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'Students should receive stimulating lessons and good results. Why doesn’t Ofsted care how outcomes are achieved?'

Professor Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

The landscape of inspection is changing, although whether we are witnessing a ground-shattering shift in education’s tectonic plates is more doubtful. I agree with ASCL’s Suzanne O’Farrell that “it is timely to reflect how an inspectorate needs to change in this new landscape” (“Ofsted must trust schools to be agents of their own accountability. Here’s how”). However, I do not agree with most of her views on inspection.

Ms O’Farrell comments: “The primary role of the inspectorate is to independently hold schools to account on behalf of taxpayers and parents”. That is fair enough as far as it goes, but she omits to add “and also on behalf of students and politicians” – two very important constituencies with major stakes in the inspection process. I would want to add another primary role – missing in her account, largely absent since the abolition of HM Inspectorate in 1992, but now needing reinstatement – to report without fear or favour of the effects of national policies on schools. Inspection should be accountable to a far wider clientele and should have a wider brief than her narrow prescription implies.

As I do, Ms O’Farrell wants inspectors to report on “the quality of education” but then goes on to say that they “should report only on the effectiveness of the school based on an assessment of its outcomes”. That is an impoverished view of “quality”, which should surely involve processes as well as outcomes. Students should receive good, satisfying, stimulating experiences in addition to achieving good outcomes. Or doesn’t it matter how these outcomes are achieved? There is an additional assumption that these outcomes are largely, or perhaps even entirely, performance-related – assessed through access to “rich data sources” by inspectors “highly trained and fluent in data analysis and assessment”. The qualitative dimensions inherent in the notion of “quality” seem strangely absent yet these are crucial elements of school students’ experience. There is far more to education than data can capture. Inspection, properly conceived, recognises and celebrates that truth. Ms O’Farrell’s doesn’t – or, at least, doesn’t sufficiently.

This is particularly the case with respect to the quality of teaching, which she believes need not, and should not, be judged by inspectors, since “the impact of the quality of teaching is reflected in the outcomes”. That is not true. Many factors outside the school’s control affect, and are reflected in, those outcomes. Acceptance of her view does an injustice to those many teachers who work in schools serving disadvantaged communities where poorer outcomes are not necessarily the result of inadequate practice. Inspection, properly conceived, should provide a tentative and context-sensitive view of the quality of teaching in those schools (along with all others), but to do that inspectors have to visit classrooms and engage in professional dialogue with teachers, not just school leaders. That dialogue need not involve prescription by inspectors, but should involve suggestion and even speculation too.

By arguing that “the role of the inspectorate should no longer be one of both reporter and improver”, Ms O’Farrell appears to rule out an important aspect of inspection, which is not only to report on what is seen in a particular setting but also to disseminate information and insights into interesting practice from other schools. This is not in order to prescribe authoritatively about improvement, but to inform schools about possibilities. To neglect that dimension is to impoverish inspection and its possible benefits.

Ms O’Farrell wants inspection to “focus primarily on the review and validation of school leaders’ own self-evaluation of provision and outcomes”. But how can inspectors validate that self-evaluation of “provision” without looking at processes, whether these be related to curriculum planning, assessment, teaching, management or the process of self-evaluation process itself?

As I have argued in other opinion pieces, there is no doubt that the school inspection process needs reforming. Even Ofsted, belatedly, recognises this. Some of Ms O’ Farrell’s (and presumably ASCL’s) ideas are worth debating, but I am not convinced that her underlying conception of inspection is rich enough, coherent enough or educational enough.

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