OfSTED needs urgent reform now – and the Lib Dems should be leading calls for it

The tragic news that Primary headteacher Ruth Perry took her own life after the primary school she led was downgraded from Outstanding to Inadequate after an inspection in November 2022 has shone a spotlight on the schools inspectorate, OfSTED. It has led to calls to review how these high stakes inspections take place and into the aftermath they wreak. It took over a week for the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman to publish a rather tin-eared statement outlining sympathy with Mrs Perry, her family and the school but making it very clear that inspections will continue unabated and unchanged. At least they responded – however Inadequately. This much – unless I’ve missed something – cannot be said for those that drive education policy in the major political parties, something I find perplexing. There is no way that the tragic death of someone should be used as a political football and this may lay at the heart of the relative silence of Gillian Keegan, Bridget Phillipson and Munira Wilson, but will it take another suicide or 2 more or 3 more before those in power stop, look and realise that putting their heads in the sand and hoping it goes away isn’t the right response?

I have skin in this particular game. I’m a teacher of nearly 30 years service, working as a mathematics teacher in an 11 to 18 secondary school in central Sheffield. I’ve been through multiple OfSTED inspections over the years, seeing them from the perspective of the classroom teacher to that of senior leadership within a school. Like most teachers I am not afraid to be held accountable for what I do. When I started my career in the mid 1990s there was virtually no accountability. Now we are at the polar opposite – high stakes accountability which can destroy reputations, careers and lives.

For those of you who do not know how inspections happen, let me give you a flavour. A school will “get the call” the morning before the inspection will take place. A normal inspection will then take place over the next two days. This means that, if you are expecting the call (schools are inspected about every 3 to 4 years if they have previously been given good or outstanding ratings) you can exhale and give a huge sigh of relief by mid-day on Wednesday knowing that, for the rest of the week, the call will not happen. Of course the anxiety starts again on Monday of the next week. When the inspection takes place a group of inspectors (the number will be determined by the size and particular characteristics of the school) led my the lead inspector will descend upon the school early the next morning. The lead inspector will already have had a long conversation with the head teacher the previous afternoon discussing their ‘lines of enquiries’ and the subjects they intend to do ‘deep dives’ into. When they arrive they will meet the head, the deputy(s) and other teachers with particular responsibilities and interrogate (I won’t use discuss as, believe me it feels more like an interrogation than a discussion) them about their particular area of responsibility. They will look at safeguarding aspects of the school and if these are in any way of concern, the school will get an inadequate rating whatever the rest of the inspection says. This is what happened to Ms Perry’s school. They will also go into a relatively small number of lessons for about 10 minutes or so at a time and observe to “get a flavour” of the teaching that takes place over the two days. From all this, the inspection team will meet and coordinate their findings (including their own personal biases) and come up with a draft report and grade which will be presented to the headteacher and chair of governors late on the second day. The grade will either be Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement or Inadequate. The lower two grades will trigger other actions which could result (and in the case of an inadequate rating probably will result) in the departure of the headteacher and the school, if it hasn’t already, will be pushed towards being be taken over by an academy chain. The results of the inspection will stay secret until various quality assurance measures happen. The school can challenge inaccuracies and can appeal the grade given but the fact that not one grade has been overturned begs the question “who marks OfSTEDs homework”? The report is then put in the public domain and, by law, has to be made available on the schools website. The whole experience, from start to finish, is incredibly traumatic for all concerned.

“Our aim is to raise standards” and “We help schools understand their strengths and areas for improvement” are two risible quotes from Ms Spielmans response to the current controversy. OfSTED does not improve standards. Because of the high stakes nature of inspections, headteachers and school leaders are trying to do what they think OfSTED want rather than what their students and staff need. These two things are not aligned – in fact in many cases are mutually exclusive.

