Why abolishing Ofsted is not such a bad idea

The Labour Party’s proposal to abolish Ofsted has outraged many and provoked others to argue for a revised regime that produces more reliable ‘judgements’. Both perspectives miss the point: Labour’s aim is not to end school inspection completely but to close down a relatively recently established organisation that is no longer fit for purpose. Local ‘health checks’ and a residual HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectors) will continue to inspect schools under Labour’s plans and these quality assurance mechanisms will also be situated in a renewed school improvement system that Labour plans to model on the highly successful London Challenge.

Gone would be the oppressive, heavy-handed, ‘short notice’/high-stakes school invasions that have skewed both teaching and teachers’ workload and wellbeing. Gone would be the political noise and the increasingly partisan behaviour of some of the current crop of senior inspectors. As far as HMI goes, it would be a return to a smaller and more carefully selected inspectorate bound by similar codes of practice to previous generations of HMI; inspectors who are sufficiently experienced as well as trained in order to arrive at cogently argued, independent, professional judgements.

Attempting to make inspectors’ ‘judgements’ more scientifically ‘reliable’, however, is a red herring. It is an answer to a different question which is probably something like ‘how can you make classroom observation a more reliable instrument for measuring X, Y or Z?’ Inspection is not research; inspection agencies are not research organisations. Inspection is about checking the quality of often highly divergent entities and practices. To be successful and cause as least harm as possible, it has to rely on the professional wisdom of those who inspect, their capacity to adapt their practice to often wildly different settings, as well as an overarching accountability framework that isn’t primarily punitive. Such a system will occasionally produce unreliable or unfair results because it is human(e) – which is why the consequences of a single inspection event need to be low-stakes and why the results themselves need to be open to greater scrutiny and challenge.

The argument that parents depend on inspection judgements to make decisions about choices of school is notably weak. For decades research has shown that parents’ decision-making processes about schools are multi-factorial; often, believing their children will be safe, happy and close to home are top of parents’ lists of priorities, along with having good support for any special educational needs. And advocates of the role of inspection judgements in informing parents’ choices also ignore the fact that most parents have limited capacity to choose; if their local schools aren’t ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’, most parents don’t have the cash to up-sticks and move closer to another, ‘better’ school (usually in a more affluent and therefore expensive area). What’s needed is a good local school for every child, supported to get better by a school improvement service (along the lines of London Challenge, in Labour’s proposals) and given regular checks by local authorities and, occasionally, by national HMI.

Born in 1992 to John Major’s government, Ofsted is a curious beast. The office of the Chief Inspector has too often been a bully pulpit for the incumbent, most notably for Chris Woodhead. Woodhead was disposed to making things up to fit his personal preconceptions (the figure of 15,000 ‘incompetent’ teachers plucked from the air) or over-turning the inspection results of senior HMI if they didn’t meet with his personal approval (the case of Islington Green School). The current Chief Inspector’s appointment was not confirmed by the Education Select Committee in 2016 with the Conservative MP in the chair saying they were ‘unconvinced’ she was the right person. In the kind of behaviour we’ve become much more used to recently, Nicky Morgan as Education Secretary appointed her anyway.

My own knowledge of Ofsted suggests it can now be a relatively dysfunctional place with HMI complaining to their union (the First Division Association) that they were not consulted about the new inspection framework before key figures in MATs were; that there are significant differences in personal-professional style among senior HMI that are consequential; that some in Ofsted now openly talk about its need to ‘align with government thinking’ rather than maintaining an independent stance; and that former advisors of Nick Gibb have exerted considerable influence on Ofsted’s current direction in ways that continue to trouble some. Ofsted is a relic of a recent historical moment and represents the concerns of that moment. It’s a relic that political parties haven’t had the confidence until now to question so it’s refreshing that Labour has adopted this decisive position.

Abolishing Ofsted is not abolishing inspection. Claiming that doing so is abolishing a critical part of the education system without which it will fall over is nonsense. The education system now is entirely different to the system that existed 27 years ago and most other countries (including many we seem to aspire to be educationally) don’t have anything like Ofsted. Claiming that Labour has been taken over by ‘hardline’ extremists or is too indebted to the teacher unions on this issue is also ridiculous. Changing the ways we quality assure schools is long overdue and must, as these Labour proposals also suggest, be situated within much stronger local improvement services. I would say that the Labour proposals are ‘HMI + local checks and support’. It raises the prospect of a bold new beginning for the system not the end.

In the meantime, I am looking forward to seeing how the current crop of favoured edu-preneurs will pivot to accommodate this policy if Labour do indeed form the next government. They will certainly want a slice of any national version of London Challenge. That’s going to have to be a highly creative dance well worth watching.