No escape as Ofsted plots to extend its reach

23rd March 2012 at 00:00
Sir Michael Wilshaw plans to embed inspectors in local bases

Ofsted's influence has rocketed in the months since its new chief inspector took the reins, and its reach over schools could be about to become even greater with plans to set up local bases for the watchdog.

In his latest bid to extend the organisation's remit, Sir Michael Wilshaw this week put forward the idea of a regional Ofsted that would provide a more hands-on service to "help schools to improve".

Speaking at an event on Tuesday staged by the right-leaning thinktank Policy Exchange, Sir Michael said he was considering a return to a set-up last seen in the 1980s under which some inspectors worked in local districts.

"It could be a branch of Ofsted not directly involved in school improvement but brokering with other schools to support those that are not doing very well," he told his audience of headteachers, governors and educationalists.

His motivation, Sir Michael added, was a consequence of concerns that weaker schools were too often being left without support after an Ofsted inspection.

"It worries me a bit that we go into a school, make a judgement and then walk away and leave it to others to take care of," he said. "We need to get more involved in the whole issue of the brokerage of school improvement services."

Sir Michael has already drawn stinging criticism from heads' and teachers' leaders after he announced a range of new measures that would heap additional pressure on schools.

In February, the former headteacher said he would be replacing the existing grade 3 inspection category, putting thousands of extra schools at risk of being turned into academies.

The chief inspector of schools also stated his intention to require inspectors to check heads' decisions about performance management and their links to pay.

In response to Sir Michael's latest proposal, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) suggested that the watchdog was overstepping its remit. "Ofsted is there primarily as a regulatory body and to go in to make a judgement on the quality of education being provided," said Brian Lightman, the ASCL's general secretary. "It is not its job to run schools and to get involved in the detailed delivery of education in a certain area or nationally.

"It is already an enormous organisation and there are already issues of concern around its capacity to carry out its ordinary role. Inspections and inspection teams are very variable, so before it attempts to extend its remit, it ought first to look at its capacity to judge schools more consistently," he added.

According to the NAHT heads' union, the idea was likely to be dismissed out of hand after Ofsted's recent activity.

"The sheer level of hostility towards Ofsted means that this idea won't be accepted any time soon," said Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT.

"Having a system that waits for a school to fail and then condemns it doesn't help anyone," he added. "But having an early warning system that signals when a school is wobbling is a good idea. We used to have that and it was called the local authority."

But despite widespread animosity towards the schools watchdog, Kevin Bullock, headteacher at Fordham Church of England Primary School in Cambridgeshire, welcomed the move.

Mr Bullock said that Ofsted had succeeded in generating a "climate of fear" among heads, but also said that its ideas were worth listening to.

"If you look at what most of Wilshaw says, on the surface you think it sounds combative. But if you go beyond that, it is generally very sensible," Mr Bullock said.

"A regional Ofsted would be a very good idea, because it would give it local knowledge and make it far more accessible."

Helping hands

The country's top schools will no longer be allowed to "luxuriate in their outstandingness", Ofsted's chief inspector said this week, warning heads that they could lose their outstanding rating if they fail to help weaker schools.

Sir Michael Wilshaw said the country's best schools could be downgraded if they remained reluctant to support struggling primaries or secondaries nearby.

The former head added that some schools needed a "nudge", which could involve removing their Ofsted rating.

"There's no money around, is there?" Sir Michael said. "So we need some sort of nudge and prod to get outstanding schools to move away from a position of just luxuriating in their own outstandingness."

Richard Vaughan.

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