I probably shouldn’t be writing about this as I’m sworn to secrecy.
It’s been a strange few days, all rather furtive and under the radar. On Monday evening I attended a pleasant SSAT Reform Dinner in London held under the Chatham House Rules. I must admit, I had to Google what it meant but now that I know I’m not meant to write about it, I won’t. And then last week I took part in the two-day assessment and selection process to become a centrally contracted Ofsted inspector. It seemed all very hush-hush as we weren’t allowed to share the workbooks that we completed or disclose the nature of the assessments. It’s understandable of course that Ofsted want to protect the integrity and rigour of the assessment selection process.
I am all in favour of rigour when it comes to the inspectorate and we all positively cheered when we were informed that the current pass rate is only 60%. This means that of the current inspection workforce four out of ten did not get through the first two stages – the written application and timed online assessment. Whittling down the existing Ofsted workforce from 4000 to 1500 can only be a good thing in terms of ensuring quality.
What was also encouraging to hear was that each and every one of us will be required to complete a minimum of 16 days’ of inspections each year, without exception (assuming I get through of course). This is in addition to the annual national conference and five training days per year. So in all, just over a month of my time every year will be devoted purely to inspection activities. That’s a big commitment (I’m sure you’re very grateful) but it’s a price worth paying if it means inspectors remain fresh and sharp and on-the-ball. Above all, it should mean that in time we have a skilled and up-to-date professional inspection body that is, at the very least, consistent and fair.
In the same way that a highly trained airline pilot is required to fly a minimum number of hours per year in order to keep his or her license, the same will now apply to an Ofsted inspector. Trust me, as a headteacher who has conducted over thirty inspections, if you go even a term without doing one, you become de-skilled. As stressful as it is to be on the receiving end of a visit, I have yet to experience anything as intense as the pace and vigour of a well-led inspection. So if you pitch up having not done one for a while you do feel rusty and off the pace.
What is also positive about the reduced workforce is that the odds of there being a practising headteacher on the team has increased considerably. In addition to providing much-needed credibility, what this is likely to mean in practice is that when a difficult judgement is made that relies on ‘professional experience’, at least the person making the call will understand the context and professional demands of the job. It’s always irked me that the term is occasionally abused, often seen as a get-out clause for lazy inspecting. It’s a bitter pill to swallow when being told you need to improve as a leader by someone who has never led a school in their life.
If the inspection process is to retain any form of integrity then we need to ensure that inspectors are at the top of their game. This is where serving headteachers come to the fore. On my table group we were reflecting on the importance of having a headteacher on the team and that there ought to be more of them. The discussion naturally moved on to the notion of peer review. If serving heads are increasingly making decisions about the effectiveness of our schools, do we even need Ofsted in the first place? I’d far rather an experienced well-trained headteacher colleague from another region spend a day or two in my school to evaluate our provision than an inspector.
This model sits perfectly with NAHT’s view – particularly that of Russell Hobby, who recently suggested that the role of an Ofsted inspector is akin to that of a food hygiene inspector. It is for headteachers to then become the food critic. Based on a recent policy think-tank report, one of its recommendations includes the fact that Ofsted should exist merely to check compliance. This would include verification that a school is meeting the minimum standards and providing an acceptable level of education. It is for school leaders to evaluate the quality of the provision and to make a judgement on the overall effectiveness. There are of course a number of problems with this model, not least the fact that it could turn in to a cosy-club. However, this could be overcome by giving powers to HMI to enable them to validate and affirm the quality of peer-review as part of their compliance visit.
Recently I have been involved with the Whole Education Network’s Peer Review model. I made a conscious decision last year to reduce the number of Ofsted inspections and focus more on peer-reviewing schools. I find it far more worthwhile and I know the schools on the receiving end value it. I too was the recipient of a peer review and found it to be challenging and rigorous, especially as we are an outstanding school and haven’t been inspected for three years. I am currently working on our own multi-academy trust peer-review framework so that each school is reviewed by a headteacher from another academy within the MAT. In addition, we will seek an external perspective at least once per year as well as road testing and moderating the framework through partnerships with neighbouring trusts or federations to ensure its rigour.
No doubt Ofsted will be around in some form or another for the foreseeable future. Few would argue that as a profession we need to be inspected and held to account by an independent regulator. But is it really still necessary to spend millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on a public body when we can do it ourselves by simply cutting out the middlemen? It has been reported that the cost of running Ofsted is £207m per year, equivalent to almost 5000 teachers. Ofsted has been around for over two decades now which means that every school has been inspected five or six times at a cost to the taxpayer close to £4 billion. This equates to an additional 100,000 teachers in our schools over the past twenty years, many of whom no doubt would have gone on to become future leaders and peer reviewers.
Never before has our workforce been so skilled at evaluating how good (or bad) we are. It won’t be long before we train our one thousandth national leader of education. That’s equivalent to one NLE for every twenty schools. Add to that the number of trained serving Ofsted inspectors and the ratio drops to one in eight. Surely then we have the capacity and expertise to be able to galvanise a system-led framework of accountability that is not so reliant on the watchmen? We need to grasp the nettle.