Ofsted: Differentiation requires improvement

At the moment, I feel a little bit like I’m between a rock and a hard place when it comes to commenting on Ofsted. Anyone who has been bored enough to read some of my recent blogs will possibly have picked up on the fact that I had a few issues with my recent lead inspector and the way in which she carried out the inspection. However, I do not want to come across as churlish, arrogant or unaccepting of the fact that my school isn’t anything else apart from amazeballs. So, whereas I am happy to critique the manner in which my school was inspected – as well as the particulars of some of the judgements made in the report – I do not want to diminish my professional voice for the sake of spiting my critics. I stand, resolutely, behind the sentiments in my recent Ofsted posts but there comes a time when you have to move on.

In fact, Ofsted is also trying to move on. @HarfordSean seems to be attempting an Ofsted face-lift of BBC proportions. As the beeb obsessive-compulsively wash and re-wash their hands clean of the sexist/racist/politically incorrect/unaccountable/bullying buffoonery of Jeremy Clarkson, so is Sean attempting to recalibrate Ofsted’s practices in the hope that rogue inspectors are a thing of the past and school leaders do not become slaves to Ofsted’s cliff edge inspection regimes.

Ofsted recently launched their own blog through which they will be updating us all on the various changes within the inspection framework. What’s more, you can comment and, if my experience of Mr Harford so far is anything to go by, I reckon they’ll listen. I want to be part of this debate and I don’t want my own negative experience to taint the validity of my opinions – let my voice be drowned out by the waves of better opinion, by all means, but I don’t want to be silenced by my own past vitriol. I’m a lover, not a fighter.

I have been thinking long and hard about what I would do if I were in charge of Ofsted. In conversation with Sean Harford at a recent meeting with other Twitter cronies, I expressed the opinion that I would rather see Ofsted become more supportive. Come in and judge us by all means, I graciously said, but if the school has weaknesses, why doesn’t the lead inspector come in, the day after the inspection, sit down with the Head and work on writing a plan that would sort it all out. That way, the school is being supported by someone who knows the context and has a (preliminary) relationship with the school already. If they know that their time is not restricted to the initial inspection period, it could encourage all lead inspectors to act responsibly and with respect.

It didn’t take Sean that long to reply. He promptly said that this wouldn’t work and for a pretty obvious reason: Ofsted cannot be seen to be prescribing or recommending particular approaches or practices. They are the diagnosis, not the remedy. I understand this. I think it’s a shame though, especially as there is now a commitment for more inspectors to be HMI, but, maybe my idea misses the point of Ofsted, or, maybe Ofsted has gone too far into the judgemental side of education to evolve that drastically. Either way, let’s just accept the fact that it ain’t ever going to happen.

Earlier in the aforementioned meeting, we learnt about the prospect of what ‘good’ schools could expect from September. They will get a visit from an HMI around every three years. This would be akin to a check-up: time for Ofsted to check the pulse of the school. A highly important point to remember is that the visiting HMI would not be coming in to judge the school from scratch. No, they would be assuming that the school was still good. So, whereas schools might not be too cock-a-hoop at the prospect of the visit, at least they will not feel as though they have to prove that they are good all over again. Of course, if the HMI decides that the school is not good (RI or outstanding – it works both ways, remember) they can trigger a full section 5 inspection. Hurrah! Well, interestingly, the HMI will continue to stay on for the inspection, so, similar to my idea, there will be someone who already has some real knowledge of the school to guide the subsequent inspection.

This is a big evolutionary step for Ofsted: Differentiated inspections. However, I think Ofsted could do better.

So, if my proposal of the lead inspector judging a school to be RI and then hanging around to help write the SDP is a couple of Minis short of the Italian Job, well, hang on a minute lads, I’ve got an idea.

Good schools get their own special Ofsted, so why shouldn’t RI schools get something different too?

You see, I have a problem with the way in which RI schools get inspected. RI schools are under too much pressure. Not only do they have their tailor made Ofsted improvement plan, but they are under pressure to get a multitude of other ideas and initiatives off the ground as well. Take the last two years: as well as, most likely, having to improve some serious issues around achievement, teaching, behaviour and leadership, RI schools have also had to implement some additional national changes: sports premium, British Values, 2014 National Curriculum, life after levels etc.

‘But so has every other school?’

Yes, but those schools have the luxury of time. Good or outstanding schools are not being chased up as regularly or rigorously by the local authority, HMI or Ofsted as their RI counterparts. As well as under seeing their own improvement measures, RI schools are expected to put in place any national change in policy or any rushed through government agenda at a pace that you will not find in good or outstanding schools. That is not to say that good or outstanding schools are resting on their laurels, but they do not have the same pressures as the RI school to get these things in place, working and evidenced ready for scrutiny.

So when Ofsted arrives, the RI school is not judged on what it was they needed to improve last time round. The inspection begins from scratch and everything is up for scrutiny. The previous report may get a look-in but so does everything else. This means there is less time for the inspection team to gain a full understanding of the school’s journey of improvement. Without taking the time to understand the context within which the school leaders are working, or the extent to which RI schools have put in improvement measures to tackle the overall quality and consistency of securing pupil achievement, teaching, behaviour and leadership, no Ofsted team can make a valid judgement on how far that school has moved forward.

So what I would propose is that for RI schools, rather than the midday phone-call and the SEF getting emailed the night before Day One, the lead inspector should visit the school. Maybe the day or week before. They should have a proper meeting with the Head: sit down with the old report, the data, the SEF and the school development plan and really attempt to gather as much information and context as they possibly can before they come in to judge. I think this process, in itself, would prove invaluable to the lead inspector as it would help shape the two days ahead. It would also make the school feel that they were getting a fair deal.

Day One would therefore be a tough scrutiny of progress since the last report. Day Two could then lend itself to either exploring weaknesses or things that weren’t adding up, or moving on to how the school was making progress within additional areas – including new government policy and initiatives. This differentiated approach would surely help RI schools move on, as well as diminish the power and possibility of a rogue inspector. If some of you are reading this and thinking that it all seems a bit like giving RI schools an easy ride, I have to say that I think just the opposite: your evidence will be under greater scrutiny. If you haven’t made progress, then there will truly be nowhere to hide.

So what do you say @HarfordSean? Is this a possibility? Or is it just the ranting of a Head who has been burnt and can’t move on?

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