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Steve Munby on Ofsted: time to go back to first principles

12 March 2015

I believe that Ofsted has had a significantly positive impact in raising standards in schools over the last 20 years or so. Expectations have been raised, mediocre practice has been challenged and schools that were letting down their pupils have been exposed.

Moreover, any system that gives great amounts of autonomy to schools needs also to have clear accountability procedures. Ofsted has been an important part of the accountability system, supported by successive Conservative, Labour and coalition governments. At CfBT Education Trust we have been contracted to carry out inspections on behalf of Ofsted in the North of England for the past 10 years and we have been pleased to have been associated with this very significant work. But at a time when we have far more detailed and accurate information about school and pupil performance than ever before and at a time of increasing strain on education funding, I believe that now is the time to give serious consideration to the future role of Ofsted and to go back to first principles when considering what is needed for the future.

Ofsted has become too pervasive an influence for schools. The Ofsted framework has become the means through which every aspect of school life has to be considered - 'what would Ofsted say?' is too often the key question asked when making a strategic decision in school. But why has a regulator become so influential? Would famous writers for television, such as Sally Wainwright or Steve Moffat, look to Ofcom in order to make their programme outstanding? Of course not - they would take into account the basic requirements of the regulator but they would look elsewhere for their ideas. Nor should schools look to Ofsted for their inspiration. Moreover, the judgements Ofsted makes are contestable. Are we absolutely clear from the research evidence about what great teaching looks like, what outstanding leadership looks like and what counts as exceptional behaviour management? And does the Ofsted framework capture that in an uncontestable way?

Ofsted is also too open to political interference. Both the Labour government and the coalition government have changed the Ofsted framework regularly to take into account the latest new priority from government, with the consequence that time and money has to be spent on inspectors and schools being trained and retrained accordingly.

And Ofsted has become too high stakes. Our current system means that a one-off judgement made by a very small team of inspectors over a day or two every few years is now either a career-threatening or a career-making event and can irrevocably change the status of a school.

So I believe that now is the time to go back to first principles. What should be the role of Ofsted? Should it be the mechanism whereby successive governments ensure that their new policies or priorities are implemented by schools? No. Too much change and political interference in the Ofsted framework is expensive, prevents clear comparisons being made over time and diverts teachers and leaders from their core job of improving their schools.

Should Ofsted be a school improver? No. Combining the regulator role with school improvement role leads to the danger of conflict of interest and confuses very different functions. Ofsted has, for very understandable reasons, leapt into a gap on school improvement because other organisations have not been empowered or resourced to cover that gap. However, that doesn't mean that proactive involvement by Ofsted in school improvement is a good thing. We are blurring edges when Ofsted starts to inspect its own advice and the implementation of its own improvement strategy.

In my view Ofsted should be a regulatory body and, along with other bodies, should be part of the regulatory strategy for schools. What does any government need from the school regulator function? Well it needs to be assured about three things in schools:

1. Confidence that the finances and governance are sound. An external financial audit. Taxpayers and the government have a right to ask of any publicly funded school: Are the finances sound? Is there any fraud? Are all the legal requirements being met? Is the governance appropriate and is there any conflict of interest? These questions should be familiar to most organisations because they are the questions asked by external auditors. All academies are now required to have an annual external audit. I see no reason why this should not be an expectation for all schools, carried out by independent auditors, and for the report and the school management response to be published. This is not a role for Ofsted - it has neither the skills nor the expertise to perform that external audit role.

2. Confidence that children are safe. Safeguarding inspection and monitoring. Parents and the government need to know that children are safe in school and that their well-being is of prime importance. The statutory power for children's safety remains with the local authority - even for academies - and most authorities have good expertise in children's safety. In my view, local authorities (rather than Ofsted) should be given the powers to inspect and monitor on matters of children's safety - across all schools - and be able to publish public reports on safeguarding in schools.

3. Confidence that children are learning and making progress. A report on pupils' progress over time. This is a real challenge because it can't just rely on test results in English and maths or on the results of one year only. It needs to be about progress over time and be based on evidence of progress in books as well as evidence of progress and added value in external exams - benchmarked against schools with similar intakes. In my view the report on progress in learning, which should take Ofsted no more than a day in a school to complete and to verify the school's self-assessment and self-reporting, should be transparent and easy to understand. This, I believe, should be the role for Ofsted.

If the focus is on Ofsted as part of the regulatory function for schools then I believe that there should be two grades only: adequate or inadequate. If the judgement is inadequate there should be a requirement on the school to act to improve by the following year or face intervention. In extreme cases intervention may be needed immediately. Each year every school should be required to publish the reports of their latest audits on their websites, including the grading of adequate or inadequate.

What would this achieve for the system?

