Ofsted’s deckchairs – and hoping a Titanic problem will disappear

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09 October 2014 by Adrian Prandle
ATL members' deep concerns about the current inspection regime mean we are engaging seriously with the changes put forward in the Ofsted consultation for a common inspection framework in education, published this morning,

To avoid accusations of dismissing  the proposals out of hand, I will state for the record that there are few ideas here that may even appeal to our members.

It is pleasing to hear Ofsted talk up the need to increase professional dialogue in the inspection process.  The role schools and colleges play in developing as well as educating young people is acknowledged, as is the broad impact teachers can have on how young people approach life and their future social contribution.

However, that's where the good news ends.

One ATL member likened Ofsted’s reform proposals to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, and I don't disagree. The problem is this: Ofsted can come up with the best inspection framework possible, but it won’t matter if they can’t use it effectively, fairly, and in a way that always benefits, and never damages, children’s education.

ATL has long highlighted the problem Ofsted has with quality assurance. Teachers and leaders continue to report inconsistencies between inspections, during inspections, and non-expert inspection of certain subject areas or age groups.

You can change the way schools are inspected as many times as you like (and Ofsted does – on average two substantial changes a year to inspections frameworks or guidance since Michael Wilshaw became chief inspector in January 2012) but until you can guarantee the quality of the process (let alone the contentious debate about whether the right aspects of education are being looked at in a methodologically sound way), Ofsted inspections will be flawed.

Compounding this problem is deep mistrust between inspectors and inspected, a breakdown in professional relationships that has led to a complete lack of support for the current inspection regime from those working in education.

When Ofsted inspections cause teachers and lecturers to jump through hoops and produce additional forms of evidence for what they do, it detracts from time and energy spent on planning and teaching high quality, inspiring lessons to their students.

These big, big concerns are not going to suddenly disappear, not matter how hard those at Ofsted HQ cross their fingers.

ATL wants to see a role for professional dialogue in the accountability system. This means expert conversations and understanding about what is happening, the external context it is happening in, and what action or resource is available to improve teaching and learning. So the proposal to replace full inspections for ‘good’ schools with a 3-yearly ‘conversation’ will provoke debate.

ATL’s members in school and college leadership may see this as both an opportunity for a more intelligent process and a threat in that it raises the stakes for a small number of people. And while our members who aren't in leadership roles interpret this as meaning less contact with Ofsted inspectors, I’d recommend not getting too excited for a number of reasons.

First, Ofsted have made it clear that one of the reasons for the change is that they want to reduce the time between inspections of ‘good’ schools – so they will be visiting more often than they have been on average.

Second, the quality of the conversation is an unknown at this stage – will it really be professional dialogue on a level playing field? Does it come with the risk of the increased pressure being put on leaders and leadership teams being transferred to the rest of the staff?

Third, when Ofsted talks about proportionate inspection and its resources, what it means is that it wants to spend more time dealing with schools it has judged to require improvement or have been put in special measures. Those in schools judged good know only too well that they are only one dodgy inspection away from a much more hands-on inspection programme.

As ever, the impact of today's proposals will only be apparent when Ofsted produces its sector-by-sector guidance documents. How the changes are implemented will be important.

Fundamentally, though, we believe that Ofsted in its current form can’t credibly carry out school inspection across England – the changes being proposed won’t be significant enough reform to maximise the qualities of the teaching profession and ultimately benefit children’s education.

For more on the form of inspection ATL wants – for, yes, we do think accountability for schools and colleges is essential – see ATL’s education manifesto which proposes a new role for Ofsted and a focus on the development of local, profession-led, systems of inspection and improvement. You might also be interested in ATL’s press statement on today’s proposals.

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Well, it's all irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. I handed in my notice in July and finish classroom teaching on Friday. I am fed up with the constant cycle of change, which is always to 'improve' education and rarely does, begging the question why do we need more change. I am tired of being told that it's for the children when actually it's the data and the league tables and OfStEd which count, not children. And I am sick (literally) of working such long hours on such pointless tasks. I can't wait for Friday afternoon. I want my evenings and my weekends back. I want to feel comitted to what I am doing, not enslaved by it. And I do not believe that OfStEd really have any trust in teachers to carry out what OfStEd want without punitive, adversarial inspections. Good luck to those of you still stuck at the chalk face. I wish you well as I escape.