Ofsted and the accountability puzzle

John Davies

Everyone knows that inspection can be a worry for schools. I can remember wondering why the lessons were so different on inspection day when I was at school. The teacher was wearing a suit, and some of my more rowdy classmates were on a bus to Alton Towers.

I joke, I joke. As a researcher at The Key for School Governors, I know how critical inspection is for our members at the chalkface. It was with our members in mind that I attended a panel debate hosted by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) to launch its new vision for inspection.

So who was there? ATL’s Dr Mary Bousted, Sean Harford of Ofsted, Children and Young People Board chair David Simmonds, and Jonathan Simons, who’s head of education at Policy Exchange. Sean and Jonathan have both visited The Key, so I felt a bit like I was watching family: my boys on the big stage.

ATL is proposing a locally led inspection system built on dialogue between teachers and inspectors, in which schools would not receive an overall grade. Instead, they would receive a short document equivalent to an executive summary and a full report for the school and inspection team to use when monitoring progress. (I’ve saved you the trouble of having to read the document, but you can take a look here).

If there’s one thing I took away from the debate, it’s that what the top brass at Ofsted want inspection to look like doesn’t seem to be filtering through to ground level. Robert Peal reckons something similar in his report for Civitas.  Jonathan Simons also hinted at this, describing the current problem as a ‘credibility deficit’.

Mary Bousted and members of the audience gave plenty of anecdotal evidence about inspection outcomes depending on which team comes to the school on the day. In another fiery exchange, she said that, to her members, workload (which she argued is largely driven by an apparently constant need to evidence everything you do for Ofsted) is the reason teachers are leaving the profession. She explained that she thought pay was not actually an issue (while adding that, as the head of a union, she probably shouldn’t say that). In response to these points, Sean Harford pointed out that a lot of the things that worry teachers about inspection are not actually in the Ofsted framework.

So did the panel agree on anything? Yes. All agreed that we need a system of inspection. And, to be fair, Sean Harford argued that Ofsted’s future inspection framework will not be worlds away from the ATL proposals. Some schools will receive shorter inspections, for example (members of The Key for School Governors can read more in our ‘need-to-know’ on Ofsted changes from September 2015). Mary Bousted even said that she didn’t think those at Ofsted were bad people, which was a nice touch.

Inspection and accountability, however, can really split a room. It just seems like such a tricky puzzle to solve. We all agree that schools need to be held publicly accountable (won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?!) but we don’t want teachers to be overworked with constant demands to prove that they’ve done something. I really want to believe that Ofsted has cracked it; let’s hope that, by September, champagne corks will be popping in union meetings up and down the country.

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