it

The inspectorate must be held to account and taught to "know its place", according to headteacher Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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Towards the end of last term TES printed an intemperate letter about Ofsted. That is nothing new. What was striking was the author – none other than Her Majesty’s chief inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw.

His main point was to lambast the criticisms of unnamed school leaders who were apparently too quick to perpetuate a “them against us” view of the schools inspectorate.

It seems we have an “axe to grind” in failing to acknowledge that Ofsted is now “more rigorous and demanding”, and instead we fall back on a “clichéd defence-mechanism” of whingeing about inconsistency.

Well, that slapped us into place. However, since context matters, it may be helpful to point out the background to Sir Michael’s letter. It was published on the day that TES reported Ofsted’s decision to dispense with 1,200 substandard inspectors, a decision so woefully defended by its director of quality and training on BBC Radio 4’s PM programme that it became much talked about among teachers.

That decision suggests that our accusations about Ofsted’s inconsistencies may not be quite as wide of the mark as Sir Michael would have us believe. Dispensing with almost 40 per cent of inspectors on the grounds of quality is hardly an endorsement of standards.

But let’s not allow this spat to distract us from the wider Ofsted story: the recent announcement of how inspectors will work from next term. This, I gather, is at least the twelfth incarnation of the inspection schedule in the past five years. I hate to be sour, but given the fact that Ofsted costs the taxpayer more than £150 million a year, couldn’t it have got it right in the first place?

Nor can I whoop for joy at the new proposals. The boast that 70 per cent of inspectors will be practising school leaders does not reassure me.

Senior leaders are not necessarily the most qualified people to judge what great teaching looks like. Those best placed to improve teaching may be our middle leaders, or – brace yourself – our teachers.

Sir Michael is, however, dead right on one matter. We need more mavericks. As school leaders we should be less compliant. We should demand that our unions publish the number of school leaders who lose their jobs as a result of inspections. We should keep a database of inspectors whose judgements prove dubious – and refuse to let them into our schools.

Finally, we should stop talking about Ofsted and never ever ask our staff to do anything that starts with the words “Ofsted expects…”

That way we will begin to get an inspection system that knows its place, that doesn’t believe it knows it all, and which instead constructively serves our schools, communities, parents and students. In the process, Ofsted might finally begin to restore its beleaguered, fragile credibility.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk. His new book, Teach Now! The Essentials of Teaching, is published by Routledge

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