'Ofsted shouldn't decide which schools are outstanding. Teachers should.'

2nd December 2014 at 11:01

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, writes:

Ofsted's consultation on the future of inspection closes this week. The majority of the proposals are sensible but, of course, they do not go far enough in correcting the troubled relationship between the profession and its inspectorate.

Such a relationship should never be easy but it needn't be so dysfunctional either or, to put it frankly, so obsessive. Things would be healthier if we could all stop thinking about Ofsted quite so often – and focus on what pupils need, not what we think the inspector might require.

How far do the proposed reforms go in curing the obsession? Well, we've already had some good news. Reflecting on its recent wave of no notice inspections, Ofsted has concluded that "logistical drawbacks" prevent them from "engaging effectively" with leaders, governors and parents without a short period of notice. Good. You can have a self-improving school system or you can have no notice inspection. You can't have both.

So, the "obsess-o-meter" drops down a notch.

At the heart of the new proposals is the idea that good schools will face a lighter touch inspection from an HMI every three years. This will confirm if standards have risen or slipped and either send schools on their way or recommend a full inspection.

Lower stakes. More dialogue: also good. The obsess-o-meter drops again. But it’s still in the red zone.

So, NAHT would suggest a number of additions:

Separate the judgement on governance from the judgement on leadership. Conflating the two is not helpful.

While the current regime exists (see below) extend the light touch inspection model to outstanding schools which have not had an inspection under the current framework. I don't think we do them any favours by letting them slip out of sync with current standards. Particularly when so much hangs on the designation.

Clarify the circumstances under which inspections should be deferred. The head's presence is critical under the new model.

Ofsted must address its bias towards attainment rather than progress. Despite the rhetoric, it is still too hard to get an outstanding grade if you work with disadvantaged communities. This is a major barrier to attracting talented leaders into the most challenging schools or spreading the self-improving school system across the whole country.

With these measures the obsess-o-meter might start to edge down into amber territory. But if we want a truly healthy relationship we must go further. I don't imagine there will be any appetite to address the big questions before the general election, but afterwards there will be an opportunity for longer term thinking.

A "first principles" analysis of inspection is a whole separate topic in itself, so I'll just pick out a few suggestions now. Firstly, we do need an inspection service. We need to get behind the data, both to find out why the results are as they are, but also to spot the intangible risks.

There have been times in the current data driven regime where I have questioned the value of this – sometimes inspection feels like little more than a league table with added criticism. Unless Ofsted can go beyond data, it cannot justify its cost. Nor can we have inspection which is only triggered by poor data. That would miss Trojan Horse-style risks. What triggers inspection will be a key question for the future.

My main proposal however is that Ofsted should return the definition of outstanding back to the profession. Ofsted should content itself with good or not yet good. The profession should define outstanding. And it will define it in many different ways. There is no such thing as generic greatness. All institutions have strengths and weaknesses, areas where they can help others and areas where they could do with help. The very nature of excellence is that it is individualistic, even quirky or maverick.

So, Ofsted focuses on good. When a school is good, it should then be allowed to participate in a high quality peer review system. There are several versions in existence already, each with their different styles. Challenge Partners is one example. NAHT has its own, called "instead", which is now piloting in the Midlands. Under this model, it would be "as well" rather than "instead"; although we do like the name.

Can Ofsted rise to the challenge and loosen their stranglehold on the definition of excellence? Good leaders are rarely motivated by someone else's vision. Ofsted should return to the proper role of a regulator and allow professional conversations to flourish about what greatness looks like not what Ofsted wants. Then maybe we can do without the obsess-o-meter entirely. That's when we'll get lift-off on standards.

This piece first appeared as a blog on the NAHT website.


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