Watching the watchdog

4th May 2012 at 01:00
The NAHT has unveiled its new website, School View, which will allow heads to have their say on inspectors' performance.

One spring afternoon, primary headteacher Helen Scott* was working in her office when the phone rang. As she picked up the receiver, little did she suspect the drama that was about to unfold.

It was Ofsted; Scott's school had received "the call". Inspectors, she was told, would be arriving the following Monday. The news would be enough to send any primary head into a panic. But, more than anything, Scott was simply baffled. The following week, as primary school heads up and down the country were all too aware, was Sats week.

"I said to him, `But Ofsted doesn't come during Sats week'. He said: `But you're not doing Sats, are you, Mrs Scott?'"

It was May 2010. Members of the NAHT heads' union had just made the controversial decision to boycott the national key stage 2 tests. Passionately opposed to the Sats regime, Scott had decided to support her union's stance; she had even been doing the rounds in the local media to explain her decision.

Now, it seemed, she was about to receive her come-uppance. "They must have seen me on the TV," she says. "They were just gunning for me. They were trying to catch us out. I could tell as soon as they walked in that's what was going to happen."

Scott believes that the lead inspector's mind had already been made up. Having been rated good three years previously, she was later told that the school had now been downgraded to satisfactory. "We were just devastated," she says.

Two weeks later, Ofsted contacted her again. "I was on a school trip - I was actually on top of Mont-Saint-Michel (in Normandy, France) at the time - when I had a phone call. I was told Ofsted wanted to talk to me and I needed to have a copy of the inspection report in front of me in 20 minutes."

With the stinging criticism from the lead inspector still fresh in her mind, Scott's heart began to pound. "Were they going to put us in special measures? It was the worst 20 minutes of my life," she says. Thankfully, the news was good; the school's grade, she was told, was being raised to good. "Somebody must have disagreed (with the lead inspector's original verdict). Quite rightly - it was rubbish. It was just a farce."

This is just one of many complaints about the conduct of Ofsted inspectors that have been received by the NAHT in recent years. Anecdotally, things have been getting worse since the revised inspection framework was introduced in January. And when Sir Michael Wilshaw's new framework - featuring no-notice inspections - comes into force in September, many fear that inconsistencies will become even more pronounced.

Last month, TES revealed that Ofsted does not have any records of how many of Her Majesty's Inspectors have been heads themselves, let alone what sector they have worked in ("Ofsted `does not have details' of inspectors' previous experience", 6 April). As a result, the NAHT has warned, some schools are being assessed by inspectors who do not have a sufficiently strong grasp of the facets of school leadership that are peculiar to particular sectors.

The NAHT is refusing to take the matter lying down. With schools under increased scrutiny as a result of Ofsted's Parent View website, which allows parents to rate their child's school online for all to see, the heads' union has decided to turn the tables on the watchdog.

At the NAHT's annual conference in Harrogate this weekend, general secretary Russell Hobby will announce the launch of School View. This website, will, for the first time, allow heads to have their say on the performance of inspectors.

NAHT members will be asked to name the lead inspector who visited their school and rate them on their performance. They will, for example, be asked whether school staff were treated with respect and whether the head was "encouraged to participate in a professional dialogue with the inspection team".

"One of the main things that concerns school leaders about Ofsted," Hobby explains, "is the quality and consistency of the inspection teams. They tend to not mind a hard judgement as long as it's a fair judgement. But when it feels like a roll of the dice, when inspectors have made up their minds before they come in, it starts to undermine the legitimacy of it.

"Schools don't know what they will be getting; whether it's someone who is genuinely interested and who knows what they are talking about, or whether they will get someone who hasn't taught in many years, or may never have taught in the phase they are looking at."

An NAHT survey of 2,000 of its members reveals some major concerns about the watchdog's performance. Less than 2 per cent of those surveyed believe Ofsted's judgements are free from political interference, while almost 90 per cent said they were unhappy with the negative tone of its recent announcements. Wilshaw's proposed changes to the inspection framework are also proving unpopular, with no-notice inspections and renaming the satisfactory category as "requires improvement" described as "unacceptable" by 73 per cent and 82 per cent of members respectively.

Perhaps more worryingly for Ofsted, there seems to be little faith among school leaders that the watchdog actually raises standards of education. While fewer than 20 per cent of those surveyed said that it "drives improvement" or "helps schools raise standards", 36 per cent said it "solely ensures compliance with basics". Even worse, 32 per cent said that it "makes no contribution to raising standards", while 13 per cent said Ofsted actually prevents schools from improving.

