Why I’m cautiously optimistic about Ofsted

We speak up when Ofsted does things wrong – but we must also praise its positive changes, says one heads’ leader

Ofsted is planning to regularly inspect 'outstanding' schools

As a union representing school leaders, we have a responsibility to speak up when we think policymakers are getting things wrong. 

However, we also have to be willing to say when we think things are moving in a positive direction. Twice last week we had cause to do exactly that.

First, we had the announcement that Ofsted would be taking a new approach to "stuck schools". While we didn’t agree with every single word of the report, nor do we particularly like the introduction of yet another pejorative label, we absolutely agree that it’s time for a change of approach when it comes to schools that find themselves struggling, whatever the reason. In the case of the small number of so-called "stuck schools" it is clear that just repeatedly judging and labelling them simply hasn’t worked – if it had they wouldn’t still be seen as "stuck".

Ofsted’s proposal to take a more non-judgemental approach where the school is given more in-depth diagnostic feedback has the potential to be a real game-changer. While I sympathise with those who have warned against Ofsted becoming too involved in the actual process of school improvement, a more precise analysis of a school’s strengths and areas for improvement carried out in partnership with the school leaders would surely be more useful than the current "label and leave" approach.

Ofsted tackling 'stuck' schools

Understandably, there will be some who might be concerned that under these proposals inspectors could be spending longer in schools. However, if the focus is genuinely on helping schools to identify how they can improve rather than on simply grading them and then walking away, then I think most will see this as a step in the right direction. 

In the second inspection-related announcement, the Department for Education confirmed that it intends to remove the current exemption that applies to "outstanding" schools. While some might be surprised to see a union that represents school leaders supporting such a move, we believe it’s the right thing to do; abandoning the exemption is actually something we advocated two years ago in our accountability commission report.

I suspect the government will meet very little resistance when it comes to this proposed change. Few would argue that it’s healthy to have schools that haven’t been visited for over a decade. Counterintuitively, from a school leader perspective, the current exemption and risk assessment approach can actually be a significant cause of stress. Leaders in these exempt schools know that when the next inspection does finally come there is a very strong chance it will result in their school being downgraded.

Most leaders in "outstanding" schools that I have spoken to would actually rather regular inspection than the current state of play where the sword of Damocles is constantly hovering in the background.

Because of this, we will be supporting the government’s proposal to end exemption for "outstanding" schools.

However, we do have some concerns regarding the specifics of how government intends to implement the change. The current suggestion is that schools that were judged to be "outstanding" within the past five years will receive a section 8 inspection (more commonly known as a "short inspection") whereas those that were last inspected by prior to September 2015 will automatically receive the full, section 5 inspection.

NAHT’s contention is that all previously exempt schools should be treated the same way when it comes to reintegrating them into the inspection cycle.

The most obvious way to do this is to start by giving all these schools the "short" section 8 inspection. If a full inspection is then needed, so be it – but it seems entirely unfair to have a two-tier approach. Those that were last inspected in the summer of 2015 will understandably feel particularly aggrieved to have missed this somewhat arbitrary cut-off point.

While we agree that ending the exemption is the right thing to do, let’s not forget that, through no fault of their own, these schools and school leaders are now being brought back into an inspection routine that they, not too long ago, were told they would be freed from. It seems only fair to do this in as gradual and least intrusive a way as is possible.

It would be a shame for the government to get the policy right in principle but lose support because of the detail. 

Of course, school leaders are unlikely to ever be the world’s biggest fans of inspection, but these reforms provide a reason for some cautious optimism. They have the potential to be a sensible step in the right direction and, with some small changes, they are ones that I think most will support.

James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT headteachers' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders

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