Headteachers have been able to settle into the new term free from the immediate threat of inspection. Ofsted visits have been put on hold until later this month by its new chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver, while his staff undergo special training to understand the potential impact of inspections on the wellbeing of teachers.
It follows a critical coroner’s report into the suicide a year ago of headteacher Ruth Perry, after her Reading primary school was downgraded from “outstanding” to “inadequate”.
Even before the coroner’s findings last month that aspects of the inspection lacked “fairness, respect and sensitivity”, the inspectorate was under pressure to reform, with a flurry of reports over the past few months pressing the need for change.
The most radical of these, Beyond Ofsted, commissioned by the National Education Union, urged an overhaul of the current system, contending that Ofsted had lost the trust of teachers. The report — chaired by Lord Knight, chair of the Council of British International Schools — says that instead of an external inspection, schools should carry out self-evaluation with the help of an independent school improvement adviser. There should be a separate safeguarding audit, while Ofsted’s role should be confined to inspecting local authorities and academy trusts rather than individual schools.
A second report, from the think-tank the Institute for Public Policy Research, called for replacing single-word overall verdicts on schools with a performance “dashboard”. It queried the consistency of inspection gradings and found it no surprise that teachers believed that, in its current form, Ofsted was causing “considerable stress”.
More recently, the Public First research consultancy, surveying parents, said that 77 per cent favoured the Labour idea of switching from single-word grades to a “report-card” assessment. But it noted that 47 per cent of parents felt that Ofsted helped to improve schools, while only 11 per cent believed the opposite; and 68 per cent of parents thought Ofsted’s grade accurately reflected their children’s school, compared to 23 per cent who did not.
In another report, for the Institute for Government, Sam Freedman, a former adviser to the then Education Secretary Michael Gove, pointed out that inspections were popular with parents. He recommended that when safeguarding shortcomings could be put right quickly, the Department for Education should hold back from automatic interventions (such as putting a school into special measures): and it should not intervene in the case of “coasting” schools — that is those which receive two successive “requires improvement’ grades.
The change in Ofsted leader will also raise hopes within the Charedi community, whose leaders believed the “muscular liberalism” espoused by Sir Martyn’s predecessor, Amanda Spielman, led to undue pressure on their schools.
Ofsted has argued that it is not a policy-maker; it only applies what the government has laid down. However, some inspections of Charedi schools have raised questions over whether Ofsted has been over-zealous in interpreting guidelines and failed to take account of the school’s religious ethos. One Charedi school deputy head has called Ofsted’s approach to religious and sex education “inflexible and intransigent”.
The inspectorate could claim some credit for improvements in secular education made by schools on the more conservative end of the Charedi spectrum. But the conflict over RSE, in particular requirements to teach about LGBT identity, remains. Any resolution ultimately must come from the Department for Education, but Ofsted can help by seeing if it could do more to accommodate the religious sensitivities of Charedi schools.