Why now isn’t the time to pause Ofsted

Michael Pain, Founder, Forum Strategy

The last few weeks have seen a lot of chatter around whether a pause should be placed on inspecting schools. I have a great deal of time and respect for many of those putting forward a well-intentioned campaign. However, I don’t agree with them for the following four reasons:

Ofsted is trusted by the public

Parents and families look to Ofsted as their main source of oversight and regulation of the schools’ system. I include myself in that, but also many many people I know. Whilst Ofsted’s efforts in this area have been undermined by austerity and the subsequent exemptions for outstanding schools, parents still hold a great deal of stead by what Ofsted tells them. These judgments are essential in helping lay people understand the organisations to whom they hand over the most important things in their lives – their children. We cannot water down the accountability that surrounds such an important responsibility.

An attempt to pause Ofsted will not be looked upon favourably by the public that the education professional ultimately serves. It is also worth adding that Ofsted is accountable to parliament, so it is parliament and not the profession it regulates that should be holding Ofsted to account. The issues highlighted by HTRT should be presented to MPs and addressed through the democratic channels.

(Citation: “Three quarters of parents continue to feel Ofsted is a reliable source of information and there has been a drop in parents who feel information from Ofsted is unreliable (19% from 16%)” You Gov, 2019)

The new framework is a step in the right direction

The new Ofsted framework has come under some criticism of late. Ironically, not from those involved in this campaign. Whilst those pushing to pause Ofsted hope for ‘time’ and ‘refinement’, others who take objection to the framework very likely see this as an opportunity to throw the baby out with the bathwater, something the campaigners may not have anticipated.

I’ve spoken with almost two dozen of our member CEOs since the campaign began. The vast majority (admittedly not all) have told me that this framework gives them and their schools space to use professional autonomy, shaping a curriculum that responds to the needs, hopes and aspirations of their communities. They’ve told me that the framework is more inclusive, thoughtful and far less obsessed with data. It does need refinement but pausing something in its tracks actually undermines attempts to gain the insights needed to inform improvement. We don’t stop our schools whilst we improve them. We need data and the insight to inform the change. Pausing Ofsted will not help to improve it.

(Citation: Nine out of ten school governors and trustees supported the proposed new Ofsted inspection framework. NGA Annual Governance Survey, 2019)

Schools need to become more accountable to the public before Ofsted reduces its role

An argument has been put forward that Ofsted should be more like Ofcom. However, what this argument overlooks is that the media sector has an additional safeguard – its direct accountability to the viewing public who can turn off programmes and shows they have lost faith it. I call this ‘pure accountability’ – something any organisation with customers experiences. In most sectors customers have a lot of choice and can vote with their feet if something is poor or failing, or, indeed, if it is thriving. The regulator here just has to provide a safeguard so that a certain ‘basic level’ of quality is met. We don’t yet have pure accountability in the education system, and we certainly can’t accept basic level accountability. Before any arguments are made to lessen Ofsted’s role, governing boards and the profession needs to ensure that trusts and schools open themselves to greater direct accountability – committing to publishing the views and feedback of parents on a regular basis and ensuring this drives improvement and accountability. Some innovative academy trusts are starting to do this, and it’s powerful.

(It should be added that other crucial public services such as the police, the NHS, care homes and nurseries, are not subject to ‘basic level’ regulation. They are inspected, and the bar is rightly also set high for these professions and organisations.)

(Citation: “Despite three quarters (76%) of parents wanting to have a say on a range of issues at school level, only a fifth (18%) of parents of children in local authority maintained schools strongly agree that their school listens to them” Parentkind, 2019)

The anti-Ofsted brigade is a mixed bag of different agendas

This is probably the strangest thing about the anti-Ofsted agenda – its critics are criticising it for very different reasons. As soon as Ofsted is paused, these differences will be exposed, there will be a tug of war, and it will be left to government – rightly, as representatives of the public – to decide on its remit and framework. I don’t think the pause Ofsted campaign has come close to contemplating what that will mean, but it almost certainly won’t be what they wished for.


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