Our friends at Ofsted have recently published their revised plans for how they go about inspecting schools. And what an uninspiring read it is. Uninspiring, that is, if you hold the view that Ofsted has lost its way and is in need of a major shake-up, not just a tweak of focus here and there.
The tone of the document (which is out for consultation and can be found here) is less than radical. There is little – scratch that, no evidence of anything approaching a fundamental re-evaluation of what they do and why.
Instead, what we have is lots of self-congratulatory stuff about how Ofsted, through its inspections, has helped to ‘share good practice’ and ‘encourage improvement’ (not on my watch they haven’t!). And then a host of relatively minor changes which have been forced upon them by the Education Bill – such as an end to the duties to inspect community cohesion and well-being.
The proposal is cleverly written to recognise the political mood – presenting the case that inspections will be streamlined with any flabbiness removed from the process. But, it’s hard to see how this will be the case – next to nothing has been removed from the scope of inspections.
Achievement, behaviour, safety, leadership, management, teaching – it’s all there. As is a focus on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. And, although the out-of-fashion term ‘personalised learning’ is absent, the inspection will still look at whether education enables a child to ‘achieve her or his potential’.
It’s very hard to see how this cuts down the inspection process, particularly as Ofsted will apparently now give ‘greater priority’ to ‘detailed observation of teaching and learning’ – this suggestions more than a mere drop in and scan through the books. The conflict remains too between historical data and where a school is ‘at’ when the inspector calls: despite the glib references to the importance of teaching, the inspections still seem to be focussed on the importance of SATs results.
Other changes are worth noting too – including the focus on reading and numeracy in primary schools and literacy in secondary schools. It’s not clear why these have been picked other than, y’know, reading is, like, important innit. What we do know is that these unexplained shifts by Ofsted affect what schools do in a fairly crude and unsophisticated way. You can hear the screech of brakes and jangled gear-change as the inspectors narrow their sights ever-further.
There is more for those who doubt Ofsted are under-taking little more than a superficial exercise in pretending to ‘focus’ their inspections, while leaving plenty in their armoury if they don’t like the cut of a schools jib. Get this: they will be coming to inspect ‘how gaps are narrowing between different groups of pupils’. Which groups are, of course, for them to know and us to find out. It could be FSM v non-FSM, or girls v boys, or white v BME, or EAL v non-EAL. Who knows? But sure as eggs is eggs, Ofsted will have something to string you up by.
Aside from the ‘spot the difference’ approach to the detail of inspections, what is missing is any consideration of the culture of inspections and the recognition that the inspection experience of some schools has been something along the lines of: drop-in, damn and depart. This, in my view, damages rather than enhances school improvement.
To counter this, Ofsted does need fundamental change. Some are proposing splitting the whole organisation in two – more cruel critics might recommend breaking it up further (a million very tiny pieces springs to mind).
What they have produced here is a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation; it provides little to suggest Ofsted is changing from within. It is curious that Michael Gove has been so cautious in this area (contrast for a moment with what Eric Pickles has done, smashing the local authority watchdog – the Audit Commission – to smithereens) when, for many in the education sector, it is the place where radical upheaval is urgently required.