Beyond remains politically neutral, first of all, so we’re not jumping up and down in support of Labour’s pledge to scrap Ofsted, tempting though that might be. Nobody wants failing schools so there is undeniably a place for a robust inspectorate. The problem with the Ofsted brand is that it has become toxic to the teaching profession thanks to stress-heavy scrutiny and sweeping judgements: ‘inadequate’ spells doom while ‘outstanding’ promises at least four years of currying favour. The opposition’s assertion that single-word labels do not do justice to the complexities of a school’s strengths and weaknesses rather hits the nail on the head.
Ofsted and One-Word Answers
Asked to give a critical opinion, we would never accept a one-word answer from students yet that’s essentially what an Ofsted judgement boils down to. It might be backed up by a more detailed twelve-page report but few parents will ever read this and it is still only a snapshot of life in that school. It takes thousands of words to adequately explain the ins and outs of education so why do we allow a narrow set of four labels to define English education providers? (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland operate under different appraisal procedures that are generally less restrictive in their judgements and aren’t as big a shock to the system.)
Ofsted’s Perception Among Teachers
That you’d struggle to find a single teacher who’d mourn the loss of Ofsted surely speaks volumes. Unions are often unfairly characterised as protectionist, guarding their self-interest at the expense of industry and the people they serve, when they ought to be regarded as experts in their field, the ones who are actually in touch with life at the coalface. For far too long the complaints of the National Education Union and the National Association of Head Teachers that Ofsted is not fit for purpose have fallen on deaf ears. The need for scrutiny is perfectly understood but it’s the management of it that requires an overhaul. Living in dread of an inspection and its outcomes for four years is not a healthy state to be in. It shouldn’t be inspector versus inspected: there should be dialogue between the two in the quest for the common good. Indeed, the NAHT has previously commented that, ‘For schools that are not yet good, support rather than sanction is the quickest pathway to improvement. Branding schools as failing often means that they’ll take longer to turn the corner.’
What Could Replace Ofsted?
Labour’s proposals are for regular “health-checks” that return schools to the care of local councils. If concerns are raised then there will be more in-depth visits from full-time, trained inspectors. Grades will be abandoned, the idea being that parents then have to take in a bit more of the detail that gives a more accurate and rounded account of a school. The proposals are not failsafe – will councils under pressure to meet certain standards provide a fair and thorough assessment? – but they seem eminently sensible and the ‘light-touch health-check approach’ that puts schools ‘back in the driving seat’ has been backed by the NAHT as ‘the right way to go’. Former Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, on the other hand, has dismissed the plan as ‘bonkers’. But then we all know how fond Ofsted is of a sweeping, one-word judgement.
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