Shorter inspections will end the stressful ‘cliff-edge’ experience for schools

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18 February 2015 by ATL
The title of next Tuesday's debate is "What’s the top priority: inspection or improvement?"

I believe that this is the wrong question as it suggests a false dichotomy. While it is clearly not a pre-requisite, or indeed the single cause, inspection leads to school improvement; it’s not a stark choice between the two.

It is only by seeing where things are going wrong that we can begin to plot a path towards good or better. Of course, if all Ofsted did was point out mistakes then we’d deserve criticism. But we work with those schools which need to get better. Where we find that a school is inadequate or requires improvement, Her Majesty’s Inspectors go in regularly to monitor progress to help raise standards.

Inspection is a catalyst for change and improvement. A 2014 survey of 850 schools found that almost 85 per cent believed that the inspection process had helped them to improve. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of children have benefited from Ofsted’s challenge and support for schools.

There will be times when we do not get it right. I’ve been very candid about that. It is inevitable when we inspect some 7,000 schools each year. But I am confident that our quality assurance procedures are strong and where we make mistakes we admit them.

By bringing all school inspection arrangements in-house from September, you can be assured there will be more opportunity to improve quality through training and quality assurance.

Nowadays, more than a half of our inspection teams have a serving practitioner, and I want that proportion to rise; the aim being to have a teacher on every team. Those who call for profession-led arrangements for inspection should be aware of this.

Those who apply to become one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors have to meet high standards. They have to have at least five years’ leadership experience at a senior level in education, with a proven track record of achieving consistent improvement.

From September, they will work within a radically different inspection framework. Schools judged to be good will notice a profound change that builds on the progress of recent years.

Earlier this month, I announced our intention to introduce frequent but shorter inspections of good schools from the autumn term.

Our new approach will mean that signs of decline can be spotted early and the necessary action can be taken. The focus of these inspections will be on ensuring that the school continues to provide a good education, that leaders have identified key areas of concern, and that they are able to tackle them.

These shorter inspections, solidly based on a professional dialogue between school leadership and inspectors, will remove the ‘cliff-edge’ which we know can be a stressful experience for some. Inspection is also an opportunity for schools to articulate what they are doing to help provide an excellent education for children. Where appropriate, a full inspection will be taken forward to give schools the chance to show they are outstanding.

Frequent but shorter inspections will also mean that parents, who consistently tell us they want more regular updates, can be kept better informed.

In conclusion I make one plea: don’t ask yourself: "What do I need to do to get a good Ofsted judgement?"

Rather, think about what you need to do to ensure that every child in your school gets a decent education. And if you are concerned that senior leaders in your school are using Ofsted as an excuse to insist on unreasonable practice, check out our clarification for schools document that sets out exactly what we do and do not expect for inspection.

Don’t ever forget that Ofsted inspectors and ATL members are all education professionals. People who have chosen to devote their professional lives to ensuring children get the best opportunity of a decent education.

After all, we have a common goal: to deliver excellent education, which will only happen where we work together. I look forward to working with you in coming months, as we prepare to implement this radically new way of inspecting schools.

There are those who portray a stark difference between inspectors on the one hand, and school leaders and teachers on the other. However, with an increasing proportion of serving practitioners on inspection teams, I believe there will be more of a collaborative spirit in the coming months.

Sean Harford is a member of the panel for ATL’s pre-election debate on accountability, “What’s the top priority: inspection or improvement?” which takes place in London on 24 February.

In this, the last in a series of free discussions about key education issues, our panel will address which arrangements best support innovation in education and whether the focus should be on saying which schools and colleges are effective or if we should concentrate more on helping every institution improve what it does for young people. 

There are limited number of places still available – to find out more, see the ATL website.

By Sean Harford, national director, schools at Ofsted

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