The summer term is a time for public examinations, sports days, and self-evaluation. Teachers and senior leaders across the country are evaluating their progress and plotting out a better future for their students. But as the evening sun of the academic year shines, so a long shadow is cast. And lurking in this shadow, deep in the collective unconscious of the education community, is the amorphous figure of the Ofsted inspector. Some teachers speak publicly about the Ofsted inspector, invoking the ‘O’ word like an amulet to ward off harm. Other suspiciously avoid mentioning the word, believing its recitation can be a summons. Others still profess to have no fear or respect of the supposed powers of Ofsted. But their voices ring hollow, and are rarely heeded by the cautious.
The question gnawing in the back of the collective mind is: what might Ofsted say about our department, faculty, school, or MAT?
As Amanda Spielman, in her first interview back in January, noted:
“I’ve seen at very close quarters how the pressures of accountability influence what schools do, and how they lead to trade-offs with what people do… More than the centre of the Mat, more than parents, Ofsted felt as if it was the most pressing thing, the most powerful force on what a school did.”
This seems inherently misguided, and the tone of Spielman’s remarks seems to suggest that she recognises this. Indeed, she is too early in post to have had time to reform Ofsted, and her public statements have hitherto been laudable and sensible. In addition, Sean Harford appears to be perceptive, very well-informed, and highly approachable.
But whilst it is important to have an effective inspectorate that holds senior leaders to account, Ofsted plays too great a role in the shaping of education practice, and the framing of our national debates around effective pedagogy. The fear the surrounds the visit from the inspectorate contributes to many poor decisions, the net impact being an increase in workload to no notable effect for the students. Indeed, Spielman recently highlighted this, stating:
“At a time of scarce pupil funding and high workloads, all managers are responsible for making sure teachers’ time is spent on what matters most. This means concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, speaks for us all when he replies:
“The subtext seems to be that the blame for any narrow compliance with accountability measures lies with schools. It doesn’t. We need a school system that places less emphasis on mechanistic judgments, and liberates school leaders and their staff to focus on what really matters – high quality learning for young people of every background.” (The full Guardian article can be found here.)
The obsession with “badges and stickers” and accountability measures stems not only from a sense that Ofsted actually requires this sort of evidence, but also from a concern about the quality of the inspectorate. A school is less vulnerable to the peculiarities of judgement from an individual inspector if another agency has already vouchsafed its work. Similarly, it is also hard for even the most belligerent inspector to find a fault with objectively impressive progress measures.
There is a deep concern in the teaching community that, whilst Ofsted may be impressively managed from senior positions, it only takes one poorly informed, cognitively limited, or pedagogically prejudiced inspector to come knocking at your school door for your world to cave in. And that is not hyperbole: for school leaders, schools, and whole communities, a poor Ofsted judgement can be utterly destructive.
Unfortunately, the inspectorate will always be only as strong as its weakest inspector. And that is why the voice from the shadows is so frightening.