In her first interview as chief inspector of England’s schools, Amanda Spielman said she will start by examining the very purpose of Ofsted. Whilst the answer to her quandary is relatively straightforward – Ofsted’s role is to report without fear or favour directly to Parliament on the quality of schools in England – it is a welcome signal that Spielman may want to revert Ofsted back to its reporting roots and away from what it has become under Wilshaw, the country’s educational authority.
I fear that my hopes may prove to be short-lived though, as she ends the interview by saying she wants Ofsted to be seen by everyone “as a force for improvement”. No, no, no! That’s not Ofsted’s responsibility! It is for the Department for Education and the country’s head teachers to improve standards in schools. Ofsted’s job, and that of the inspectors, is to inspect, and then report on how well they are doing it.
Once Gove was removed from the Department and replaced by the questionably effective Nicky Morgan in 2014 it took far less than her two-year tenure for Sir Michael Wilshaw and his Ofsted army to capture the education sector – and hold it captive. Ofsted is now the force, it is THE authority and very little happens without its approval. But this is exactly what Spielman should want to change, because the sector is a quibbling wreck.
Many a good head teacher has been on the end of Ofsted’s axe-wielding antics, and many a decent school has suffered the post-inspection trauma and tribulations of a less than adequate Ofsted-branding. The result is a prison-like sector which has become submissively supplicant to Ofsted’s whims and caprice. Despite the rise of academisation and free schools with the supposed ‘power to innovate’, schools have never before felt so constrained. The result is the mass-production of robot-schools rolling off the Ofsted conveyor belt – all saying the same things, all doing the same things, in fear of daring to be different.
Whilst, from the outside, Wilshaw leaves a legacy of more so-called ‘Good’ schools than ever before, just like a statue, the closer you get to Ofsted, the more obvious the cracks. For example, the Education Policy Institute’s recent research highlights that nearly a half of declining primary schools and a third of declining secondaries in England have actually improved their Ofsted ratings, in spite of the decline in academic progress made by pupils. It begs the question – are Wilshaw’s ‘Good’ schools really that good, or are they simply ticking the right boxes in order to survive? Perhaps it is high time for the Office for Standards in Education to be inspected themselves?
Langley Hall Primary School, a free school in Slough, Berkshire is pushing for its Ofsted inspection report to be quashed in the High Court, because of allegedly glaring mistakes made by inspectors. This is just one of 13 judicial reviews faced by the inspectorate in the last 3 years alone! As the school’s former Chair of Governors Sir Christopher Ball warns “If it can happen to us, it can happen to any school. Ofsted needs to get its house in order.” And therein lies Spielman’s first task as Chief Inspector.
I have believed for some time that Ofsted is failing England’s education system, because the truth is that too many of its inspectors are not experts. Many of them have not been head teachers, whilst some have never even led a department within a school. Too many inspectors are inexperienced and ill-equipped to make accurate judgements on the quality of schools. And yet, whole school communities and livelihoods are in the hands of people who last taught a lesson decades ago and have no idea what it takes to lead a school. How do I know this? Because, as an Ofsted Inspector myself, I worked with many of them, until I called time on the job.
As so many inspectors lack real school leadership experience, one would assume that the training they receive with Ofsted would address this. Unfortunately, it does not. I started training as an inspector whilst I was a deputy head in a secondary school, and what I saw beggared belief. In one observation of a lesson with fellow Ofsted trainees, a third of the room judged it as ‘outstanding’, a third judged the same lesson ‘inadequate’ and the remaining third did not know.
The response from the trainers was that these discrepancies were to be expected in inspection because of our different experiences and backgrounds in education. By the end of the training, there were still these jarring differences in trainees’ judgements, yet the significant majority still passed the course and advanced to the top of education’s food chain. I felt that Ofsted had no interest in employing experts in teaching or school leadership, it just wanted people who could justify their judgements with jargon.
I became a head teacher and kept my hand in with Ofsted. Headship certainly made me a better inspector, because I had an improved understanding and empathy with the range of complex challenges facing heads and teachers. But many inspectors with whom I have worked were not able to do this, because they simply did not have the experience.
The school inspection system is riddled with inadequacy. Schools are at the mercy of the quality of the inspectors who come to their school rather than the quality of the inspection system.
I finally pulled the plug on my time as an inspector after one of Ofsted’s annual refresher training courses. There we were, in front of the so-called beacons of teaching and learning, subjected to over 200 PowerPoint slides. We all know that the average concentration span is a maximum 20 minutes on one activity, yet Ofsted thought it best practice to talk non-stop to us for seven hours! That was it for me.
Ofsted’s job is to look at schools and report on how well they are doing. Before it can effectively do that, it must surely ensure that its inspectors are capable of accurately performing the task. If Spielman is to ‘get her house in order’ her first task must be a quick and decisive cull of inspectors who are not up to the job, and replace them with experts in education and school leadership.
To make this possible, I think every head teacher of an outstanding school in England should have to become an Ofsted inspector and contribute to at least 6 inspections a year. This would serve two main purposes: firstly, Ofsted would become a highly-respected organisation of experts, able to accurately report on school standards; secondly it allows for the best school leaders to help the wider education sector. With great inspectors, more schools would see inspection as a positive experience and more schools would improve. The truth about the education sector is, that the significant majority of head teachers and teachers want to get better at what they do, and they welcome authentic feedback from those in the know on how to do it.
I would certainly support an inspectorate which genuinely aimed for expertise in its work, and I would be one of the first knocking on its door asking to be involved again. So, I believe, would countless others with a track record of success in leading schools.
Published in The Telegraph 13th January 2017