Guest Post: Professor Colin Richards: In Surprising but Partial Defence of Ofsted

The National Audit Office has just published its report on Ofsted’s inspection of schools. In some quarters it has been seen as very critical but Professor Colin Richards offers a more nuanced view of the report.

Before relishing the criticisms of Ofsted made in the National Audit Office’s recent report both school leaders and union leaders such as Mary Bousted would do well to pause for reflection (“Ofsted’s time is over. We need a new watchdog” 24 May 2018).

In the case of school leaders battling against funding cuts but still trying to meet Ofsted’s requirements , how would they have coped with a real-term funding cut of 50% over 20 years at the same time as taking on the management of their local social services – as Ofsted has had to do? The answer is certainly “with great difficulty and with inevitable shortfalls”. So bear a thought, if not condolence, for Ofsted’s senior management.

In the case of union leaders like Mary Bousted who claim to be startled by Ofsted’s honest admission that it “doesn’t know whether its school in inspections are having the intended impact”, how possible is it for any educational organisation to “know” their impact with any degree of certainty? Do union leaders themselves know whether their own activities are singularly responsible for improving their members’ professional lives?

It depends on what is meant by “know” and “know” isn’t the same as to prove beyond all reasonable doubt. Ofsted does have some evidence cited in the NAO’s report but like all evidence it is questionable and partial and doesn’t constitute proof. So many factors impinge on school improvement or on the professional lives of teachers that it is impossible, not just difficult, to isolate and prove the effectiveness of any one factor- be in Ofsted or a particular professional union.

Where’s the proof of unions’ single-handed success in improving their members’ professional lives? What’s sauce for the Ofsted goose is source for the union gander.

Ofsted can rightly be criticised for wholeheartedly signing up to the target culture of past governments and for inflicting that hard line on schools through successive inspection frameworks. But as indicated in the NAO report Ofsted has failed to meet its own targets for re-inspection of schools within five years in only 0.2% of cases – many head teachers would have given their right hand for such a success rate in their target-setting.

What is more reprehensible is Ofsted’s failure between 2012-17 to meet its target for re-inspecting 78 schools judged inadequate. How can that dereliction be defended?

According to the NAO “Ofsted has assessed that over 90% of inspections meet its quality requirements” but it does raise questions: How much more than 90%? Why less than 100%? Should Ofsted alone be reporting on the success of its own quality assurance procedures? But in turn critics need to ask themselves how robust are academy trusts’, schools’ and LAs’ own quality procedures and how do they know, especially if as Mary Bousted does, they distrust Ofsted’s judgments on this issue.

The report argues rightly that “As a result of decisions made by the Department and Ofsted, the level of independent assurance about schools’ effectiveness has reduced.” But “reduced” in relation to what? And has it been reduced to an unacceptable degree?

The “gold standard” of well-staffed, full inspection of schools for up to a week at a time proved unsustainable as Ofsted’s funding decreased significantly. Inevitably because of time constraints short inspections provide less assurance but they have generally been welcomed and haven’t resulted in a multitude of complaints about their inadequacy.

However, what can be criticised is Ofsted’s failure up to now to press government for the inspection of so-called “outstanding” schools. It cannot be disputed that the level of independent assurance of “outstanding” schools effectiveness has reduced to virtually nothing. Both those schools and the system as a whole are suffering as a result of that neglect.

The NAO report does not provide Ofsted with a clean bill of health but nor does it justify those critics pressing for its abolition and replacement. Ofsted has been a flawed organisation under successive chief inspectors but with greater glasnost and perestroika it is now trying with some success, though facing serious staffing difficulties, to put its house in order. The NAO report should help in this. Wild, populist criticism by union leaders should be resisted. 

Professor Colin Richards describes himself as “an old-fashioned” HMI.

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  1. “Ofsted…is now trying …to put its house in order.”

    Mostly by softening up education so that curriculum and exam systems can be fully privatised and turned over to individual academy businesses to make money from.

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