Why am I so negative about Ofsted? I can do no other

Unlike Labour, Bernard Trafford does not want to see Ofsted abolished. But he feels compelled to criticise the effect it has on schools and teachers

Martin Luther, nailing 95 Theses to church door

When, on 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle church, he set himself on a collision course with the might of the Roman Catholic church. Tradition, now disputed by scholars, has it that he declared: “Here I stand. I can do no other.” The rest is history – and the Reformation.

Luther was brave: he was taking on a potent and ruthless opponent, a fact undiminished by the old schoolboy howler that mistakes the word “theses” for “faeces”. 

Less formidable than the power of 16th-century Rome, though nonetheless vocal, is reaction to the Labour Party’s conference (that’s Lib Dem policy, too).

Why so negative? 

Tes deputy editor Ed Dorrell shrewdly points out that the proposal could render education an election battleground (arguably no bad thing). But it will cost Labour votes, since parents like inspection reports when choosing schools for their children. 

I don’t blame parents for valuing Ofsted. Nor do I take issue with the decision to end the exemption of schools previously rated "outstanding" from further inspection. So why, as I was asked rather sharply the other day, is everything I write about Ofsted so negative?

It’s true that I tend not to shower the inspectorate with praise: I’m swifter to criticise its effects on schools and teachers

In my defence, I don’t do hatchet jobs on its people or their professional work. Ofsted’s senior executives without exception impress me, and the inspectors I’ve met (particularly HMI) have invariably been outstanding educationalists, generally with distinguished experience in school leadership.

I’ve given Amanda Spielman, Her Majesty’s chief inspector, credit for: speaking out about physical education being squeezed out of the curriculum; for confirming to a House of Commons select committee that, although she had no firm proof (yet), funding cuts were likely to wreak demonstrable damage over time; for expecting inspectors presented with reams of data to question whether their creation was a worthwhile use of teacher time; and for urging schools not to respond to Ofsted’s new focus on curriculum by producing endless paper policies, concentrating instead on useful discussion with inspectors about what their curriculum offers pupils.

Neither have I denied the importance of having an inspectorate that can enter unlicensed schools, and prosecute if necessary. Similarly, I welcome the prohibition on admitting pupils recently issued to several dodgy private schools, none of them members of the recognised associations that would provide a level of monitoring. 

We need mechanisms both to investigate causes for concern and to tell government candidly how its education policies are working out.

Arbitrary measures

Alas, it’s not the information gleaned that’s the problem, however professionally it’s collected. The problem is the way it’s then used to create arbitrary measures. Ofsted inspections form part of an accountability regime so burdensome and so high-stakes that its very existence – let alone the impending arrival of a team of inspectors – cranks up the stress. It’s an inevitable consequence.

Inevitable, too, is the intensification of pressure that stems from policymakers’ insistence that the infinitely complex mechanisms and interactions of a school should be reduced to a single adjectival grade. Meanwhile, the encouragement of competition, notwithstanding contradictory pleas for collaboration, renders even the fine difference between "good" and "outstanding" judgements crucial for schools: witness the banners hung on school gates.

As additional targets and benchmarks are constantly imposed by government, every new tweak of the inspection framework simultaneously increases workload, as schools identify new hoops through which they feel they must jump.

Over my long career, I learned what motivates teachers and gets the best out of them, for the benefit of their pupils – and what doesn’t. 

So I’m not lining up to endorse the Labour or Lib Dem plans to axe Ofsted, because more is required. The entire accountability system, of which Ofsted is but a part, is at fault. Root and branch revision is needed to remove intolerable pressure and return joy and satisfaction to the job – to the vocation – of teaching.

So, sorry Ofsted, but I have to keep writing in this vein. Like Martin Luther (if less grandly, and with infinitely less personal risk), I can do no other.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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