In September 2019 Ofsted will introduce a new Framework of Inspection and it has already begun to work on revising the current version. That timescale and the arrival of a new Chief Inspector offer the chance of change, but whether that change becomes merely cosmetic or genuinely radical will in part depend upon the amount of pressure we, the teaching profession, are prepared to apply. The danger is that Ofsted will settle for a superficial respray to make it look fresh and up-to-date, but what we need is a model designed anew from first, educational principles – a recovery vehicle rather than a war chariot.
I want Ofsted, for instance, to abandon its grading scale which attaches a single label (“inadequate” or “outstanding”) to the new mega Further Education Colleges (with 40,000 students and 30+ departments). This is just one egregious example of the growing evidence that Ofsted’s methods are unjust, unreliable and invalid.
Some recent statements from its most senior officers have adopted a conciliatory and constructive approach which suggests that Ofsted is open to both argument and evidence. That new stance now needs to be put to the test. A number of commentators such as Melanie Ehren, Helena McVeigh and Colin Richards, have developed alternative approaches to inspection. Recently, I too produced a detailed alternative model* but our ideas need public scrutiny, challenge and improvement from teachers and inspectors.
So what are the chances of reform? How much room for manoeuvre does Ofsted have at its disposal? The task of introducing radical reform into a large, complex organisation is always daunting. For more than 25 years Ofsted has developed particular practices and governing (if highly questionable) assumptions so there is likely to be much internal resistance to any change, never mind sweeping change.
In addition to winning internal support for reform, Ofsted will have to convince senior civil servants and ministers. It would be more likely to succeed if the status and autonomy of the organization were enhanced. It could, for instance, become an independent, ‘buffer’ institution between government and educational establishments on the lines of the defunct University Grants Committee to prevent it being seen by teachers as acting as the enforcer of the transient priorities of government. The inspectorate needs not just to be independent of government but to be widely seen as independent.
If the principle of keeping government interference at arm’s length is thought to be healthy for the nation’s finances, as demonstrated by the independence accorded the Bank of England and the Office of Budget Responsibility, then the same autonomy should be extended to Ofsted for the sake of the nation’s education.
Ofsted’s remit has also become unmanageably large. It now inspects a vast range of services way beyond schools, colleges and academies and includes, for example, children and family centres, adoption services, initial teacher training, skills training, adult and community learning, probation services and education in prisons. At the same time as its remit was being steadily widened, the resources provided by government were reduced year on year. Ofsted is being seriously over-stretched or is being set up for failure – or both. All of these significant changes have been made to Ofsted without any public debate on their desirability or viability.
That is why I have decided – along with the UCL IOE Press – to organise a conference on the future of Ofsted. It is called Radical Ideas to Transform Ofsted” and Sean Harford, HMI, National Director, Education, Ofsted, will respond at the end to all the issues raised. There will be ample opportunity for all those who wish to see Ofsted transformed to offer their ideas and have them debated. Through dialogue, the aim is to imagine, explore and present to Ofsted a more methodologically sound, just and democratic form of inspection than we have at present.
* Will the Leopard Change its Spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted, by Frank Coffield, (2017) is published by UCL IOE Press.
“Radical Ideas to Transform Ofsted”, a one-day conference is held on WEDNESDAY 28 MARCH 2018 in the Elvin Hall, UCL Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1A 0AL The direct link which makes booking easy is here.