Could we be on the way to dispensing entirely with Ofsted and its marauding hordes within the next few years?

13th May 2005 at 01:00
It won't be before time

You're a new headteacher. You look at how learning is monitored in your new school and you think it could be improved. You introduce a new system and, after a while, discover it isn't working. The old system had a lot to commend it, so you think again. How long would it take you to change? A few weeks? Six months?

So why has it taken Ofsted 14 years to realise its inspections didn't raise standards, create meaningful dialogue between schools and the inspectorate, or tell schools anything they didn't already know? Its only achievement has been to waste a vast amount of money that could have benefited children.

I ask this because my local authority recently organised a talk by an HMI for its headteachers about the new-style inspections. As I listened, I could hardly believe what I was hearing. This is not a minor tinkering with the inspection process. Sea change would be an understatement. It is an admission that the previous system was wrong in every respect, so much so that even radical surgery couldn't have kept it alive any longer.

From September, schools will have far more responsibility for assessing their own strengths and weaknesses. Most inspections will last two days, and involve only two or three inspectors; schools will receive a phone call a few days before they arrive. Staff won't be required to scuttle around gathering policies, or hurriedly writing new ones to cover any gaps; the HMI admitted a lot of them weren't much use and, anyway, there wouldn't be time to read them.

There won't be a parents' meeting, although the school will be expected to have listened to the views of its customers. There will be four simple grades for the five new inspection criteria. And the final report will be completed in days and be brief, not a 50-page cure for insomnia. Before the inspection, the head and deputy will have filled in a form similar to the current S4, only longer, and they'll need to know the strengths and weakness of their school thoroughly, because the emphasis of the inspection will be on senior management. There won't be time to inspect every classroom or teacher, so it will be up to the head to point the inspectors in the right direction, and prove that what is said on paper is true in practice. Most importantly, the inspection will focus on the children's learning and progress.

Does all this sound fair, reasonable and eminently sensible? Of course it does. But hang on a minute. Isn't this new format similar to the inspections we received years ago, before Ofsted was born? Weren't we visited for a day or two by perceptive HMIs or local inspectors who could sum a school up in a very short time, and, unlike Ofsted, make pertinent suggestions for improvement? Could we be on the way to dispensing entirely with Ofsted and its marauding hordes within the next few years?

It won't be before time. My school has endured two Ofsteds. We did well in the first one, though I was astonished to find that only one of the team had any primary school experience. The second was nasty, and we complained all the way to the ombudsman; it took two years and we dealt with 15 bureaucrats along the way. When I wrote about it in The TES, the pile of mail I received from people who'd had similar experiences convinced me that Ofsted in its current form should go.

And now, it seems, it has. Perhaps the HMI I listened to should have started his talk with a heartfelt apology for the damage it's caused.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary, London borough of Southwark.


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