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Reforming Ofsted: a union perspective

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Adrian Prandle is director of economic strategy and negotiations at the Association of Teachers and LecturersIn light of last week's posts on school inspection, we asked Adrian to share his thoughts on the role of Ofsted and how schools might be held accountable in the future.

John Davies posted a good synopsis on Key insights of ATL’s recent event on the future of school inspection and improvement. It is perhaps a sign of election times that the debate has moved on in leaps and bounds in just a matter of weeks.

Labour’s shadow secretary of state, Tristram Hunt, joined a growing consensus by committing the Labour party to “far-reaching reform” of Ofsted during his speech to ATL’s annual conference in Liverpool on 30 March.

This followed Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for schools, who told the conference that he saw Ofsted’s future role as being to "moderate judgements and assess the robustness of peer-review arrangements – making sure they weren’t just cosy fireside chats between colleagues”. Though perhaps cynical about Ofsted’s ability to reform itself, ATL’s members will be pretty pleased to hear this given the proposals in A New Vision for Inspection in Schools (ATL's document on inspection reform, which was launched at the panel event Harford spoke at).

Where Harford, Hunt and ATL differ is on the speed with which this reform should happen. You can probably guess who suggests a decade, who suggests over the course of the next parliament, and who says it should start now.

John concluded his post with a plea to remember children when thinking about accountability and inspection. I’d argue that for children to be well-served by accountability systems, they must not experience any adverse impact and their individual needs must be able to be addressed. For accountability systems to actually be of any use to children and parents, they must offer reliability and validity. Ofsted is currently failing to meet these tests.

Because schools do not know the quality of the inspection team that will turn up, teachers, leaders and governors are forced to insure themselves by attempting to evidence everything that happens by producing written documentation. For children, this results in a distraction from teaching and learning.

A New Vision for Inspection in Schools argues that Ofsted inspections put learners’ education at risk for four main reasons:

  • The workload implications for teachers are extensive and unnecessary. When inspections mean teachers have to jump through hoops, they have less time and energy to spend on planning and teaching high-quality lessons.
  • A change of one grade following inspection can precipitate a much greater decline in a school's quality: it can lead to teacher flight as staff leave to seek to work in more supportive environments.
  • Teacher stress risks pupil achievement and inspections are making this problem worse. According to ATL’s 2014 teacher workload survey, almost four in 10 members noticed a rise in mental health problems among their colleagues during the previous two years. Six in 10 cited inspections as a factor affecting colleagues' mental health.
  • They make schools a poor example of workplace culture and the value of learning for children. The dangers of a culture of compliance are significant. OECD evidence shows that achievement rises when schools embrace democratic values, with teachers participating in whole-school planning and decision-making, as well as being places of learning for staff along with pupils. But adherence to Ofsted’s high-stakes inspections squashes innovation and diminishes skills and knowledge within the teaching profession – exactly the things that the children they teach must develop.

If it is right that accountability is necessary in education – and ATL certainly thinks it is – then it is untenable to maintain the current national system of inspection. But it is the practice, not the principle, being contested. The time has come for a radically different approach.

Our vision is tailored to school improvement, proportionate in its impact and works with, not against, the teaching profession. By being locally based, it would have the credibility to challenge and the know-how to support improvement and develop professional collaboration. There would be no overall inspection judgement. Conducted by experts, it would be better respected and make recommendations with an understanding of the complexity of effective teaching, learning and assessment practices. Self-assessment and professional dialogue would be central, with data used to guide, not decide. With an effective accountability system and an end to high-stakes inspection, teachers would have space to innovate and to learn.

I think the culture change this would create could help teachers to teach, learners to learn, governors to govern and leaders to lead.
Children would benefit because their teachers would no longer have to conform to a one-size-fits-all approach to inspection and improvement. High-quality education would be defined by what is right for pupils in a given school, not by centrally-determined criteria chosen because they are easy to measure, nor by benchmarks chosen for short-term political or media appeasement. It was good news to hear Tristram Hunt’s ambitions for an inspectorate that is free from even the merest suspicion of politicisation and political interference.
To be in favour of reforming inspection is to be on the side of raising standards in education.

Meaningful reform to inspection was what was missing in the government’s response to the Workload Challenge. The ATL vision for an alternative to Ofsted would benefit accountability and help learners – but it would also impact positively upon that still unsolved problem of workload in education. Learners will not be best served while that problem remains, so they’ll be relying on the next government to act on inspection reform – and act swiftly.

If you're a member of our school leader service, take a peek at our Ofsted articles. If you're concerned about your staff's wellbeing, you will find helpful information by following this link. We also have related guidance for members of The Key for School Governors here.

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