Unpopular is understandable - unfair is not

27th November 2009 at 00:00
Negative perceptions now surrounding the inspectorate are undermining trust in its work

Ofsted is not having a good year. Its annual report, published this week, painted a picture of an inspectorate resolute in its determination to drive up standards, certain of its ability to do so and unapologetic over its handling of children's services. Its confidence is not convincing. From the aftermath of the Baby P scandal to the confusion over its new inspection framework, the impression is that Ofsted has lost its way.

Most criticism has focused on its expanded social service remit. Adding oversight of children's services to Ofsted's enormous existing responsibilities for education was a serious misjudgment. It has not the history, expertise nor capacity to cope with such a burden. Its focus must be on education.

If the inspectorate's problems were limited to imperial overstretch, they could be solved with pruning. Unfortunately, they are not. The organisation is also regarded as petty, data driven, unclear and unfair. Tales of schools being severely penalised for the height of their fencing, minor infringements of health and safety, disorderly filing or even typos are legion. They may not be typical, but the currency they have gained suggests there is an issue of trust that Ofsted needs to address.

More substantive is the charge that the inspectorate relies too much on data and too little on wisdom. A school is more than the sum of its published outcomes. How do you measure an ethos, evaluate inspiration or calibrate imagination? There is a suspicion that because so much that makes a school what it is is difficult to quantify and time-consuming to judge, Ofsted too often defaults to the easy and the measurable. That may be convenient but it isn't comprehensive.

Ofsted is often poor at explaining what it is looking for - the confusion over the new inspection framework being the latest obscurity. Perhaps that shouldn't surprise. An organisation that uses "satisfactory" to mean exactly the opposite can't be particularly comfortable with the English language.

But by far the most serious issue Ofsted faces is that it is perceived to be unfair. There has always been a tension between its role as guide and judge. But reports of inspectors penalising headteachers immediately after introducing themselves because they were not asked for a CRB check (page 4) suggests it is behaving like a traffic warden.

More damaging are its recent pronouncements that schools given notice to improve will have the scale of their improvement limited by their raw attainment scores, "except in the most exceptional circumstances". Ofsted is, in effect, saying to struggling schools in disadvantaged areas what a teacher should never say to a pupil: you can rise so far, but no farther. That cannot be right.

Inspectors are never going to be popular. And most of those who warrant Ofsted's special attentions are always going to be reluctant to admit that they deserve the scrutiny. But verdicts have to be seen to be fair. It is not entirely clear if Ofsted's recent judgments are.

Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: gerard.kelly@tes.co.uk.

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