Do not walk away from accountability, reform OFSTED, do not abolish it.

OFSTED, the schools inspectorate has received flack for its inspection methods in the aftermath of the tragic death of Ruth Perry earlier this year. Following a period of silence, OFSTED Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman appeared on BBC Laura Kuenssberg this morning to face questions over the OFSTED’s approach to inspections.

The Liberal Democrat policy on OFSTED is to abolish it and replace it with a new body for school accountability. This is flawed for a number of reasons, not least because the hiatus period between abolition and refounding could lead to serious failures in uncovering failing establishments, hurting the life chances of the thousands of pupils in the communities that those schools serve. However, reform is a more appropriate method to secure the faith of the profession in their regulator.

What does the current OFSTED framework actually do?

Currently the OFSTED inspection focuses on four key areas; Quality of Education, Behaviour and Attitudes, Personal Development, Leadership and Management.

For primary providers, there is an additional aspect of an inspection into the Early Years Foundation aspect of their offer. For secondary providers, those with post-16 facilities are measured on that too.

Each of the areas are judged as one of four measurements Inadequate (colloquially known as being put into Special Measures), Requires Improvement, Good & Outstanding. Overall, it is very difficult to get a Good or Outstanding result if the provider fails on areas such as safeguarding.

Why is it being criticised?

The framework and grading system has come under attack from the teaching profession (specifically unions and many commentators) due to the heavy burden it puts on staff, with the NEU in particular calling for abolition.

This is however, not necessarily borne out in feedback from educators, teachers do not want to abolish OFSTED and research from Teacher Tapp who survey nearly 10,000 teachers a day, shows that teachers favour reform and are quite likely to suggest reform over simply scrapping OFSTED. 

However, in terms of priorities, people wanted funding for the education system as a top priority (same survey).

How should we change it?

Clearly there is an appetite for change and it would be remis of the Liberal Democrats to simply ignore that call. However, like the teaching profession, we should approach this conversation with nuance. I would therefore propose that we start the conversation on how we reform OFSTED.

Let’s start with the framework.

The basics on what the inspectorate actually looks at are broadly correct.

Quality of Education, this should relate to the student outcomes in the school evidenced by the Progress 8 formula, or SAT outcomes for primary schools, fairly straightforwardly the quality of outcomes is hugely important for our students, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This does not have to be undertaken as part of an inspection as there is a de facto review every results day.

Behaviour and Attitudes. This is an important aspect of the school inspection process and measures whether learning can actually take place within the school and whether students are safe. This is something that should not be changed.

Leadership and Management. This encompasses safeguarding and was at the heart of the Perry Tragedy. This is an area where there is significant room for improvement. I would begin by splitting up this area into:

  • Culture and school leadership. The focus here should be assessing the areas that the school needs to improve in its leadership
  • Safeguarding and school policies. These should be assessed by specialist safeguarding inspectors. Whose only remit is to annually check the policies and application of policies within the school.
  • Staff training and development. Schools are lifelong learning establishments and one of the areas that should be regularly checked is the quality of CPD. This is something that is done by OFSTED at the moment so wouldn’t require change.
  • Financial Health. The school should be annually audited as an individual accounting unit in order to ensure that pupil premium and other spending is being done efficiently and effectively.

Personal Development. This area looks at what we used to call cultural capital, but more widely it looks at how our schools prepare students for the challenges they face in life, be it in the workplace or in their personal lives. The way this is currently inspected is fair so should not be a priority for change.

To conclude, we need annual inspections that focus on personal development, school culture, financial health and safeguarding. By doing this, we can streamline the process to a two day visit that supports schools and shifts the inspection focus from classroom teachers to senior leaders and governors.

This would shift the focus away from deep dives into subjects from non-specialists and bring attention to nationally consistent and quantifiable metrics such as pupil outcomes.

Ideally this would be measured more effectively with a more balanced inspection team comprising of:

  • A financial expert
  • A safeguarding expert
  • Current school leaders from similar context schools.
  • Current classroom practitioners from similar context schools.

This should not move us away from the grading system, one that for all its faults, allows for snap decisions by parents and potential employees.

Finally, we should move towards a truly snap inspection scenario where same day inspections can allow for a true painting of the way a school operates day-to-day and stop Multi-Academy-Trusts and Local Authorities to fudge the picture.

* Callum Robertson is a teacher and former Chair of the Young Liberals

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  • Steve Trevethan 23rd Apr '23 - 9:57pm

    Might it be worth asking the students for their opinion of their school?

    Can something as important, living and complex as a school be adequately analysed and represented using single words and two word phrases?

    Might the citizens of our country be trusted to read and use more detailed and therefor more accurate descriptors?

    Might more trust and less mechanistic measures improve student enjoyment and so raise standards?

    After the stress of inspections, what is the morale of students and staff?

    Who inspects the inspectors?

  • In theory there is nothing wrong with ensuring that schools are giving their students an suitable education, but the reality is that many of the OFSTED inspectors simply do not know what they are doing. For example, in is common for Early Years teachers to be criticised by OFSTED inspectors whose own professional experience is in older age groups. Consequently their idea of a “good” reception class is children sitting in rows doing worksheets. They have no real understanding about current theory or practice of the teaching of young children, for example the role of play.

  • What seems to be missing from the Ofsted framework is an actual review of a school’s business structure and organisation namely is it implementing good industry practise, is it using appropriate systems to support staff in the delivery of education.

    From the school my children attended, there really is little reason for teachers to be working outside of 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday and for pupils to be expected to have to do homework outside of these hours. This school happens to have consistently been outstanding for many years, been welll above average for “added value” (ie. Pupils achieve more than expected), has implemented much educational research findings from post 1960, and pays Ofsted to do more frequent/regular inspections than Ofsted would do otherwise.

    Hence part of my concern over the Ruth Perry case, is that what we’re the school governors doing in not supporting their headteacher through what was her first official inspection.

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