There’s no easy way to say this and it may well be unwelcome. Despite the best intentions of the chief inspector and other senior personnel in Ofsted and despite the cautious welcome given in some quarters to its proposals for a new inspection framework, that enterprise is doomed to failure unless there is a major reversal of policy towards inspection grades.
If each of the proposed major inspection judgments, including the overall effectiveness one, remain subject to the current four-point grading scales nothing truly fundamental or transformational will change in the relationship between Ofsted and schools.
Schools will remain fixated on those awe-, or fear-, inspiring numerical grades. Undue pressure, both Ofsted -and self-induced, will continue to obsess those schools desperate to retain their problematic “outstanding” designations likely to be subject to inspection from 2019 onwards. Those aspiring to that designation will do likewise. Schools “requiring improvement”, let alone those dubbed “inadequate, will be desperate to escape their absolute or relative ignominy.
There will be no substantial reduction in workload; there will be little or no reduction in second-guessing Ofsted’s demands; there will continue to be personal and professional casualties – victims of the overwhelming power of a single number or adjective. The proposed “sunlit uplands “ of professional autonomy and creative risk-taking curricula will be as far away as ever. The fraught relationship between Ofsted and the teaching profession will remain fundamentally unaltered…..Plus ca change?
But it doesn’t have to be like this
Ofsted claims that the grading scales, including the particularly controversial “outstanding” one, are popular with parents and therefore need to be retained. But why? Thirty years ago a majority of parents would probably have supported the continuance of corporal punishment in schools but quite rightly that view was overridden on educational and humanistic grounds and a ban imposed.
Of course parents’ views need to be treated with respect but not necessarily incorporated in any new inspection framework. But what do parents actually want ? They want a considered view of the quality of education in their schools. That view is best communicated not with a single overall effectiveness grade descriptor but with a concise, sharp, well-written introductory paragraph in an inspection report summarising the school’s strengths and weaknesses as they seemed to the inspection team at the time – no more, no less. That brief overall paragraph needs then to be complemented by a bespoke report which gives the readers a sense of what it’s like to be a pupil and a teacher in such a school. That summary paragraph might even encourage parents to read the whole report than, as at present, being turned off by a formulaic report that gives no sense of a school’s individuality.
But perhaps those grading scales and descriptors need to be retained because the DfE need the information they are supposed to convey. But what information? The DfE already has it cherished performance data – its inadequate proxy for ‘quality of education’. And surely civil servants, like parents, can get an overview of a particular school’s quality from a well-written introductory paragraph to an inspection report?
There is no educational justification for reducing the complexity of a school’s provision to a single numerical grade aligned to an uninformative grade descriptor. Ofsted needs to acknowledge and act on this.
If it does, its suggested reforms – a focus on the curriculum, reduced emphasis on outcomes,, better information to parents, reduced work load- stand a chance of being implemented over time (though not immediately) and its relationship with teachers ameliorated, if not transformed. But will it shake off the habits of its twenty-six-year “life time” as a result of its consultation? I hope so but I doubt it.