The future of Ofsted may not have been the biggest fault line between parties during the recent general election, but there was certainly clear blue water between them, with Boris Johnson supporting the inspectorate strongly and, in so doing, distancing himself from Labour and the Lib Dems' scorched-earth policy of abolishing Ofsted in its current form.
Johnson even went as far as supporting "no-notice" school inspections. Yet this is a deeply impractical approach that has already been trialled and shown to be plagued by controversy and difficulties. As Sir Michael WIlshaw, then chief inspector, wrote to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, in 2014:
"Inspectors reported that there were logistical drawbacks to inspecting without notice because of difficulties in effectively engaging with school leaders, governors and parents. This view is consistent with Ofsted’s previous consultation on the use of no-notice inspection and supports my decision that we should not move to routine no-notice inspections for all schools."
If the returned Conservative government is committed to more rigorous but fair inspection, a better approach would be to reform the grading system by abolishing the "outstanding" grade.
This is an approach that has long been recommended by both the NAHT school leaders' union and the Centre for Education and Youth. It is also an approach that the chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, once indicated she would be open to, since it is not an "anti-Ofsted" move, just a pro-school one.
We believe there is an alternative grading system available that would deliver better schools and more reliable information for parents.
A three-grade Ofsted system
The "outstanding" grade has achieved near totemic status and the flip-side of this is that it distorts the system. It is time for it to go. Indeed, during a Commons Education Select Committee hearing as part of her appointment, Ms Spielman herself said she was "quite uncomfortable" about "some of the effects I see [the outstanding grade] having in the system".
Ofsted's efforts should instead be focused on identifying whether a school is up to expected standards, and if not, what response is needed. Improvement beyond a threshold could then be entrusted to a system of peer review. However, where schools are not good enough, the inspectorate could decide whether the school was in need of "additional support" or "immediate action".
Ofsted would, therefore, continue to play its critical role in providing clear, independent information to parents and government, as well as maintaining high standards across the system.
Tackling key issues
Headteachers are judged on their record for moving schools to "outstanding". All too often the grade the school receives and the effectiveness of the head are unfairly conflated. The head's career trajectory can be dramatically altered when their school receives this accolade, and a whole host of system leadership opportunities soon present themselves. Their careers within and beyond their own school can then live or die by their success in maintaining the grade.
It is not just the current leadership team that is affected. Prospective school leaders are put off from applying for jobs in "outstanding" schools as the risks associated with being downgraded are simply too high. None of this is Ofsted's intention and recent reforms to the inspection framework should help. However, the status quo is not healthy and needs to change.
A pernicious secondary narrative has developed amongst schools, the media and school improvement industry, feeding demands on teachers that are premised on securing or maintaining the gold star. This detracts from the real substance of education and the intrinsic reasons for doing things, undermining heads' professionalism and teacher motivation.
Perhaps the above could be justified if we were fully confident of the reliability and validity of grading. But this is far from certain, given limited evidence on reliability, combined with analysis showing the close link between Ofsted judgements and a school's context, as well as a lack of evidence for the grade being linked to improving achievement.
This is not just bad for schools, teachers and leaders; it's also deeply unhelpful for parents determined to do the right thing for their children.
Of course, the same could be said of the remaining three judgements under our proposed grading structure – but if we have an idea of what is "good enough" (based on what we think all children are entitled to) and the inspectorate finds that a school doesn't match this, it still matters regardless of whether the judgement is linked to context or predictive of achievement.
Ofsted's Sean Harford explains this, saying: "Schools in the poorest areas of the country face a steeper path to providing a good quality of education for their pupils. Aside from high numbers of pupils starting behind others, the recruitment and retention challenges facing all schools are even more acute in these places…These schools, sometimes in isolated places, also have more difficulty accessing high-quality resources, like great museums, libraries and theatres. So, some of these children are unfortunately not getting the education they deserve. Ofsted has to draw attention to that… When it comes to an overall judgement, we have to report on the quality of education as we find it. If the quality of education in these schools is not good enough, not recognising this helps no one, particularly the children who go there."
While a "good" judgement would show that a school was on the right track and well placed to pursue improvement as part of the peer support system, a "requires support" judgement would trigger additional help and resources alongside greater scrutiny.
A "requires support" judgement need not imply that the current leadership lacks the capacity to improve, particularly given that schools in such circumstances frequently receive top grades for leadership and management. Instead, it would show that the school could benefit from extra help. Meanwhile, an "immediate action" judgement would trigger more robust action where more serious concerns were identified.
This would be consistent with the government's new approach to accountability where the "requires improvement" judgement triggers the offer of optional support from a National Leader in Education. Support could be shaped by the inspection report and its recommendations, given that schools consistently find this feedback helpful in pointing the way forward.
Thus, even if schools in challenging circumstances remained more likely to receive a "requires support" judgement, the grade would pave the way for support. It would, therefore, be in everyone's interest and foster greater honesty about the fact that providing high-quality education is harder in some contexts than others.
Schools supporting schools
Reaching expected standards clearly isn't the end of the school improvement journey. Children and their parents deserve excellence. However, regular peer support is a better way of helping schools to reach world-class status once they have crossed the "good" threshold.
The NAHT's recent report examining peer review demonstrated that peer review can be robust and supportive if carried out in the right way. This type of support should, therefore, be used where schools are above the threshold, to ensure they work together to improve on a constant basis, rather than relying on inspection from an under-resourced inspectorate every few years.
One objection might be that schools in close proximity are not well placed to provide challenge and support, given the potential for competition. However, a peer review system could be developed that brokered review and challenge from more distant schools.
Abolishing Ofsted's lodestar would not mean lowering expectations. Instead, it would recognise that above a certain threshold, more frequent review and support would provide a better and more professionalising driving-force for improvement. After all, it's an approach that sat at the heart of the much-lauded London Challenge model, which is admired around the world.
We know that the unintended consequences of league tables and Ofsted are damaging wellbeing and driving teachers out of the profession and this needs to stop. But we must continue to strive for educational excellence.
Marrying these two priorities is not easy, but the combination of abolishing the "outstanding" grade and beefing up peer support above the 'good' threshold is one way of doing so.
Combining such moves with Centre for Education and Youth and the NAHT's proposed multi-year averages in league tables would temper the pressure cooker environment of our schools, without the risk of lowering standards.
We know that the new government will want to show that it is taking steps to develop a world-class education system with excellence at its heart. We can only hope that it will take the necessary steps to further professionalise the sector and embed a commitment to continuous improvement – without the damaging side effects associated with our current system.
James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT school leaders' union and Loic Menzies is chief executive of the Centre for Education and Youth