Tierney: Ofsted might have a new framework, but the same old problems remain

If Ofsted really wants to work with teachers, it needs to rebalance the power dynamic and ditch the grading system once and for all

Stephen Tierney

Ofsted, OFsted framework, Ofsted's new framework, Amanda Spielman

As the dust settles on another iteration of an Ofsted framework, the inspectorate is in self-congratulatory mood. There is little sense or acknowledgement of the substantive concerns raised by many through the consultation process, and there is little sense or concern that the substantive issues that Ofsted has failed to address for over 25 years remain.

These include the variability, lack of consistency of inspection teams and unwillingness or inability to grasp the challenge faced by schools working in the most disadvantaged areas of the country. “We demand high standards from all” – welcome to the club, so do we. The limitations of the methods used to generate evidence and data that have an impact on reliability and consequently the validity of the grades and comments made. “Oh, but we are a human organisation” – then be less certain and more tentative when making judgements.

With the substantive issues either brushed to one side or beyond the remit of the organisation, changes made to the draft were limited. One change was the replacement of the proposed on-site day before meeting – rumour has it this was dead in the water almost before the ink had dried on the consultation paper – with a professional dialogue with an expertly trained educator.

True dialogue needs an appropriate power dynamic – in the absence of that, it easily becomes a monologue or an interrogation. When a headteacher gets the long-feared call, the current power dynamic means that we are not all in this together – we are all in this very differently. As a school leader, you know that your organisation will, after a visit that is little more than cursory, in the totality of the work done over many years, be summed up in a high-stakes, cliff-edged, one-word judgement. "Outstanding" leads to freedoms, opportunities and access to more funding. "Inadequate" leads to ignominy, loss of staff critical to the work and future success of the school, falling pupil numbers and financial difficulty.

There was and still is the potential to change this: Ofsted and politicians need to step up and work with the profession. The power dynamic needs to be rebalanced – Freire would call for the oppressor and the oppressed to be released from their bonds and focus on addressing the problem of how to help improve the school.

Three simple suggestions come to mind: the removal of grading from the whole process; all evidence forms and evidence used by the inspection team to be provided, in real time and unredacted, to the school; and fundamental reform of Ofsted’s complaints process.

Through the consultation, Headteachers' Roundtable proposed that the grading of individual sections of the framework be removed as a first step. Unfortunately, this has fallen on deaf ears – it would have been hugely symbolic and potentially revolutionary. The “no grading” of sections of the report would have been a catalyst to remove the overall judgement grade. Dialogue is commensurate with narrative, not with grading, and is even more important in contentious and subjective areas such as curriculum.

By releasing all documents as they are written – the school should have joint and individual ownership – a real sense of partnership and agency would become palpable. Knowledge is power – so empower school leaders with the knowledge currently only available to the inspectors. These documents are likely to reveal the very real contradictions, variations and potential areas of focus that are part of any two-day visit to a school. The current clinical inspection report with all its certainties isn’t real or believable: “the school may want to consider further…There seems some evidence to suggest…Greater focus on x may be useful…” are a much more real and arguably a more valid set of conclusions to reach, tentative as they should be.

Ofsted’s complaint system is the final part of the rebalancing of power. It is currently so heavily weighted in favour of Ofsted that schools either don’t bother, give up mid-process or are left frustrated with what they perceive as wrong judgements. Where a complaint is made, any report should remain unpublished until the complaint is resolved: much better a delay than false or misleading information being publicly available. There is no need to publish reports quickly; most Ofsted reports are historical by a year or more. There must also be a wholly independent panel at the final stage of the process, at each stage of judgements, for as long as we have them, and commentary can be amended. People have to have confidence that grievances about reports will be listened to and will be seen to be listened to. They also need to believe they will be acted on.

Ofsted will possibly struggle with all of these changes. Its position of being all-powerful – I’ve always tended to think that was God’s job – would be challenged. Professional dialogue with an expertly trained educator who is open to challenge, being challenged and having to engage in a two-way, informed and sometimes difficult conversation, would become just that.

With a rebalancing of the power dynamic, thought must be given to what Ofsted is not well placed to do and what could be much more effectively done in another way or by others.  

Headteachers' Roundtable has long maintained that safeguarding is an audit not an inspection issue. Safeguarding of children and young people cannot be left to an every three or four or more years visit. While some politicians I have spoken to are understandably concerned about extremism, the reality is that during my years in school leadership, the focus was sadly on neglect and abuse. I can think in 22 years of two referrals around extremism – though this number may vary considerably geographically – but two a day for neglect or abuse would not be rare, and two a week would be pretty standard. Unfortunately, I can’t see the various issues associated with safeguarding going away any time soon.

What is required is a more systematic and timely approach to improving the safeguarding of every child in every school. An Institute of Chartered Safeguarding Officers (akin to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) should be established to train, assess and licence Chartered Safeguarding Officers. These officers would be responsible for termly auditing of safeguarding provision within all schools. Schools would have a statutory or funding requirement to undertake a safeguarding audit and, as a consequence of the findings, continuously improve the processes in place. As with the current financial audits, in academies, the audit process is part of internal quality assurance. Any criminal wrongdoing could be reported to the police or if behaviours are morally inappropriate, they must be corrected by the school. If not corrected, they are reported to the funding agency and judgements around “fitness to govern” would need to be made. I do not underestimate the scale of this undertaking; however, I consider it is proportionate to the importance of the issue.

Where an organisation – whether a school or Ofsted – develops an unhealthy level of hubris, it risks not looking at itself honestly and openly; the consequences are it fails to develop and evolve in a way and at the rate required. The above are offered in good faith; they are also offered to help address the ethical issue of nonmaleficence, which must form part of our thinking.

The education system has changed radically during the past decade. Maybe a more revolutionary approach is now required in order to develop a humane accountability system that addresses the fear, workload and lack of retention that currently blights the system.

Stephen Tierney is chair of Headteachers' Roundtable, a blogger and author of Liminal Leadership. He tweets @LeadingLearner

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