As the best shatter inspection's shackles, the rest expect a sharper focus

4th June 2010 at 01:00
Under the new Government, schools rated 'outstanding' need never be bothered by Ofsted again. But how will the new regime actually work? William Stewart reports

Ofsted will not follow Becta, the agency for ICT in education, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) on to the coalition Government's bonfire of the quangos, of that much we can be sure.

But it is now also certain that the education watchdog, and the inspection system it administers, is in for yet more upheaval under the new regime.

As Michael Gove revealed to The TES last week, the one in six state schools already rated "outstanding" by Ofsted need never face an inspection again, under major changes the Education Secretary will introduce.

And that is just school inspections. There are also big questions over the sustainability of the inspectorate's wider remit, expanded three years ago to take in adult education and children's social services.

Ofsted is not actually a quango at all, but an independent Government department reporting directly to Parliament rather than any ministers. However, ministers still decide the level of budget it receives and, as Mr Gove demonstrated last week, they expect a large degree of influence over its remit and how inspections are carried out.

By announcing that outstanding schools will be "freed from inspection", the new Education Secretary has released teachers working in some 3,300 schools from one of the most dreaded aspects of their profession. Many will back the welcome Sir Paul Grant has given to the policy and the trust it demonstrates.

"It is a common sense approach," said Sir Paul, head of Robert Clack School, Dagenham. "I do think there has to be accountability, without a shadow of a doubt. But the Ofsted process is quite a stressful experience."

There is no guarantee that inspectors will never return to these schools. Mr Gove has said that "certain indicators that flash danger" will still trigger inspections.

He did not give details. But plans released by the Conservatives last year when they first mooted the idea suggested a series of traffic light indicators. They could cover data on achievement, teacher absences and turnover, the number of repeat temporary exclusions, and truancy.

"Outstanding" schools that moved from green to red on a number of the indicators would be automatically inspected and parents or teachers with concerns would also still be able to trigger an inspection.

Sir Paul is alarmed by traffic lights leading to automatic re-inspections and believes that, in the first instance, a conversation between a head and a respected HMI inspector might be more appropriate.

"I would want a halfway house between complete trust and sending in the Spanish Inquisition," he said.

Nevertheless, he is looking forward to the difference the change will have on his staff.

"Inspections can have a detrimental effect on people," he said. "They can start trying to re-invent the wheel."

Soothing teachers' frayed nerves may be a happy by-product of Mr Gove's plan. But its main rationale is to free up Ofsted's time so that the watchdog can devote more of its resources to failing schools.

This is not a new direction. When Ofsted introduced its current school inspection framework last year, it said most schools judged "good" or "outstanding" would have five instead of three years between inspections and would be monitored through data-based "interim assessments".

Mr Gove has taken the same idea to a new level for schools that have received Ofsted's top rating.

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, fears certain schools will never be able to benefit from the policy no matter how well they perform. He argues that the greater emphasis on raw exam results in the latest inspection framework puts schools serving deprived areas at an unfair disadvantage.

Mr Gove's changes could help to rectify another much criticised aspect of Ofsted - its increasing reliance on data.

In February, Chris Woodhead, Ofsted's first chief inspector, went as far as saying that the inspectorate should be abolished because it had sunk into "data-driven, tick-box bureaucracy". And Dr Dunford noted that 95 per cent of Ofsted verdicts merely confirmed the story the data had already told, questioning the whole point of inspection.

The Conservatives believe that relieving the "best" schools of the burden of regular Ofsted visits could help address this issue by freeing up resources to allow inspectors to spend more time in failing schools.

"In the past, inspectors could take a whole week if necessary," the party said last year. "We want to give Ofsted the chance to embed inspectors in failing schools, allowing them to observe how the leadership is trying to solve its problems."

But even if struggling schools do receive greater attention, many potential problems remain. Milan Stevanovic, head of Sudbourne School, an "outstanding" primary in Brixton, London, is concerned that the system may not have accounted for the big changes that can take place in any schools when a head moves on.

Then there is the question of whether the change could allow schools in prosperous areas with naturally high exam results to get away with coasting. As ever, the devil will be in the detail - specifically exactly how the traffic light indicators will work. It is also important to remember that the change will have a big impact on those not working in education.

Last week Mr Gove described Ofsted visits as a "burden" for top schools. That may be true. But the reports they produce have become valuable sources of information for parents choosing where to send their children. Traffic light indicators may not satisfy people who discover that the latest Ofsted report on their neighbourhood school is more than a decade old.

And if that school has been set free from all local authority checks thanks to the academy freedoms now automatically available to all "outstanding" schools, the need for accountability becomes even more acute.

But "freeing" outstanding schools may be only the first of several changes for an inspectorate still on the defensive over its new emphasis on children's safety, its faith in data, and its capacity to carry out its new wider responsibilities effectively.

Warnings that Ofsted's resources were being spread too thinly following its expansion to cover children's social services seemed to be at least partially borne out in the aftermath of the Baby P scandal in Haringey. A data-based inspection of Haringey Council children's services, conducted by Ofsted more than a year after Baby P's August 2007 death, concluded the authority was delivering a "good" service.

But less than six months later, in December 2008, a second Ofsted report delivered a damning verdict on the same council department.

Back then Mr Gove said he was minded to provide the watchdog with more resources because its inspections had been "too reliant" on already published data.

But today's austere economic realities may be prompting the new Government to change tack and refocus, rather than increase Ofsted funding.

Last year the Conservatives said the school inspection framework would be "radically simplified" if they formed the next Government. Instead of the current 18 categories, which include schools' effectiveness in promoting healthy lifestyles and community cohesion, schools would be assessed in just four areas: quality of teaching, effectiveness of leadership, pupil behaviour and safety, and pupil achievement.

Now in office, Mr Gove has already signalled his uneasiness with the children's agenda championed by Labour, instantly renaming the Department for Children, Schools and Families the Department for Education. But John Chowcat, general secretary of Ofsted inspectors' union Aspect, believes it would be a mistake to reduce the watchdog's wider children's role now.

"There is a value in it having a more rounded connected view of children," he said. "I accept we have only had limited steps towards an integrated inspection approach to children's services. But it is still early days."

He is also concerned about removing "outstanding" schools from regular inspection. "Generally, 'outstanding' schools still have problematic areas within them and the snapshot inspection process still holds value," Mr Chowcat said.

Many teachers will beg to differ. And for some, like John Bangs, head of education at teaching union the NUT, letting the best performing schools off inspection will do little to rectify something they believe suffers from much deeper flaws.

"This doesn't solve the fundamental problem which is that the purpose of the English inspection system is a contradiction in terms," said Mr Bangs. "It tries to frighten people into improvement."

'Outstanding' opinions

Milan Stevanovic, head of Sudbourne Primary, Brixton, London, rated 'outstanding' in 2008 "From a purely personal, selfish reaction it just means there is a lot of pressure relieved from us. But my concern is for the schools that aren't outstanding. It doesn't appear to me to be a fair system."

Kathy August, principal of Manchester Academy, rated 'outstanding' in 2009 "It seems pretty sensible and pretty pragmatic because it frees up resource for putting where it is most needed."

Sir Alasdair MacDonald, head of Morpeth School, Bethnal Green, London rated 'outstanding' in 2007 "The attraction of not being inspected is really great, but it just seems very inequitable. In the long run this will, if we are not careful, create division among schools."

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