What could be done differently? Let’s start with the grade. An OfSTED inspection is not a summative assessment like your GCSE or A Level exam. It’s meant to inform strengths and weaknesses to aid improvement. It is formative assessment. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of current educational research knows that giving a grade alongside such feedback renders the feedback almost useless as all the student (school/parent/media) fixate on is the grade. Parents aren’t stupid so why does OfSTED and the government treat them as such? They have the local knowledge and the gumption to read the report and know what their local school is like without that simplistic but incredibly powerful (and VERY subjective) grade. Ditching the grading system would get rid of the stigma a poor one causes and chasing good/outstanding grades at the cost of morale to your staff and students. It would allow much more focus on the areas for improvement.

The limiting judgement given for safeguarding needs to be refined. The most important aspect of a school inspection isn’t the quality of teaching it is the safeguarding of those who attend the school. Many of the issues that lead to ‘inadequate’ ratings from the safeguarding perspective are not sinister and often bureaucratic in nature and can be sorted easily and quickly with the right guidance and support. Why should a school and it’s leadership carry the stigma of this for the next few years when highlighting the issues and giving a time frame to sort things out (very much like an MOT on your car) and monitoring visits to check this has been done and ongoing could lift this. I’m not excusing the incredibly small number of schools that have serious – and potentially catastrophic safeguarding issues – but the vast majority of could be rectified without the tar and feather approach.

One of the major criticisms of OfSTED is that they are peddling the most recent educational fads, using inspectors that do not understand the context of the school and who arrive with their own personal biases. This and the anxiety caused by waiting for “the call” could be removed by adapting an approach used – very successfully – in the capitals schools in the 2000s. There schools were grouped according to characteristics – similar schools with similar intakes and similar socio-economic backgrounds but often with different outcomes. Collaboration took place to bring under-performing schools up to the levels of those doing well. Challenge and support was offered by those in similar situations. London’s schools went from the basket case to this highest performing region through approaches (and funding) like this. This could be coordinated and quality controlled by a slimmed down regional OfSTED.

These are a few possible ways forward to reform an institution which has lost all credibility in the teaching profession and survives by fear and the agency given to it by politicians too ambivalent to challenge it. The Lib Dems could be leading this push – but where are they?

* Wayne Chadburn is a member of the Liberal Democrats and Penistone Town Council

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6 Comments

  • Ofsted has weak criteria which fails all, but mostly at the butt of that failure are the students and the parents (particularly the vulnerable ones who face a flawed uphill struggle).

    The Ofsted criteria does not focus on individual students and this means that individuals who are failed by a school are not even part of the outcome unless the majority of all students experience the same failures and difficulties.

    This issue particularly affects children and young adults who are the most vulnerable in society (for example Autistic with a Non Verbal Disability). If there was only one student in the school with this level of difficulty then their views will be considered irrelevant and there is zero accountability for them falling through the cracks.

    The point I make here is that much of the worst things that happen in schools does not even make it into the Ofsted inspection (regardless of safeguarding).

    As a parent and an educator I can say with hand on heart there is already a two tier system in place which prioritises the needs of more able students and simply rights off extremely vulnerable and less abled students.

    So the point here is that we need a system overhaul which is stronger and more suitable for all (and not just a preferred majority).

    Schools need to be assess fairly with an honest criteria that considers all, but they also needed to be accountable for those who fall through the cracks… Ofsted do neither.

  • Nigel Quinton 29th Mar '23 - 11:21am

    I have long been a reader of Roy Lilley’s excellent NHSmanagers.net blog/enewsletter about health and care issues, but last week he wrote about OFSTED https://conta.cc/3Kg7kot. He has always been a massive critic of the inspection regime in the NHS – ‘turn up and it’s good, you’ve wasted your time, turn up and it’s bad, its too late’ – and called for modern management and use of data to help organisations improve and spot problems before its too late. Well worth a read.

