‘I have been through 25 separate inspections’: An Ofsted survivor on why something has to be done about the inspectorate
I am a survivor of more than 25 Ofsted inspections. Working in three universities for more than 12 years, latterly as head of the school of education at Kingston University, I toiled under a punishing inspection regime.
During that period, university-based initial teacher training courses were inspected by Ofsted every other year, so I gained extensive experience of inspections of primary and secondary initial teacher training in a wide range of subjects and age phases. I was responsible for supporting my colleagues in preparing for and managing the inspection process, and I was directly inspected twice as course leader for the English PGCE course I led at the University of York. So I feel I have the knowledge and the experience to speak truth to power.
Because there is no doubt that Ofsted wields enormous power. One poor inspection outcome can lead to the end of school leaders' careers. Fear of Ofsted is the major driver of the excessive teacher workload driving so many from the profession. An imminent inspection certainly piled on work for me and my colleagues – so much so that a whole room was routinely dedicated for the paperwork demanded by inspectors. Hours were spent preparing files on every aspect of teaching and learning, curriculum and assessment, all cross-referenced against the teacher training standards. Tables were arranged round the room, piled high with multiple files of lecture notes, student assignments and course documents. It was a gigantic exercise in "covering our backs" and it added not one jot to the quality of teaching and learning with our students.
But even that was not enough. We would learn the names of the inspectors a few days before they descended upon us. Armed with this invaluable information, I would send an email to all other university teacher training providers, asking if they had been inspected by the named HMI and what, in particular, were their current "fads". Because I learned very quickly that what was important to one inspector was not on another inspector’s radar. It was essential to know just what evidence they would demand to see, and impossible to predict this from the inspection framework. Armed with inside information, I would ensure there was evidence to satisfy the individual quirks of each inspector. The inconsistency of Ofsted’s approach added even more hours to the preparation frenzy.
And although I'm happy to acknowledge that over the course of my university career I met some excellent inspectors, ones with very good subject knowledge and forensic faculties that shone light on weaknesses, I also, along with my colleagues, suffered inspectors who were unable to understand data. I encountered inspectors who had woeful gaps in their subject knowledge and inspectors whose judgements were so poor that, after months of intensive effort, plotting a path through Ofsted's labyrinthine appeals process, they were overturned.
All of which points to one deduction. Based on my own exhaustive professional experience, I am certain that Ofsted has major problems with quality control. Ofsted inspectors’ knowledge, experience and expertise is too uneven. And, too often, inspection teams lack expertise in the subject or age range they inspect.
Having spent more than two decades denying that it has a problem, Ofsted has recently and belatedly accepted that it must gather evidence to verify the reliability of its inspection judgements. And there is one question on which the integrity of the inspection process stands or falls. If two inspection teams inspected the same school at the same time, would they award the school the same judgement?
So, Ofsted is currently conducting a programme whereby 80 primary schools will have short inspections carried out by two inspectors. They will visit each school on the same day, gather evidence from a range of sources and come to an independent judgement of the school’s quality, which will then be moderated by another HMI. Overseeing this trial of the validity and reliability of Ofsted’s judgements will be an expert panel, which will advise Ofsted about its conduct and findings.
This is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but it is one with severe limitations, the major one being that Ofsted remains its own judge and jury. Although Ofsted will, next summer, publish a report on the double inspection trial, we do not know if detailed information will be given about the essential issues: the scale of difference in inspection judgements; the issues inspectors disagreed on; and the implications of the trial findings for the education system as a whole.
All of which leads me to one inescapable conclusion: Ofsted can fiddle no longer while its reputation burns. Ofsted needs radical reform. My union, ATL, has thought deeply about what inspection should be and how it should work in the new school landscape, which has led to our report A New Vision for Inspection in Education. The time is now ripe for new thinking on inspection, and the creation of a system that holds schools to account but does not induce widespread fear among school leaders. We must counter this culture of "second guessing" what inspectors will be looking for when they call, which is the major cause of the pointless and punishing workloads under which I laboured and so many teachers and school leaders suffer today.