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Primary Education News
News The Ofsted model of school inspection has become toxic. There's a better way | James Park
Ofsted has come to dominate everything that goes on in schools. Open debate between staff, students and parents is preferable
Teachers and headteachers have been saying for years that league tables and Ofsted inspections make it more difficult to give young people a great education. Nobody ever paid much attention, assuming these statements merely reflected a desire to avoid scrutiny.
Seen from outside, it might seem that having a group of fellow professionals come round every few years to write up your school and give it a "grade", after reviewing your examination performance, is not such a big deal. What goes unobserved is how the system has come to dominate everything that goes on in schools all the time.
It's not just struggling schools that feel the pressure. The executive head of a successful academy federation told me the other day that he's thinking of setting up a group called SOS (Save our Status) to help him hold on to the "outstanding" banner now hanging outside two of his institutions. Whether you're climbing the ladder or sitting on top, the pressure is the same.
What makes this system so toxic is that it compels headteachers and teachers to make decisions every day that reflect the need to achieve better metrics more than they do the need to give young people the best possible opportunities to learn and to grow.
From the moment a young person joins a school, their route is being mapped towards their SATs in year six and their GCSEs in year 11. This does not allow for the possibility that they might become stronger learners if they could follow a different route, and were not continually being reminded about their ranking against others.
Policymakers have spent 20 years trying to make this system work, endlessly tinkering with the mechanisms and upping the rhetoric. It's time to consider the possibility that the system is part of the problem; dragging down standards rather than raising them.
In my Demos report, Detoxifying School Accountability, I argue for multi-perspective inspection that would move the responsibility for judging schools and shaping improvement strategies on to the staff, students and parents who use them and work in them. The strategies would then be further developed through a dialogue with Ofsted.
This proposal draws on work with 90 primary and secondary schools to develop an approach that uses the free online diagnostic Progress to ensure that all viewpoints are equally included in a discussion about what is good, what is less good and – once a shared understanding has been reached on those points – what would make things even better.
The approach enables people to be completely open with their views, critical, appreciative or whatever else. The possibility of contributing to positive change provides an incentive to thinking hard. Doing inspections like that on an annual basis would pick up weaknesses in the way a school is managed, or learning is delivered, much more quickly than happens now. It would also help to generate creative ways of moving forward that people can get behind because they were involved in creating them. Parents can bring a lot to this process, drawing both on the knowledge they have of the their children and their experience of other organisations.
A little known aspect of Ofsted's work is collecting and reviewing best practice in particular aspects of school's work. Our proposal is that it should expand this role as it works to improve the strategies the school community has developed for making things even better.
Policymakers try to justify the current model of Ofsted inspections by pointing to evidence that successful school systems combine autonomy with "strong" accountability. But there's no reason to think that Ofsted's is the best possible model. When teachers in Finland, a top educational performer, were asked how they would respond to a similar approach being developed there, half said they would contemplate leaving the profession.