Ofsted's focus fails to assuage critics

6th May 2011 at 01:00
The last change to the inspection regime caused uproar. Now there will be scrutiny of fewer areas, with inspectors spending more time in the classroom. But what will be the impact on standards?

If the latest proposed changes to Ofsted's inspection framework generate anywhere near as much furore as the previous update in 2009, chief inspector Christine Gilbert's final weeks in charge at the watchdog promise to be a challenge.

The sharper focus on raw exam results, introduced two years ago, sparked a furious response from heads and teaching unions, who were also aggrieved at the increased emphasis on pupil safety.

This time around, the proposals appear less controversial, with the Government keen to see inspections simplified and structured around four key principles: pupil achievement, teaching quality, leadership and management quality, and pupil behaviour and safety.

But will the apparent demotion of other criteria, such as students' spiritual, social and cultural development, create a tougher, results- focused inspection regime?

Ms Gilbert, who leaves her post in June, is not expecting a flood of complaints. "I don't think it will be more difficult (for schools)," she told The TES. "There are a smaller number of core aspects, but we will look at them in greater depth. I think generally people will be positive about it. But there will be a great deal of anxiety; we have to be ready for that, the tales that will go round."

The classroom unions have already expressed concern about the simplification of the framework. The NASUWT is worried about the the already "restrictive" framework being narrowed further, while the NUT called on Ofsted to "put its own house in order" by addressing the "punitive nature of the inspection regime".

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, which represents the majority of primary school leaders, also says narrowing the focus of inspections could prove problematic.

Schools need more "holistic" inspections that value a wider range of work, rather than a "renewed focus on the three Rs", he says. "We need a more supportive process, but are being offered a level of monitoring that borders on harassment.

"We need a way to hold inspectors accountable for their conduct and judgment, but see nothing that even acknowledges that a problem exists."

ATL policy adviser Adrian Prandle says: "On face value, if having fewer criteria means there will be less bureaucracy and fewer unnecessary rules for teachers, that would be a good thing, but it depends on the detail."

One controversial change that has already garnered an unhappy response is inviting parents to play a greater part in the inspection process by allowing them to rate schools in online surveys.

Ofsted will monitor the results, following up any worrying trends by carrying out a data analysis and, if necessary, an inspection.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), believes the duty should be on schools to liaise directly with parents to respond to their concerns.

"Parents can already have their say to Ofsted in the parent surveys during inspections," he says. "If that's simply going to be online, that's bringing it into the modern age. If we're talking about a survey that can continually be filled in by parents, that would be a concern."

Ben Slade, principal of Manor School in Cambridge, also believes that schools themselves should be the first port of call for concerned parents and fears that anonymous posts on school performance could lead to vexatious complaints.

However, he welcomes the slimming down of the proposed framework from 27 categories to just four. "I am delighted; they were in danger of rabid box-ticking," he says. "Cutting the number down to four seems to be a necessary simplification."

Another improvement, according to the ASCL, is the increased focus on teaching and learning.

"It's good they will focus on the classroom," Mr Lightman says. "There is a culture in schools to always improve further . the inspection should be there to help them do this."

Other factors that schools are currently graded on, particularly the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils, will continue to be scrutinised, but will be "woven through" the four key areas.

Former inspector Madeleine Vigar, principal of Castle Manor Business and Enterprise College in Haverhill, Suffolk, says these factors are inextricably linked to student behaviour. "A school's care for the children is shown in the way they act - if they open doors for each other, how they behave in the playground or when they walk down the corridor," she says.

A key element of this is bullying, which will be explicitly looked at in inspection reports for the first time.

Ms Gilbert believes inspectors should be spending more time talking to children and parents about specific problems which cause youngsters to feel "frightened or not safe".

One change to Ofsted's remit which has already been implemented is the end to routine inspections of schools rated outstanding. This is designed to focus the watchdog's reduced resources on struggling schools, as well as leaving the best performers free to continue their successful work without interference.

The new framework proposes giving outstanding and good schools the chance to request extra inspections, to confirm their quality or demonstrate their ascent into the top tier, respectively - as long as they agree to meet the cost.

"I think it is fair," says Mr Slade, whose school was rated good last year. "The only issue would be, if you had been rated good, what if you paid to be inspected and then were classed as satisfactory? Would there be a moral imperative for inspectors to view the school in a positive way?"

With her own school, Castle Manor, recently rated outstanding, Ms Vigar is acutely aware of the benefits the top grade can bring. "You need to be head of an outstanding school to become a national leader of education and support other schools. (Being rated outstanding) gives everybody a lift . I do think it is unfair some schools would have to pay for it."

With less scrutiny of top schools, Ofsted wants to turn its focus to those that are "satisfactory but struggling". The watchdog proposes to carry out more full inspections instead of shorter interim monitoring visits, Ms Gilbert believes this will inject "more pace and urgency".

Another major change for schools is the way they present their self- evaluation data.

In September, education secretary Michael Gove announced he was scrapping the self-evaluation form, arguing it was time to set schools free from the "suffocating levels of bureaucracy and red tape" and let schools present their findings in whatever form they wish.

But Ms Gilbert says this prompted a backlash from some heads. "A number of schools have told us they want to use a common template," she says. "We don't mind what they use; we will work with whatever they give us."

The consultation on the proposed framework runs until 20 May, with formal pilot inspections taking place during May and June. The framework is due to be finalised by September and implemented in January 2012.

If Ms Gilbert is correct, the new framework may generate fewer complaints than the last inspection overhaul, but schools will be kept as busy as ever getting to grips with how they are to be judged.

PROPOSALS AT A GLANCE: A change of emphasis

- Focus on four key areas: pupil achievement, teaching quality, leadership and management quality, and pupil behaviour and safety

- More attention on pupils' attainment and rates of progress

- Inspectors to spend more time in the classroom

- Self-evaluation submitted to inspectors in the format of the school's choice

- Good and outstanding schools risk assessed by data analysis every three years; good schools to be inspected every five years

- Inspections could be triggered by parents via Ofsted's website

- Inspectors will listen to primary school pupils' reading

- More emphasis on students' behaviour, and interviews with victims of bullying

- Schools can request early inspections - if they agree to pay.

Original headline: Ofsted's narrowed focus fails to assuage critics

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