Ofsted, trusts and the shape of things to come

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

All across England, school leaders who manage to create any mental headroom may be starting to wonder about the implications of the recent schools White Paper, with its aim that all schools should be part of a multi-academy trust by 2030.

This, it seems, is the bedrock of its ‘vision’ for education.

We don’t know exactly how the government intends to leverage this change in the way schools are organised, but the direction of travel is pretty clear. There will be those who agree with its intentions, those who are not sure, and those who are bitterly opposed. 

But at the same time there will also be a lot of thinking about what this means for schools, for local authorities, for stand-alone academies, and for existing multi-academy trusts. 

There are likely to be plenty of hearts and minds to win over - including those of parents - if ministers are to convince them that significant structural change will, in itself, raise educational standards.

More of all that another time.

Meanwhile, I would suggest that there should also be fundamental consideration in government about what these plans mean for the inspection system too. Because here, surely, there is an opportunity.

The truth is that Ofsted disproportionately dominates our educational landscape and, frankly, doesn’t work well. We know from our surveys of ASCL members that the vast majority of school and college leaders do not think that it consistently, fairly and accurately judges the performance of something as complex as learning in a school or college. 

And this surely amounts to a fundamental problem. It means that a profession engaged in such an important public service – educating the nation’s children and young people - comprehensively lacks confidence in the body responsible for overseeing standards. 

This is before we even get on to the madness of an inspection system whose negative judgements stigmatise schools and make it harder to secure the improvement needed by those institutions, and the pupils, families and communities they serve. 

It is a vicious circle which neither the government nor Ofsted seem capable of acknowledging, much less fixing.

It is easy to criticise, though, and harder to suggest an alternative. 

Here at ASCL we accept that there has to be some form of inspection. Our Council is about to develop some practical proposals for a system predicated on helping schools to improve, and thinking through at which level inspection should happen - the school or the trust - and what that might look like.

We won’t shy away from acknowledging the need to call out schools that are unsafe or failing in their duty to educate young people properly. Ours won’t be a call to abolish Ofsted. Education is a vital public service on which billions of pounds of public money is spent. A system of oversight is crucial. 

The question is what should that oversight look like?

We’ll be forensically examining the system that currently exists, considering which elements work, and looking at how school inspection could be improved upon so that it is more proportionate, more consistent, and ultimately works better for parents, schools and the communities they serve.

But in the meantime, here’s a starter for ten. 

One of the problems with the current system is the fact that it carries such high stakes. Reputations are shredded by Ofsted inspections, careers are ended and, at the very least, school communities brace themselves for the negative and distracting impact of a visit by inspectors. 

So, one way of improving inspections would be to take some of the heat out of them. And a route to achieving this end could be to scrap the obsession with graded judgements. 

We know from opinion polls that parents like the concept of inspection. But that doesn’t mean they agree that something as complex as a school can be neatly reduced to one of four categories. 

Instead, inspectors could give a narrative judgement - a written summary - setting out what the school is doing well and what it isn’t yet doing well enough. These could be in bullet-points expressed in parent-friendly language.

The inspection report, written on no more than a side or two of A4, could carry a small number of recommendations about what the leadership should focus on next. If the school in question urgently requires further support, inspectors would spell this out, with a follow-up visit in, say, six months’ and then a year’s time to check that the actions needed to effect improvement have happened, that impact is emerging.

This approach would fit in well with the government’s vision of a fully academised, MAT-led system, because it would then be up to the trusts to deliver the support that is identified. 

Effectively, it shifts the focus away from individual schools and on to the bodies that are specifically set up to support them and secure improvement. 

That is why there is a pretty compelling argument for reforming the inspection system so that it complements the reforms outlined in the white paper for the school system.

Gone would be the cliff edges of the current system of graded judgements, the stigmatising impact of a negative label being applied to schools, and instead we might have a system which is built more around helping schools to improve and less around punishment.

And how could a government that argues for a system led by MATs, specifically to provide support to their families of schools, argue against an inspection system which is built around that ethos? It is an argument which might actually prevail politically.

There will be lots of opposing views no doubt, and we would love to hear them. The whole purpose of this column is to invite and promote discussion, as debate about the next incarnation of the inspection system inevitably gets underway. 

It may be that where we end up is totally different from the suggestion above – and a great deal better. So, ahead of the next meeting of ASCL Council - the elected members in the engine room of our policy development - do let us know, what you think. 

How do we improve the inspection system? How do we make it work better for schools, for colleges, for students, communities and for the taxpayer? How do we make Ofsted a key driver for helping us to improve education across all communities for children and young people of all backgrounds?

Because, while there will be many different ideas and thoughts about what inspection should look like in the future, most of us will agree that change is undoubtedly needed. 

Geoff Barton is ASCL General Secretary. 
Posted: 20/05/2022 09:10:28