What is OFSTED for?

'The unholy trinity' : Michael Gove, David Cameron and Sir Michael Wilshaw

‘The unholy trinity’ :                                                                       Michael Gove, David Cameron and Sir Michael Wilshaw

I’m sure many teachers, over the years, have asked this question! No one likes being ‘checked up on’ but we have to accept that some sort of ‘quality control’ in a public service is inevitable and, probably, essential.

OFSTED, or ‘the Office for Standards in Education’, was born at a time when the then Conservative government was keen to show how it was encouraging higher standards across the board and it’s the half-brother to OFCOM, OFWAT and so on. Nothing wrong,  therefore, in inspecting schools, judging their effectiveness on a number of measures and publishing the results.  But who wants to know? Well, in theory, any of a number of so-called ‘stakeholders’ : teachers, governors, the local authority, parents. Those directly involved in the school need to know so that they can be aware of weaknesses and take action to make improvements. For some time now, OFSTED has recognised that the data is readily available and their task has been checking how well governors and senior managers understand their own schools. It could be argued that, since this data is available in abundance, OFSTED has no role but I think without such a watchdog there would be a  risk of complacency or self-denial for some schools. OFSTED, therefore, is needed to keep heads and governors ‘honest’.

However, OFSTED has always had a more sinister role, that of holding up to public scrutiny (or ridicule!) schools judged to be ‘failing’. In an age of ‘consumer power’, that may be thought of as an inevitable outcome but this assumes that OFSTED always gets it right or that the detail of its inspections are clear to all.

I have been involved directly in five OFSTED inspections over the years, as a teacher and senior manager. I know less directly about many more from friends, colleagues and family members. Although it is probably a good idea to take with a ‘pinch of salt’ the first-hand accounts of those directly involved, I think I can now look back more objectively on the four I experienced as a senior leader, and on my most recent experience where I was an interested but largely uninvolved ‘supply  teacher’.

On the ground, as it were, I have found individual inspectors who range from decent and honest to sneaky and opinionated. In the main, though, I would have to say I couldn’t in all conscience criticise the outcomes. They now have frighteningly little chance to see a school ‘in the round’ but, given that most are sharp and intelligent, they usually get surprisingly close to the truth. That hasn’t been the experience of all my colleagues, but I have certainly known of one ‘lead’ inspector who went to the limit of what was permissible to reward a school that was clearly clawing its way out of serious weaknesses.

The problem now with OFSTED is not so much with individual inspection teams but with the central OFSTED organisation. Contrary to what the general public, perhaps even some teachers, think, inspectors are not themselves ‘OFSTED’ but are employed by companies who are contracted by OFSTED to carry out inspections. Companies such as SERCO and Tribal,  and as time goes on they will come under closer scrutiny for any links to companies running academy chains or providing services to academies and free schools. The main problem with OFSTED is ‘the framework’, that is, the set of criteria determined centrally by Wilshaw and his pals, with Gove no doubt looking over his shoulder, inspectors have to use to judge schools. I know of two inspections where, but for the framework, the outcome would have been better and, indeed, one where the Lead Inspector wanted to give a ‘Good’ judgement but the framework precluded this.

An ancillary problem for those, like parents, who not unreasonably, think OFSTED judgements are useful when comparing schools, is that the framework has changed so frequently that comparison is misleading. In one area I know of, the three local secondary schools — competing as they are for students (and that means money) — were each inspected under three different frameworks. The current one is acknowledged to be ‘tougher’ than before,  so how does a current ‘Good’ judgement compare with a ‘Good’ achieved less than a year ago under a separate framework? And, of course, Sir Michael Wilshaw, OFSTED chief, has redefined the Grade 3 judgement (which used to mean ‘Satisfactory’) as ‘Requiring improvement’. Schools with such a judgement will receive the support of an HMI and will be reinspected within 18 months, yet a school which got ‘Good’ a year ago (which might well have been ‘Requiring improvement’ under the new framework) will not be reinspected for 5 years. How is that helping to raise standards and ensure a good education for our children? The brutal truth is that, if you got a ‘Good’ you could choose to become an academy (and, given the financial incentives, probably did) whereas a second ‘Requiring improvement’ judgement in the next year or so could land the other school in the position where the secretary of state can decide to impose academy status.

Individual inspectors ‘on the ground’ may be ok, though hemmed in by the rules within which they have to work, but it is hard not to conclude that the answer to the question,  “What is OFSTED for?” is “In 2013, it is to speed up Gove’s academisation agenda.”

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