Inspection must support schools
Since becoming chief inspector of schools in England three years ago, I have been keen to listen to the views of those working directly with and for the benefit of children and to respond to concerns about school inspection. However, we can only make things better for all those who rely on our inspections when we recognise honestly what is working and where improvements can be made.
I agree with Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, that "an effective system of school inspection should be supportive of the work of teachers, headteachers and all staff in schools". I also share the view of Tim Brighouse, former London Schools Commissioner, that inspectors should both be fearless and do "good along the way". I believe Ofsted inspectors do both these things.
Ofsted has experienced many changes in its 18 years. But our core purpose has not changed: we seek to report candidly on the quality of schools and other services, so that we can improve the life chances of children and adult learners.
That does mean that our conclusions can sometimes make uncomfortable reading for schools or governments. But it is much better that we identify weaknesses so that they can be addressed, rather than leaving them to worsen. And that we visit schools regularly, unlike the system before 1992.
I also recognise that we do not always get things right, so we make changes when they are needed. I was told by many teachers and heads that despite considerable strengths, the system I inherited in 2006 had moved too far away from classroom observation and had become too reliant on data. Both are important, but we used that feedback to strike a better balance in the new inspection framework. We also introduced more regular monitoring visits for weaker schools.
Chris Woodhead, one of my predecessors at Ofsted, is correct when he says inspectors should "spend time in classrooms watching teachers teach", and that is precisely what the new inspection framework prescribes.
He is simply wrong, however, to characterise inspection today as "data- driven, tick-box bureaucracy". With two full days of inspection, there is more time now spent observing and discussing the quality of teaching and learning than under the previous framework. In particular, senior staff members are engaged in a productive professional dialogue, based on inspectors' forensic investigation of the evidence. The inspectors also give more detailed recommendations than before. That is about placing "less emphasis on what the head has written on the self-evaluation form and more on the processes behind it", as John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, rightly put it.
Our inspections are valued by teachers and parents, but we also care about whether we can improve. We therefore survey schools and parents on a regular basis.
In the ongoing survey we conduct of headteachers who have just experienced inspection, 89 per cent of respondents are satisfied with the way their inspection was carried out, 96 per cent plan to use the inspection recommendations to move the school forward, and 75 per cent believe the benefits of the inspection outweighed the negative aspects. All of these findings come from responses about the new framework.
Of course, we never stand still and we have had to address some concerns. Before Christmas, I said in The TES that schools would not be failed for "minor administrative errors". Given the myths circulating that a broken fence or a failure to check inspectors' ID could lead to a school being judged inadequate, we have issued guidelines to inspectors so it is absolutely clear that this should not happen.
At the same time, Ofsted has an important role in publishing widely what we have learned so that others may learn, too. We do not want to replicate the role of the school improvement partner, nor would it be right for our inspectors to advocate particular commercial improvement tools. But we do publish several reports every month, distilling the wisdom of good schools. I was very keen, for example, to ensure our three separate reports last year on outstanding secondary, primary and special schools were well publicised. We have recently released reports on subjects as diverse as e-safety, programmes for gifted pupils and citizenship lessons. The data we publish through Raise Online is used by thousands of schools to help them improve. The new framework reinforces this approach with its emphasis on professional dialogue and clearer recommendations in every school inspection report.
We also go to considerable lengths to celebrate outstanding schools with annual events around the country to recognise their achievements. I have been overwhelmed by the sheer exuberance and commitment of the hundreds of heads I met.
Ofsted provides an invaluable resource for schools, parents and pupils. Our website receives more than 7 million hits a month. Our inspections have been a key factor in the improvements seen in so many schools over the last 18 years.
But just as we expect those we inspect to be constantly striving to do better, we set the same high standards for ourselves. We will never win any popularity contests and we do not seek to do so. Achieving the right balance in inspections is never easy and can never satisfy everyone. What matters most is what will help to produce the best education for children to thrive and give them the best chances in an increasingly tough employment market and uncertain world. I believe that with the new framework, we have gone a long way towards achieving that optimum balance.
Christine Gilbert is head of the Ofsted inspectorate in England.