Warning signs about ‘shadow inspections’

16th February 2018 at 00:00
Fears about overlap between Ofsted and RSCs were voiced years ago – now, at least, the DfE is listening

Concerns about the overlap between Ofsted and regional schools commissioners were apparent as early as 2015.

Giving evidence to the Commons Education Select Committee at that time, education consultant Robert Hill warned that “there must be more than a theoretical risk that an RSC’s critique/advice could conflict with the judgements of Ofsted”.

Reporting in January 2016, the committee of MPs said: “Ofsted warned that ‘care must be taken to ensure that the roles of RSCs and the inspectorate do not overlap to an extent that causes confusion and the unnecessary duplication of work for schools and trusts’.

“However, we heard that the approach to school visits being taken by some RSCs was being interpreted as a ‘shadow inspection regime’.”

The committee recommended that Ofsted and the national schools commissioner “should ensure that schools are clear about the distinction between Ofsted inspections and RSC visits”.

Frustrations and fears

A year later, the MPs voiced their frustration about a lack of action, saying that evidence they had received “indicated that this has not yet been done”.

In fact, there were fears that the situation could get worse. They wrote that the expansion of the RSCs’ role to convert all “inadequate” schools to academy status, and to decide the fate of “coasting” schools, had “brought the remit of the RSCs and Ofsted closer”.

The MPs added that the NUT teaching union had told them that the change had “exacerbated” the “confusing duplication between the remits of Ofsted and RSCs”. “This confusion is felt amongst teachers, schools and trusts,” they said.

The MPs were clear: “There remains too much overlap between the roles of Ofsted and RSCs.” Despite this, there were concerns that this overlap would, if anything, grow wider.

When Ofsted proposed last September that it be given powers to inspect multi-academy trusts, Hill warned that “any formal inspection role for Ofsted would be bound to put the relationship between the respective RSC and Ofsted functions under intense scrutiny”.

And as recently as this month, the Ofsted-RSC overlap was such a big concern for school leaders that a session was devoted to it at a meeting of the national council of the Association of School and College Leaders.

'Distracting' bureaucracy

For Geoff Barton, the organisation’s general secretary, these “layers of inspectorial bureaucracy are probably distracting school and college leaders from what they should be doing”.

He adds: “It is probably increasing the pressures on teachers in terms of workload at the very time when we are talking about doing everything we can to reduce this”.

It is clearly an issue that has started to vex some at the Department for Education. According to Ofsted’s board minutes for November 2017, Paul Kett, the DfE’s director general, education standards, acknowledged an overlap between the RSCs and the inspectorate’s regional directors, saying that “the value-for-money issue this could present is part of active business planning discussions at the DfE”.

Although the DfE claims Kett’s comments referred narrowly only to joint activities between RSCs and the Ofsted regional directors at a specific event, it is clear that action is now being taken to address wider concerns.

December’s flagship DfE plan to improve social mobility, Unlocking Talent, Fulfilling Potential, promised to “make sure that schools can be clear on the function of key actors in the accountability system – particularly the distinct roles of regional schools commissioners and Ofsted”.

And now Sir David Carter, who, as national schools commissioner, leads the RSCs, has pledged to solve the problem by ending “duplication” with Ofsted (bit.ly/RSCreduce).

Many in the sector welcomed the announcement. But it may be wise to wait to see change on the ground before the celebrations begin.

@geomr

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