24 April 2023

Reform of Ofsted is inevitable – three things are needed to get it right


The neverending debate about what and how Ofsted inspects has really heated up in recent weeks.

We’ve had unions call for inspections to be paused, and threaten legal action if they’re not. Various Headteachers have gone public with the impact that poor judgements have had on their mental health and careers. Some have even shared how they have needed medication to cope with the anxiety and stress that impending Ofsted inspections have induced.

It’s always tricky to filter out the signal from the noise with issues that invoke such passionate reactions. It’s even harder to do so in the shadow of a tragedy.

However, it does feel as though we’re at a point now where changes to the inspection regime will need to be made, sooner rather than later, if only to take some of the heat out of the situation and allow space for a more considered discussion to take place.

Ofsted has, rightly in my view, been cautious so far and avoided saying publicly more than it has to about the various things flying around. Given the continuing press coverage though, it has had to start saying more and so on Friday it released a blog on its website to try and clarify how inspections can be made less stressful for school leaders, and float a few ideas for doing more in that vein.

On top of this, yesterday the Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman took to the airwaves, speaking to Laura Kuenssberg about recent events – a good move, as the format allowed for a reasonable conversation around things. Needless to say though, many still aren’t impressed – including the sister of the Headteacher whose death sparked the current debate.

What can sensibly be done to address concerns, without undermining the validity and reliability of inspections? I think there are three main things that will help.

Most immediately, the actions and measures outlined in the blog last week should be implemented as quickly as possible. People were quick to criticise the ideas, but they have merit and would make a difference.

For instance, where schools fail an inspection for something that can be put right quickly, they should indeed be revisited as soon as possible. The complaints process should be made more responsive in the short term, and more transparent in the medium term.

Alongside this a broader piece of work should be conducted to help refresh the sector’s understanding of why we have the current inspection regime that we do and inform how it could be developed from here.

As a wise man said, if we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat it, and I’ve been struck by how many of the proposals made by otherwise sensible people are things that were tried in the past with terrible unintended consequences – which is why we got rid of them.

Take, for instance, the idea that the watchdog should not just judge schools but also suggest in detail what they should do to improve, or even work with them to get better. This was literally what happened a decade or so ago and was a disaster: it empowered inspectors to push their pet theories and practices onto schools, and blurred the line between the vital tasks of independent inspection and school improvement. 

I’m concerned that in a hasty attempt to address genuine (and a few not so genuine) concerns, we throw the baby out with the bathwater and introduce measures that unintentionally make things worse. I think a relatively quick piece of work to remind the sector of what was done in the past, and how we got to things today, would help to clarify the thinking behind current practices – and hopefully flag up where improvements could be made from here.

And this leads me on to the biggest opportunity for well-considered changes to occur soon: when a new Chief Inspector takes up the post at the start of next year.

The role of Chief Inspector is tough enough at the best of times, but like everything else it’s been made even tougher by Covid. In spite of all this, I think Amanda Spielman has done a superb job, shifting the dial on matters around curriculum quality and teacher development. Given all the other challenges the school system faces, it’s all too easy to overlook this.

Does that mean the current setup is perfect or that improvements can’t be made? Of course not. But that’s why we should give the new Chief Inspector space to work on things. The recruitment process is already underway, and as part of this applicants will be required to share their thinking as to how they’ll address the current concerns. I’m confident whoever is appointed will make sector confidence a big priority.

A combination of inspection adjustments now, reflection over the next few months, and more substantial changes over the next few years will help to make inspections less stressful and more effective for all concerned. We need to stand firm about the need for proper accountability though, as our kids deserve nothing less. But I’m sure that this can be achieved in ways that sensible people can get behind, and which help schools continue to get better over time.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.