  • Steve Trevethan 29th Mar '23 - 3:56pm

    OFSTED is part of the OBE/Outcome Based Education originally Introduced under President Clinton. It pretends that student based data is a true representation of the student which it cannot be because it ignores the personalities and contexts of the students who are turned into data producing entities not inquisitive individuals. It is a macro-machine which, intentionally or not, teaches students what to think not how to think. Such is an indicator of, intentionally or not, of totalitarianism. Its inspection facet is similarly totalitarian and non discussional. Even verified originality of learning- teaching is, at best, barely tolerated and the opinions of students backgrounded despite their being the people who know most about themselves.

    The avoidance of discussion is a deep flaw and indicates that OFSTED is more concerned with control and domination than originality and cooperative competition.

    Personal experience included an inspector re-writing a report because a set of data showed a school at a level equivalent to “requiring improvement” was the best in the area at the teaching-learning of mathematics, a chairperson who queried some inspection comments being told to be quiet or the editor of the report, who was a friend of the chief inspector, would make the report worse and a local authority official informing an about- to-inspected headteacher to be careful as the inspection was “a hatchet job”

    The isolation imposed upon Mrs Perry demonstrates that dominant attributes of OFSTED are predatory and domineering.

    Might such an organisation not be in the best interests of our children, young people and teaching staff?

  • Steve Trevethan 29th Mar '23 - 3:57pm

    OFSTED is part of the OBE/Outcome Based Education originally Introduced under President Clinton. It pretends that student based data is a true representation of the student which it cannot be because it ignores the personalities and contexts of the students who are turned into data producing entities not inquisitive individuals. It is a macro-machine which, intentionally or not, teaches students what to think not how to think. Such is an indicator of, intentionally or not, of totalitarianism. Its inspection facet is similarly totalitarian and non discussional. Even verified originality of learning- teaching is, at best, barely tolerated and the opinions of students backgrounded despite their being the people who know most about themselves.

    The avoidance of discussion is a deep flaw and indicates that OFSTED is more concerned with control and domination than originality and cooperative competition.

    Personal experience included an inspector re-writing a report because a set of data showed a school at a level equivalent to “requiring improvement” was the best in the area at the teaching-learning of mathematics, a chairperson who queried some inspection comments being told to be quiet or the editor of the report, who was a friend of the chief inspector, would make the report worse and a local authority official informing an about- to-inspected headteacher to be careful as the inspection was “a hatchet job”

    The isolation imposed upon Mrs Perry demonstrates that dominant attributes of OFSTED are predatory and domineering.

    Might such an organisation not be in the best interests of our children, young people and teaching staff?

  • “The Lib Dems could be leading this push – but where are they?”

    Good question! Time and again I find events (this being just one example) put me in mind of Gladstone’s observation that “Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear”.

    This time it’s teachers that are distrusted with inspections deemed necessary for fear that schools are ‘failing’ because they’re not hitting the right metrics. Moreover, this authoritarian approach cascades down through a school. I have three close relatives who have given up teaching in recent years, in two cases specifically because of bad/self-serving heads. One of those was for a time one of the most celebrated headteachers in the country until she was belatedly ‘found out’ by Whitehall but I know for a fact that she was detested by almost all the staff and parents for many years before stuff hit the fan.

    This suggests, per Gladstone, a Liberal approach – namely to put power in the hands of teachers and parents. Teachers know things from a professional POV and from the inside; parents know how their children are or aren’t thriving over time and not just in an arbitrary few days. Together they represent two of the three most important ingredients for success (the other being funding). Beyond that, what concern is it of government?

  • The fundamental flaw in the OfSTED inspection framework that this tragic case exposed was the 2012 legal exemption from future inspections (unless specific concerns were brought to OfSTEDs attention) for those schools that achieved “Outstanding”; an exemption that was sensibly removed in 2020. The wholly expected outcome of this flaw was spelt out sharply in OfSTEDs November 2022 report: over 80% of these schools that had a graded inspection last year [inspected 2021/22] did not retain the outstanding grade.

    It should be noted that Caversham Primary was rated Outstanding in their February 2009 inspection which happened prior to Ruth Perry’s appointment. Thus the November 2022 inspection was Ruth’s first OfSTED inspection as headteacher at Caversham.

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