No-excuses policy runs both ways

Ofsted is bullish about the credentials of its inspectors. An Ofsted inspector said: "Everyone who inspects for Ofsted is highly trained and experienced. Through our quality assurance process, we strive to achieve consistency across our reports while giving inspectors scope to exercise their professional judgement. We are always happy to engage with the NAHT about our work and agree that rigorous performance management is essential in any organisation.

"Last month, we announced our drive to get headteachers more involved in the inspection process by calling on them to undertake a small number of inspections every year and the pilots with the National College for School Leadership will start next month."

Hobby, however, paints a less rosy picture. "I feel Ofsted is too complacent. They (the inspectors) constantly say they don't get many complaints, that heads say (inspection is) a positive experience, but they investigate their own complaints. Sir Michael Wilshaw has talked about a zero-tolerance, no-excuses policy on schools. He needs to apply the same standards to his own inspection teams as well. You need to get your own house in order before you go around tearing down other people's.

"We actually believe in inspection. It's a really important part of the school system. But it should be good inspection. Therefore, we need to hold the inspectors to account as well. School View is going to allow us to get some real figures for the first time - credible figures, about what it feels like to be inspected."

While official statistics on how schools have fared under the new framework have not yet been published, the NAHT believes that a disproportionate number are being classed as failing.

In Staffordshire, the numbers of schools issued a notice to improve since January has doubled to four, while the number in special measures has more than trebled to 14.

A separate analysis by The Times last month revealed that, nationally, 56 schools were rated inadequate in March, compared with none in the same month in 2011.

Even taking into account Ofsted's sharper focus on visiting struggling schools, Hobby says that the results are "absolutely unprecedented". "There would seem to have been a massive rise in the number of schools in a category, often completely out of the blue."

One reason for this, the NAHT believes, is the practice of lead inspectors being sent to assess schools in sectors that they have limited, if any, experience in, and TES' revelations last month reinforced that perception.

Gail Larkin, head of Auriol Junior School in Surrey, describes her experience of four inspections during her 20-year career of school leadership as "horrible".

Since moving from a primary to a junior school, Larkin admits she has found it difficult to attain the raw results needed to raise the school's grade higher than satisfactory. This issue has been compounded, she feels, by the school being assessed by people who do not have sufficient relevant experience; one inspection, for instance, was led by a former secondary school Spanish teacher.

"How can he judge me?" she asks. "We are oversubscribed and parents love the school, but he didn't have a clue."

While inspections are inevitably stressful for school staff, Larkin fears that this will only worsen when no-notice inspections are introduced. "Can you imagine?" she asks. "Every morning, looking out of your window over at the car park, seeing if there's someone you don't recognise."

In August, Larkin is leaving Auriol after 12 years, declaring that she has "had enough". Her "terrible" experiences at the hands of Ofsted are a major contributing factor.

While Hobby insists that he believes that "rogue" inspectors are few and far between, he has created School View to increase the transparency surrounding Ofsted.

"Inspectors will know they are accountable to the same degree as schools. I think it's a positive, if firm, response to the atmosphere we are seeing in schools. I'm sure it will be very cathartic for heads to express their views - and I think Ofsted will find it gets more complaints as a result."

Unlike Ofsted's own inspection reports, the NAHT will not be making all the School View results public. "We're not going to routinely do the naming and shaming thing," Hobby says. "But, where there are problems, we'll be more than happy to talk about it in the press."

If past experience is anything to go by, it will not be long before the performance of inspectors is back in the public eye.

Talking heads

On the School View website, heads can say whether they strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree with the following statements:

- My staff were happy with the inspection process.

- My staff were treated with respect during the inspection process.

- I was encouraged to participate in a professional dialogue with the inspection team.

- The inspection team demonstrated a good understanding of my sector.

- School-generated data were given appropriate consideration.

- The inspection team was led by an experienced and knowledgeable inspector.

- I received useful information about how to improve my school.

- The teamOfsted responded well to any concerns about the inspection process.


Results of the NAHT's survey of members

98.1% - think Ofsted judgements are subject to political interference and 1.9% think they are free from political interference

97.4% - think members of the public providing unverified data via the Parent View website is unacceptable (0.6% think it is acceptable; 2.0% are neutral)

72.9% - think inspections conducted with no notice to schools are unacceptable (13.0% see them as acceptable; 14.1% are neutral)

82.0% - think renaming `satisfactory' as `requires improvement' is unacceptable (7.9% think it is acceptable; 10.1% are neutral)

89.9% - are unhappyvery unhappy about the tone and content of recent announcements by Ofsted (2.4% are happyvery happy; 7.7% are neutral)

35.7% - think Ofsted's contribution to raising standards solely ensures compliance with basics (2.0% think it drives improvement and raises standards; 17.0% that it helps schools raise standards; 32.0% that it makes no contribution to raising standards; 13.3% that it prevents schools from raising standards).

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