1. It would empower the profession to take more of a lead. Teachers and school leaders, working with organisations such as the Education Endowment Fund and, hopefully, with a new College of Teaching, and using strategies like standardised control trials, would take the lead on researching what great teaching and great leadership in schools look like in different contexts. We would see far more schools increasingly challenging and supporting each other through peer review and through school to school support instead of relying on Ofsted for their thought leadership. It would release energy and innovation for action research in schools and for teachers to investigate their own practice - not to wait for Ofsted to give a judgement. Schools could try out very different approaches to teaching and to the development of school culture and leadership and would not be judged on those approaches, only on whether the children are safe and are learning effectively.

2. It would put an end to the current opaque Ofsted system which is clearly focused primarily on outcomes but which gives the impression of being equally focused on teaching and learning, on behaviour and on leadership and management. We all know that no matter how brilliant the leadership might now be or how great the teaching might have now become, it will be judged as 'inadequate' or, at best, 'requires improvement' if the achievement grade is judged 'inadequate'. As one head said to me a few years ago: 'My leadership has been judged "good", "outstanding", "requires improvement" and "outstanding" in my last four Ofsted inspections but in my view my leadership has been pretty consistent over the years - I just changed schools from an outstanding school to a special measures school half way through”

3. It would save a significant percentage of the Ofsted budget, which is currently almost £160 million per year.

The parent voice is also important in all this. Under this proposed system, parents would still have the right to complain to Ofsted and, if the complaints were significant, to trigger an inspection. Moreover, government should still use Ofsted for two other purposes:

1. The publication of thematic reports on issues

2. To send an Ofsted team into a school where there is a crisis or very serious concerns so that a full inspection can take place.

Before I end this think piece, I would like to consider four challenges or risks to my proposals

How would this system avoid complacency gradually creeping in amongst the majority of schools?
What would be the incentive to become outstanding if there were no 'outstanding' judgement? And how will the system be able to identify Teaching Schools or National Leaders of Education if not through the use of Ofsted 'outstanding' judgements? I believe that Teaching Schools and NLEs are extremely important for our education system and should be a key part of our future. We will therefore need clear criteria for NLEs and for Teaching Schools which either the National College (or whatever the National College becomes in the future!) or the Teaching Schools Council should publish. These criteria should include evidence of capacity to lead beyond the school and a track record of effective collaboration. Those who meet the criteria, through a fair and transparent process, should be allocated that status and asked to perform those roles. Most schools will strive to achieve and maintain that status and, along with the annual publication of the school's exam and test performance, that should help to address the complacency issue. Moreover, under my proposals, schools would not be waiting 3 or 4 years for an Ofsted inspection - every school would have an annual audit. So there would be no opportunity to become complacent.

How would parents know where to send their children if all the schools nearby are adequate?
This is an issue that independent schools have to address all the time and few rely mainly on the inspection report to persuade parents to send their children to them. Open days will become even more important, as will the views of parents who already have children at the school. Schools will need to be good at informing parents about what they are doing and about what they can do for each child. The school's performance results will be published for parents to see, as will the financial audit, any safeguarding audit and the progress in learning audit. In addition, schools may apply for external accolades if they so wish e.g Teaching School status, the Arts Mark, Investors in People.

Won’t this narrow down the accountability to outcomes only and to performance in test results even more and thus undervalue what schools do in the broader curriculum?
Under these proposals, the vast majority of schools will not receive an inadequate judgement and will be much more free to decide what to prioritise in their school and what aspects of learning to recognise and celebrate. There would be no framework to follow and no hoops to jump through, except financial probity, legal compliance, child safety and making good progress in learning. Moreover, the 'adequate' and 'inadequate' judgement would be based not just on test scores or the latest set of results but on a review of progress in children’s work across the broad range of the curriculum.

Finally, how will schools that are judged inadequate improve rapidly if Ofsted is not monitoring them and involved in improvement?
Clearly the current accountability and improvement system is not working well enough. It is confusing and incoherent. We need a new accountability system for all schools (not just academies) that enables clear and timely intervention to take place. Since each political party is bringing its own proposals forward as to what this should look like after the election, let's wait and see.

Ofsted has helped to ensure significant improvements in our school system over many years. CfBT is proud to have been part of that. CfBT is also leading inspection work in several other countries and seeing improvement as a result - it is working well in those contexts. But now that England's education system has (according to Ofsted's own figures) improved significantly and now that we have a rich source of data on children's progress, will a full blown 'all or nothing' inspection system unleash the talent and skills of teachers and leaders or end up grinding them down? If we are to continue to improve and to rival other higher performing systems (very few of whom have school inspection) it is time for a fundamental re-think. Let Ofsted monitor outcomes in a robust and transparent way and let the profession take control of teaching and leadership through a school-led system.