Time for Ofsted to get real

8th January 2010 at 00:00

Dear Ms Gilbert, As a head who believes the changes to Ofsted inspections make them even more worthless than before, I was fascinated to read your attempt at justifying them (The TES, December 1825). Frankly, you are trying to defend the indefensible. If the teaching profession had the slightest faith in your methods of inspecting schools, you wouldn't need any justification at all.

You talk about the "catalogue" of Ofsted "myths". The inspectors who were offered coffee before being asked for ID; the playground fence too low to prevent unsavoury characters removing children. Myths? There is already an abundance of inspection horror stories. Teachers hardly need to make things up.

Your inspection frameworks and criteria are an open book, you say, and I wouldn't disagree. Unfortunately, the relevance of many of them is questionable and anyway, your inspectors often don't adhere to them.

You maintain that inspectors don't "try to catch schools out". That is not my experience. During my second Ofsted, an inspector asked my Senco some very odd questions about children with English as an additional language. When the Senco answered in depth, the inspector said: "Oh well, I can't catch you out on that, can I?"

I note that inspectors will visit more lessons in future. This is merely a return to the start of the Ofsted regime, when inspections took a week and teachers were visited several times. The change seems to be that a senior manager will be invited to sit alongside the inspector. How a nervous teacher will feel about two heavies watching her lesson I've no idea, especially if she has to adhere to Ofsted's highly questionable templates for what constitutes an effective lesson.

You say inspectors will "make more detailed recommendations than ever before". Well, let's hope they're up to the job. Too often we've put up with inspectors who have no understanding of the pressures teachers or heads face. Many heads who couldn't cope with the job have become inspectors instead. It's easier. And we'll still have to tolerate hastily trained inspectors who have moved sideways from other professions. I never did understand how, in one of my Ofsted inspections, my inner-city primary was going to benefit from the rural wisdom of a Wiltshire farmer's wife.

This Christmas, I've been in contact with a head who was asked to arrange her pre-inspection briefing via mobile phone while the inspector was walking her dog. Why didn't the head insist on a conversation at a suitable time? Because, like most heads, she feared Ofsted. She's now fighting her inspection result. So far, it's taken a year. Mine took two. Ofsted doesn't rush to resolve dissension.

You say the bottom line must be test and exam results, and that no employer will accept a youngster without decent qualifications. Trouble is, the test, data and exam agenda has such a high profile now that we no longer educate children properly. We train them to squeeze through academically narrow hoops, thus protecting ourselves from Ofsted and the local authority, both of which judge schools by test results. School data is the first thing inspectors look at. It ought to be the last, once they have assimilated what the school has to contend with and how well it is doing its job.

You say inspectors mostly "get it right". So why do so many good teachers leave the profession after a few years? Why is there such a shortage of heads, and why do so few deputies want the top job? Why, indeed, is Ofsted so thoroughly disliked? Perhaps it's time for you to visit the coalface more often to find out. Reality doesn't have much patience with platitudes.

Kind regards, Mike

Mike Kent is headteacher at Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London. Email: mikejkent@aol.com.

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