Does the pause to inspections go far enough?

By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

New Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Martyn Oliver has decided to pause inspections in the wake of the inquest into the death of headteacher Ruth Perry. It’s fair to say that the reaction has been mixed. For some it goes too far, for others not far enough.

In the former camp is The Times, which, in a leader article, thundered that Sir Martyn’s “willingness to accede to union demands is troubling.” It went on to say that he “will need to show that he is willing to confront unions when necessary. A tough regulator is bound to clash with those it is regulating.” 

Others, however, feel that a pause of inspections to 22 January isn’t sufficient to bring about meaningful change. The head of one school told The Observer: “We are just expected to go back to normal after this short pause, but nothing is really changing. I think I am well within my rights to say: ‘You’re not coming in’.”

It is interesting to look at how Sir Martyn himself sees things – something he went into in some detail during an all-inspector mental health awareness training webinar earlier this week which Ofsted posted on YouTube.

He said: “For those who say that we must not be captured by the sectors or the trade unions as we listen to them and work with them, I say ‘yes’ we must be careful to put the needs of children and learners first, but I don’t start from the position of thinking that those staff and those trade unions also do not want to put the needs of children and learners first too. After all, the sectors are the ones who deliver for children and learners and there should be no arguments of duality or elimination of one or the other but it should be about building a synthesis. We all want the same thing to help children and learners thrive.”

He went on to say that this is a very difficult time for those working in schools and colleges, with multiple factors that are putting pressures on children, families and on staff, and that “we must recognise this when we are inspecting and regulating.” 

And he added: “We’re part of our sectors, we’re not above them or apart from them which is why I’ve also talked about why Ofsted should be of the system, by the system and for children and their parents.”

Now, these are early days and - to dust off that hoary old cliché - the proof of the pudding is in the eating. But this seems like a pretty good statement of intent to me. We’ve long argued that Ofsted needs to work more collaboratively and supportively with those it inspects. Here is a Chief Inspector who is publicly setting a new tone.

On the issue of whether the pause to 22 January goes far enough there will be differing views about what can realistically be achieved in that time. Our view is that it at least gives a breathing space to agree a robust and reassuring plan in response to the coroner’s concerns. We’re currently in discussion with Ofsted about what that plan should look like. 

Obviously, it is not going to mean major system changes are in operation by that date but it should be possible to put in place a clear mechanism for safeguarding the welfare of leaders and staff during inspections when things go wrong. It feels to me as if we’ll get something that does that, and reduces the fear factor that can build disproportionately at the prospect of an inspection.

The major system change that many people – including ASCL – want to see is the scrapping of graded judgements – the labels which can cause so many damage, stress and anxiety. 

That isn’t an Ofsted decision, however, but one for the government. Labour has said that it will do this if elected, replacing graded judgements with a narrative report. The current government has so far not indicated any willingness to do likewise. 

But even if it did decide to scrap graded judgements that is not something that is going to be quick to implement because it would mean designing, consulting upon and implementing a narrative approach. It would be crucial to take enough time to get this right.

So, what we are talking about here are the short-term fixes that can and must be introduced to safeguard the welfare of leaders and staff who are badly affected by the inspection process, rather than the longer-term debate about bigger system changes that are needed.

I think the crucial point here is that we do have a Chief Inspector who has shown willingness in his opening days to work with us on that immediate fix. 

He is, of course, coming in at a terrible point in Ofsted’s history where the education sector has so little confidence in the inspectorate that it is going to be very difficult indeed to win back any degree of trust. You only have to look in on X/Twitter to see that.

Indeed, many of us wonder whether Ofsted is so damaged that system reform needs to be accompanied by a more extensive rebranding exercise to signal deeper change. But that is for another day. 

The important thing now is to ensure that when inspections resume – as they inevitably will – they afford a higher degree of protection to leaders and staff in our schools and colleges. 

That means immediate changes to the protocols and behaviours that underpin inspection. It means a non-defensive and genuinely reassuring response to the coroner’s report. It means a safety valve mechanism for when inspections are going wrong. It means a promise to listen to the profession about future reform. 

And then perhaps it paves the way for a longer-term plan to make inspection a process that serves young people and parents better whilst making it easier to attract great teachers and leaders to the communities that need them most.

This is quite a mission. And it’s easy for all of us to be cynical about whether it’s achievable. 

It is simply dreadful that it has taken the death of a headteacher to bring about this agenda for reform. My sense is that Sir Martyn is genuinely committed to making that change happen. But – realistically – not all in his first fortnight. Let’s hope that this is the beginning of an era of inspection reform, not the end. 

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 

Posted: 12/01/2024 10:49:36