Editorial - Ofsted's new capsule wardrobe: some eye-catching outfits let down by poor tailoring

18th March 2011 at 00:00

Next week is Ofsted make-over week. On Monday the quango will launch its consultation on the inspection changes proposed in the education white paper (page 3). "Consultation" in this case is used in the sense employed by Trinny and Susannah when they "consult" a frumpy victim over her unfortunate wardrobe. Ideas are not required, compliance is. Free-thinkers may dream of inspectors gliding into schools with a range of swatches and an open mind. But most teachers suspect they will end up with an off-the-peg item in one size and various shades, all of them taupe.

Still, the Government has made a start by clearing out Ofsted's closet and focusing on classic essentials, namely teaching and learning, behaviour and discipline and leadership and management. All those unnecessary accessories - community cohesion, pupil wellbeing, cultural, spiritual, social and moral development and the rest - have been binned. Worthwhile they may have been, but whether they should ever have formed core components of a school inspection is debatable. Take community cohesion. No one, with the possible exception of the BNP, would claim it was anything other than a good thing. But how to measure it and why schools should be held solely responsible for it was never properly addressed.

Sadly, other numbers set to roll down the Ofsted catwalk are so flimsy they can only cause embarrassment. An end to inspections for outstanding schools is the educational equivalent of the muffin top or socks with sandals. It makes sense to inspect excellent schools less often than poor ones. But never? An exceptional school can quickly descend into mediocrity if the leadership changes. At a time when outstanding schools are being encouraged to adopt underperforming neighbours, to become teaching hubs and to shoulder ever more responsibilities, the proposal looks as threadbare as a mankini, and just as attractive.

The Government responds that a dramatic decline in results or sufficient parental concern would trigger an inspection. Why it believes parent insight would be more reasonable than an inspection every five years or so, or what benefit it would get from abolishing automatic audits, other than cost savings, isn't clear. A discerning inspector can spot the Primark in a coasting grammar and the Prada in a challenging comprehensive, but could a brand-seduced parent?

If the main effect of Ofsted's overhaul, however, is less reliance on data and a greater emphasis on judgment, we should all applaud wildly and do a lot of air kissing. In these austere times it's probably unrealistic to expect a return to the haute couture of inspection solely by HMIs. But as the sector grows more atomised and diverse, tick-box assessments become ever more redundant and shrewd observations from trusted inspectors increasingly necessary. Whether schools will get the bespoke service they deserve or unimaginative hand-me-downs, however, remains to be seen.


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