Why the Conservatives are playing politics with Ofsted

The Tory plan to give Ofsted cash makes no sense – they just want to look tough on school standards, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

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Without any sense of irony, the Conservatives last night announced plans to give Ofsted more money and powers just a few hours after statistics showed a massive shortage of new trainee teachers.

These Department for Education figures showed that the government has missed its secondary teacher training target for the seventh year in a row. In the severe shortage subjects of maths, foreign languages and physics, the targets were missed by a country mile.

Ratcheting up a high-stakes accountability system that is already driving people out of teaching hardly seems like the most sensible approach to addressing the teacher supply crisis.

But last night’s announcement was more about politics than it was about sense.

The Conservatives clearly believe that beefing up Ofsted plays well on the doorstep and that it gives them an advantage over Labour and Liberal Democrat proposals to scrap the inspectorate and replace it with a new system of oversight.

Those who work in education will immediately see two of the proposals put forward by the Conservatives for what they are – answers to non-problems.

Should Ofsted be scrapped?

The party proposes extending inspections from two days to three days in order to focus on “behaviour, bullying and a school’s extracurricular offer” as though these responsibilities are in some way neglected in the current system.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. They are already an intrinsic part of the inspection system and feature heavily in the school inspection handbook.

Then there is a plan to pilot making inspections no-notice. It is the oldest of old chestnuts. One that has been raised and rejected on several occasions.

And the existing system is already as near-as-dammit to being no-notice, with the call coming only the lunchtime before the inspection begins.

Even if schools were inclined to do so, which the overwhelming majority are not, it is difficult to see how they would perform any sleight of hand the Conservatives suspect them of by 8am the next morning.

And in that time they have to amass and prepare a huge swathe of information for the inspectors. The conclusion, which has been reached time and time again, is that no-notice inspections are impractical – and they also convey a distasteful lack of trust in the professionalism of teachers and leaders.

It was also surprising to hear education secretary Gavin Williamson say on BBC Breakfast this morning that the ability to have no-notice inspections was important in situations where there may be particular concerns about a school.

This power already exists. The school inspection handbook says: “We will consider inspection without notice when there are serious concerns about one or more of the following: the breadth and balance of the curriculum; rapidly declining standards; safeguarding; a decline in standards of pupils’ behaviour and the ability of staff to maintain discipline; and standards of leadership or governance.”

Finally, there is the – already announced – plan to abolish the exemption from routine inspection for schools rated as "outstanding" by Ofsted.

We agree with this proposal, but it is worth pointing out that this is, in fact, an answer to a problem of the Conservatives’ own making. Step forward Michael Gove, who, as Conservative secretary of state for education, introduced the exemption in 2011.

The cost of beefing up Ofsted is high – an extra £10 million for the inspectorate. Granted that amid the billions of pounds of expenditure that has been wafted around during this election campaign it is small beer. But it is still enough to pay for about 200 teachers.

Coming at a time when schools and colleges have been cut to the bone, it is patently the wrong priority to spend more money on the inspection system.

If the Conservatives win the election, it is worth remembering this when you are next told there is no magic money tree.

Unfortunately, the detail doesn’t matter. The message the Conservatives wanted to get out was that they are toughening up the inspection system. And it is probably a case of mission accomplished.

Meanwhile, the actual risk that threatens the Conservatives’ cherished mantra of "standards" has still not been fully addressed – the crippling shortage of money and teachers in our schools.

Their proposal for a £30,000 starting salary for teachers will help matters as long as there is also a recognition that pay needs to be improved at all levels to boost retention.

But, as ever, there is a "but". The government has already made it clear to us that it expects all the money for funding this extra pay to come from its £7.1 billion increase to the schools budget over the next three years. It is a case of giving with one hand and taking with the other.

And it has simply not done enough to address the eye-watering pressure on school staff from an accountability system that drives stress, anxiety, workload and an exodus from the profession.

Now it has proposed a policy that will add to that pressure.

We need more teachers in our schools. Properly remunerated, confident and happy in their roles. We need schools and colleges that have sufficient funding to be able to meet the basic expectation that parents and society places upon them.

These are surely the real priorities, the ones that will actually protect and raise standards.

Inspection can only hold a mirror up to what is happening in a school or college. It will never make the difference to young people’s lives that teachers and leaders do, day in and day out.

Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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