By Geoff Barton
General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
What a strange week it has been in the parallel reality of Ofsted.
The inspectorate’s outgoing Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, addressing
the House of Commons education select committee, acknowledged (helpfully) that schools were dealing with huge problems in the wake of the Covid pandemic but then (unhelpfully) went on to say that she thinks “there’s a sense among schools that it’s unfair to be held to account publicly when they’re working so hard with such difficult issues
And then (even more unhelpfully), she added: “I’m not a policymaker, it’s for government to decide if it wants to change that whole framework of public accountability, but I think we’re feeling a bit of a push from the school sector for exemption from that framework
I’m not entirely sure what this means, but if the Chief Inspector’s sense is that schools do not feel they should be inspected or held publicly accountable, I don’t think that is the case at all. It isn’t being held accountable that is the problem. It is the ham-fisted way in which it is done.
In particular, the blunt instrument of single-word or single-phrase judgements is so obviously counterproductive – stigmatising schools, driving staff out of a profession that is struggling with recruitment and retention, demoralising communities – that the case for change is overwhelming.
This isn’t in the gift of the Chief Inspector. It is a government decision.
And surely only a minister with their head buried in the sand would refuse to at least countenance the idea of reform. Step forward Schools Minister Nick Gibb. He said
to the committee:
“If there wasn’t a one-word judgement, I think people would pick out things from the report, in a way, like a theatre review and I am not sure this would necessarily reflect a balanced view of the school
This hypothetical risk is enough – in Mr Gibb’s mind – to mean that the only alternative is to plough grimly on with a system that causes untold misery. In his world, more of the same is the answer.
To be clear. We absolutely do accept the need for accountability. It is manifestly right that a vital public service like education – which determines our children’s and our country’s future – should be held to the highest standards.
But it is also right that accountability should be fair, proportionate and supportive rather than a wrecking ball which all-too-often makes matters worse in schools that most need a helping hand.
That isn’t a plea to exempt them – or any education provider – from accountability. But it is a plea to stop writing them off as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’ and instead properly reflect the breadth of what they are doing, the challenges they face, and where they may need help.
Can that really be so hard?
At present, the prospect of the Ofsted ‘call’ dominates leadership. It’s a weekly ritual of waiting with bated breath and then breathing a sigh of relief when it doesn’t come. It hangs like the sword of Damocles over the heads of school and college leaders.
This is not a sensible way to hold anyone to account. It is out of kilter with what is needed or helpful – driving destructive levels of workload, stress and anxiety. It doesn’t serve the needs of children, parents or a profession which is haemorrhaging the people it needs most – teachers.
Scrapping those blunt, reductive judgements would be a simple step towards lowering the stakes and building a fairer, more effective accountability system. It would improve the strained relationship between inspectors and school leaders. It would still tell parents about their local school. And most importantly of all, it would work better for children.
is ASCL General Secretary.