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Reporter's take: Is Ofsted blaming schools for DfE problems?

Ofsted's annual report contains much about failing schools but less about failing government policy, writes John Roberts

Is Ofsted blaming schools for DfE problems?

Ofsted's annual report contains much about failing schools but less about failing government policy, writes John Roberts

Ofsted published its annual report this week with conclusions on the state of the nation’s education system, which, in chief inspector Amanda Spielman’s words, are underpinned by evidence from more than 30,000 visits to schools and other providers

It is a wide-ranging report highlighting both success and identifying real concerns, including "stuck schools", off-rolling and shortcomings in special educational needs provision.

But Ofsted also faces claims that the picture it is presenting is incomplete.

As has been said by teaching unions, the elephant in the room is school funding, and the pressures that years of real-terms funding cuts are having on schools.

You can’t escape the funding crisis facing schools. Well no, actually you can. Just by reading Ofsted’s annual report. It’s not in there.

Ofsted has previously said that it has not seen evidence of funding pressures impacting on the quality of education, and it will only comment when it has evidence.

Rightly so.

But has it looked for it?

If every school inspection started with a headteacher being asked to outline whether funding cuts had impacted on their school, Ofsted would have evidence and plenty of it.

But this isn’t just about funding.

It’s about where Ofsted looks for problems.

Is Ofsted only looking in one direction?

The annual report warns that school improvement capacity is in some places worryingly thin and that the halfway house model for academisation is not working.

These are strong conclusions. The solution, Ofsted finds, is that more good schools and leaders need to step up and run multi-academy trusts, otherwise the government’s ambitions won't be fulfilled.

In fairness, it does call on the government to increase incentives but the main message is that schools need to do more, otherwise the Department for Education’s idea for school improvement won’t work.

It doesn’t seem to question whether the DfE’s idea is the right one. It is for schools to make it work.

On off-rolling, Ofsted is rightly promising to look for it and expose this in inspection reports.

The watchdog deserves massive credit for pursuing this and, in doing so, putting it at the top of the agenda.

But off-rolling has not come out of thin air.

It is a symptom of a broader problem, of a political system that has feted schools which produce the best results and, in doing so, places more value on the children most able to deliver soundbites for politicians.

Naming the schools that seek to get rid of children to boost their results is an important step. But what about the DfE policies that created the pressure that led to this perverse outcome? Shouldn't Ofsted take a view on that?

It is, of course, Ofsted’s job to identify failing and underperforming schools to ensure that all children get a good education and are safe. But to get a true picture of the strengths and weaknesses of our system, it is not enough just to look for failure at school level.

Ofsted’s annual report is a compelling read and there is much to agree with.

But it seems like broader concerns around funding and accountability pressures facing schools are not captured at all.

There are wider concerns raised and recommendations being made for the DfE about issues such as further education funding, independent school inspection and whether Ofsted can look at multi-academy trusts.

But when it comes to the standard of state school education, the question you are left with is: "Is Ofsted only looking one way to identify problems?"


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