The future of Ofsted: reform, not rejection
I am in the unusual position of being both an Ofsted inspector and a senior leader in education, and in the last ten days I have experienced at first hand the kinds of issues which have resulted in the terrible death of Caversham Primary School head, Ruth Perry.
I know the school well. For nine years, up until comparatively recently, it was my local polling station. With both an inspector’s and a teacher’s eye, the moment I walked into the school it felt warm. There was obviously a culture of high expectation. It was an ambitious school, immaculate. Everything from the wall displays of pupils’ work to information for parents was just excellent. From classroom to playground, it was everything a parent would want for their child.
So how could the school have been downgraded from Outstanding to Inadequate? The devil is, as always, in the detail. I understand that the big issue was one of safeguarding, which in and of itself sounds very serious. In this case, it may not have been.
The Inspection report has been taken down, but it appears that the grounds for safeguarding concerns were that Caversham Primary didn’t have all its record keeping in place. There are numerous reasons why this might be the case. For example, good office managers in schools are hard to come by, and even harder to keep. They’re under enormous pressure due to understaffing and lack of funding and there are not enough hours in the day for them to achieve everything required of them. There are also plenty of reasons, in terms of higher pay and lower stress, for experienced ones to leave and enter the private sector. The Ofsted inspectors decided the paperwork issue was a red line, and so a school which might otherwise have been rated at least, Good, was knocked down to Inadequate.
I’ve just experienced a frighteningly similar situation myself, as the Quality Nominee (i.e., the person with whom the buck stops) for the nursery which forms part of Milton Keynes College Group. On Friday we realised that Ofsted didn’t have the correct name for our nursery. The correct title and legal entity is Milton Keynes College Little Explorers Nursery, but on their system they still had it down as Early Years Nursery. The lead inspector sensibly warned us the name needed to be changed officially before Monday or we could automatically be rated Inadequate. Again, pressure on staff, prioritising teaching and learning, meant that this name change had fallen through the cracks. The inspectors’ feedback was stunning. It said our children are, “confident they experiment, they’re intrigued and curious. They’re independent, they’re ready for school, they listen, they make friends, they take pride and are eager to learn.” We don’t yet know what the final rating will be, but these are not words normally associated with an Inadequate institution, which is exactly how the nursery would have been characterised if that inspector hadn’t had the good sense to help us correct the paperwork.
We want Ofsted reports to accurately reflect the quality of education in schools and colleges, so surely it would make sense when technical breaches of this kind take place, to be able to give a period of grace, say a week, for the administrative details to be taken care of? If such a system had been in place when Caversham Primary School was inspected, it is just possible a tragedy may have been averted.
This is not an attack on Ofsted, nor is it criticism of inspectors, and I would reject suggestions that inspections should be halted pending an investigation or Ofsted itself be scrapped. Schools need to be inspected, not as a big stick to hold over their heads to scare them into being better, but as a means to provide support where they’re struggling and to offer advice on how to improve. I have arrived at colleges as an inspector and seen the fear in the eyes of leaders and teachers, whose entire careers can be made or broken as a result of what I and my colleagues decide. I know that in the weeks and months leading up to our arrival, massive amounts of time will have been spent, trying to cover every angle that might result in a negative outcome – to the detriment of their everyday jobs.
In the inspection I was most recently involved in from the other side, twenty-five inspectors descended on a further education college for four days – that’s a hundred inspector days of investigation. The institution hadn’t been inspected for several years, and then everything is under scrutiny in one, snapshot swoop from on high. It’s no wonder teachers find it stressful. Might it not make more sense for inspectors to be linked to a number of schools and colleges in their area; to make regular visits between formal inspections; to help and support the staff in a less pressured way and to encourage a level of consistency across the board, rather than coming in to find a decade of unresolved problems?
For this to happen, there needs to be more inspectors, and this speaks to funding and also having the right people in place. Ofsted is not the only public service which has suffered from lack of resources, but suffer it has. I would encourage the organisation (with the right funding) to recruit more inspectors who are currently working within education, who know what it is like on the chalkface and have day-to-day experience of it. The combination of greater, peer-to-peer review, increased frequency of contact and discussion, reduction of the stress associated with a once in a decade event – all of these would lead to better inspections and better teaching and learning. Milton Keynes College Group is currently involved in a pilot project whereby thirty schools and colleges in the city are working together sharing best practice to improve the outcome for our pupils and students. And this is what Ofsted should be about – giving everyone the resources they need to be better, rather than, as it is sometimes seen, turning up “mob-handed” to catch teachers out.
In my experience, Ofsted inspectors are every bit as committed to improving standards in schools and colleges as the endlessly dedicated (and they are) teachers and lecturers who they examine. The organisation should be seen as a force for good, one to welcome into the classroom because they will help make everything better. We need to give it the chance to be that.