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What does an 'independent Ofsted' actually mean?

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Laura McInerney is Editor of Schools Week and was a teacher for six years in East London.

Want to make a room full of teachers cheer? It’s easy. All you have to do is gather them together and then confidently yell “Let’s get rid of Ofsted” while looking angry. Stand back, await applause.

Respondents to The Key's State of Education survey agree. A whopping 81 per cent of people asked said they would like to see school inspectorate Ofsted replaced with “a body independent of central government”.

But – what does that actually mean?

Ofsted is ‘accountable’ to Parliament in the sense that it is paid for via funds from central governments and it has to explain its actions to the education minister. But they are not ‘controlled’ by central government.

To understand this, it helps to know Ofsted’s weird history.

England is rather unusual in that it had a school inspectorate more than a hundred years before it had a minister for education. After a grant was given to schools in 1837, two inspectors were appointed to evaluate its effectiveness – and a person was appointed above them to check their independence. So began a sprawling bureaucracy.

Inspections were carried out at local level until 1992, but fears about ‘postcode lotteries’ encouraged John Major to sweep them all together into a unified Office for Standards in Education – or Ofsted, as it’s commonly known.

An even weirder part of the Ofsted set-up is that the chief of it – currently, Michael Wilshaw – is a royal appointment made via the Queen’s Council.

Hence, Ofsted isn’t actually run by central government. It is paid for and scrutinised by government, but its chief is selected by a non-political body.

Given all this – what would a ‘more independent’ Ofsted look like?

There are a few options. First, you could privatise them. Stop requiring inspection, make the whole thing an optional kitemark system, let schools sign up to any provider offering the service and let the market regulate quality. People tend not to like that option too much, though. While they want ‘freedom from government’ they rarely want a total free-for-all.

An alternative is to hand Ofsted to 'experts' – a preference mentioned throughout The Key’s report.

But who would pick these experts? If they’re political appointments, that makes Ofsted less independent than now.  If they’re selected by schools, conflicts of interest arise. (Schools can’t pick experts who will ‘independently’ inspect them – that’s silly, and not independent).

Plus, as a taxpayer, part of what I want government to do is check that my money is being spent wisely. That’s precisely what started inspectors back in 1837. So even if ‘experts’ were used they couldn’t take public money and run. They would have to go to parliamentary sessions and account for spending just like Ofsted does.

I suspect the desire for Ofsted to be ‘independent’ actually shows a disgruntlement with the way Ofsted has been used by politicians.

Forcing schools with low inspection ratings to become academies means politicians look like they are interfering with Ofsted. It means that when politicians point out legitimate concerns about a school, and Ofsted later find it wanting, then there is the charge that “the politicians made Ofsted go to the school so it could be made into an academy”.

Fiddling about with league table measures and Ofsted failing low-scoring schools also looks bad. People see a chain of ‘politician does x, Ofsted subsequently does y, school gets punished’. This means people lose faith in Ofsted’s independence when the bigger issue is that they are a link in a problematic chain.

What’s difficult to stack up is how an ‘independent’ inspection group would be any different. Politicians could still change exams and league tables to affect data. Schools would still be targeted for inspection in response to concerns. And as long as failing schools are forced to become an academy, there will be a suspicion that “it was done for political reasons.”

Something needs to happen with Ofsted. Clearly, there is a will for change. I just urge caution as to whether a mythical ‘independence’ is the best solution.

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