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Ofsted's new inspection framework: the wait is over

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During his speech to launch Ofsted’s new Common Inspection Framework, Sir Michael Wilshaw argued that in the future “those involved in our own 21st century education revolution should ... have monuments and statues built to them in towns, cities and market squares across the country.” Admittedly, he didn’t say whether this included himself.

But I imagined the scene: you're strolling through a mid-sized English suburban town, turn into the market square and there’s a larger than life statue of Sir Michael Wilshaw in the middle of it. The eyes speak of a determination to better the lives of England’s children, and the firmly crossed arms add to his fierceness. Could this be the future of English education?

The Common Inspection Framework appears to be Ofsted’s attempt to placate a sector which, at times, seems to be at the end of its tether with it. The main changes are as follows:

  • All providers are inspected under one framework, with separate inspection handbooks for early years, maintained schools and academies, non-association independent schools and further education and skills
  • Ofsted will contract directly with inspectors for maintained schools, academies, non-association independent schools and further education and skills inspections
  • ‘Good’ schools will receive shorter, one day inspections

Sir Michael and Sean Harford were pretty adamant on the subject of short inspections, saying that schools have nothing to fear from these more concise visits from Her Majesty's Inspectors (HMIs).

The assumption will be that the school will remain ‘good’. Sir Michael said that this “should engender an atmosphere in which honest, challenging, professional dialogue can take place”, and presented some helpful mock-up videos to show us what these meetings would be like. Although these shorter inspections can trigger full inspections if there are concerns, it did seem a lot more relaxed.

That’s one thing you can’t accuse Sir Michael of being, and I mean that in the best way possible. Whether or not you agree with him, I admire his impressive determination. As he said himself in his speech, he continues to “tell it like it is”. He was crystal clear on what he wanted from schools and provided a list of questions HMIs might ask during inspections:

  • Are they focused on what really benefits children and young people, rather than wasting their time endlessly preparing for an Ofsted inspection which could be years away?
  • Do they refuse to accept excuses for underachievement and are they prepared to go the extra mile to compensate for family background?
  • Are they simply presiders over the status quo, content to take the path of least resistance or are they prepared to challenge staff and students to do better?

He also spoke of a need to stop “patronising the poor and serving them up with lower expectations”, something I identify with strongly (my older sister was told at school to not bother applying for Oxbridge as it wasn’t worth it. She applied anyway and got in).

Although we’ll have to wait and see how the framework is implemented, I’m actually quite positive about the changes. There are always going to be complaints about inspections, and to some extent there will always be a burden attached to preparing for one. But I think Ofsted does genuinely seem to be listening and trying to make the process a bit more consensual and a bit less adversarial (Sean Harford mentioned the word ‘dialogue’ a lot). To be honest, I also don’t think referring to being regulated as a “burden” is actually very helpful. I think we’d all be quite concerned if the NHS referred to its regulatory requirements as burdensome.

Many school leaders will also be encouraged by the fact he said that, if anything, spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) education is even more important under the new framework. In a nutshell, academic rigour needn’t mean ignoring the creation of a loving environment.

I think where there may be problems is in the preparation for a short inspection. Sean Harford said that in order to prepare, you should just continue being a ‘good school’, which doesn’t seem all that helpful. To give him his credit, I think he was trying to emphasise that schools don’t need to come up with a hundred new documents to show to inspectors. If they are indeed good schools, everything they need should already be at their nervously bitten finger tips. At the same time, there isn’t a great amount of detail as to what an effective self-evaluation looks like, for example.

Ofsted has said that there may be small additions made to the new inspection documents, and the aforementioned videos are going to be online mid-July, so schools will hopefully be more in the know by the time the framework comes into force in September.

So let’s all have a bit of faith. And who knows, if things go well, there might be a statue of Sir Michael Wilshaw, Michael Gove or Lord Nash coming to a pedestrianised town centre near you.

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