‘The new Ofsted inspection system will not deliver on its promise of more reliability and authority'
Ofsted inspection frameworks are like London buses. If you see one, you may well see red; if you miss one, another is likely to be along shortly. The latest of a long line of inspection frameworks was issued on June 15, the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta – presumably a coincidence?
The prose of the new common inspection framework is “grey” and resounds with traditional Ofsted-speak. Whatever its lack of aesthetic quality, it is bound to be scrutinised closely since the fate of so many schools and their leaders may depend on its interpretation. Therein lies the rub. The language used, formulaic as ever, is inevitably shot through with ambiguities, imprecision, value judgements and the near-certainty of being differently interpreted (to some degree at least) by different inspectors, school leaders and teachers.
The framework begins with a number of realistic claims: that it use should promote “greater coherence”, “more comparability” and “greater consistency” across the inspection of different kinds of provider. Note the comparative adjectives; Ofsted is acknowledging that total consistency, comparability and coherence are impossible. However, it does place a welcome emphasis on the importance of independent, external evaluation and on the centrality of a common system of judgements to the inspection process. Compared with previous frameworks, there seems to be rather less emphasis on performance data and rather more on judgement.
However, it isn’t long before unrealistic claims are being made for inspection. We read that, “Inspection is primarily about evaluating how well individual children… benefit from the education provided by the school”. While teaching and teachers can (and should) focus on children individually and collectively, inspection and inspectors cannot possibly focus on the individual given the limitations of the process. Later we are told that, “Inspection tests the school’s response to individual needs by observing how well it helps all children to make progress and fulfil their potential”. But how can inspection and inspectors know what those individual needs are (given their very limited contact with the children)? How can they possibly evaluate the progress individuals make and how can they, or anyone else for that matter, evaluate the school’s contribution to the fulfilment of individual potential – a meaningless notion that has never been achieved anytime, anywhere in any school? Equally, the need for inspectors to, “evaluate what it is like to be a child” in the school seems to require a near-impossible degree of individual or collective empathetic understanding.
The four broad areas of a school’s work on which inspectors have to make graded judgments seem reasonable enough, though arguably the curriculum needs more detailed treatment – not, as in the framework, as an aspect of leadership and management, but in its own right as the key medium for the transaction of a school’s priorities. Sensibly and sensitively, one of those four areas – “outcomes for children” – is given less detailed attention than in recent frameworks and, helpfully, the importance of other non-academic learning outcomes is even mentioned, however briefly.
The framework continues to use Ofsted’s established four-point scale both to make the principal inspection judgments and to categorise schools. Arguably, given its questionable validity and use by schools for promotional purposes, that categorisation would be better replaced by one of only two overall judgments – whether a school is “good enough” or “not good enough” – backed up by engaging, readable reports that offer rich, wide-ranging evidence of a qualitative kind, supplemented, but not dominated, by judicious, limited use of quantitative data. That appears to be one reform too far – at least at present.
Properly understood, the framework informed by material in the handbook should be seen not as a recipe which can, or should, be slavishly followed, but as a set of principles to be flexibly applied and negotiated between the inspectors and the inspected in the light of a school’s particular context. Hopefully, that will happen but there is no guarantee, even with Ofsted’s new cohort of in-house inspectors “trained” and “quality assured”. So we can’t expect absolute clarity or absolute consistency in interpretation and application, but we can expect reasonable clarity, reasonable consistency and reasonable understanding of the unique circumstances of any particular school.
Even though this revised documentation seems an improvement on its predecessors, the Ofsted inspection system continues to promise more in terms of reliable, authoritative findings than it can deliver. Even with the common framework and the new detailed handbook, the judgements made by its time-pressured, fallible, in-house inspectors will be more partial and subjective than Ofsted acknowledges or than the education secretary and the DfE recognise in forcing decisions about academisation based on Ofsted’s findings. That’s inevitable given that inspection, properly conceived, is a judgement-saturated art, not a measurement-oriented science.