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  1. The Staggers
22 March 2023

Why reforming Ofsted isn’t as simple as it sounds

The inspection body is flawed – but we forget about the anarchy of schools before its creation and the kids that were failed.

By Sam Freedman

The tragic death of Ruth Perry, the headteacher of Caversham Primary School in Reading, has reopened the debate about the role of Ofsted. Sadly, some reporting and comment has ignored the Samaritans guidance that “speculation about the ‘trigger’ or cause of a suicide can oversimplify the issue and should be avoided. Suicide is extremely complex and most of the time there is no single event or factor that leads someone to take their own life.”

Nevertheless it is unsurprising that such a heartbreaking incident would lead the profession’s growing frustration about the role of Ofsted to boil over. Even though it has been around for more than 30 years, the schools sector has never fully accepted Ofsted. There are occasional peaks of resentment and we were in one before this happened, exacerbated by a perceived lack of sensitivity from Ofsted following the pandemic. And it is certainly true that the welfare of senior school leaders and our ability to recruit and retain them is a real concern.

However, calls to scrap Ofsted or dramatically change its function to become, essentially, a school improvement agency, ignore the critical role that the inspectorate plays in the structure of our education system. Any proposals for reform need to take this into account, as well as the complex interaction between inspections and other parts of the system. Otherwise we risk making everything worse.

Ofsted has a dual function. First, it provides information to parents about schools. Given the importance of choosing the right school for young peoples’ futures it is essential that parents have independent assessments to base their decision on, even if not everyone uses it. This doesn’t, though, need to take the form that an inspection currently does. Indeed the format, whereby a school gets one of four overall grades, can limit its usefulness for parents. Most schools in England are rated “good”, but within that category there is a lot of variation. They are not all good at the same things.

Labour recently proposed shifting to a report card that would give a wider range of information. This could work, though as ever it would depend on the details, and there is a risk of trying to quantify things that are ultimately unquantifiable, which just leads to more hoop-jumping and gaming.

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The second function opens up a set of much trickier questions. Ofsted is not a regulator for schools. It cannot fire anyone or insist that a school be closed or taken over. It simply provides an inspection report. The regulator is the Department for Education (DfE). It is DfE officials, and ultimately ministers, who decide whether to take action. And the problem is that, legally, an Ofsted report is the only thing they can use to intervene in a school (except for financial or governance irregularities). Once a school gets an inadequate rating, intervention becomes inevitable, usually in the form of a school being handed to an academy trust, or taken off one trust and given to another.

So these inspection reports have to bear the entire weight of our very limited and unintelligent regulation of schools. No single piece of information can or should be used like this, and it is this that creates the stress many headteachers experience. It’s simply too important.

Under the current legal model, removing Ofsted would make it literally impossible to regulate schools. And it is essential that we are able to. In the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, before the DfE focus on standards took root (and before Ofsted’s creation in 1992), there were far too many schools that were complete basket-cases, with literally no pupils getting decent exam results, and behaviour out of control. There is still too much variation in school quality – but there is now at least an ingrained minimum standard, and we cannot risk losing that.

If, then, we want to seriously reform Ofsted, moving to report card assessments rather than grades won’t cut it. Legally it would still bear the entire load of school regulation. Instead we need to move away from a narrow focus on inspection and think about an entirely different approach to regulation. One in which a wider range of information can be used, rather than that gleaned from a single visit, and it shouldn’t be run by the DfE. It could be done by a new independent regulator or, perhaps better, by devolving the function to mayors and county equivalents.

These are big questions for government, and Labour, to grapple with and will dictate the future direction of our school system. Rushing into badly thought through reform would only create confusion, and more stress, for school leaders, their pupils and parents.

[See also: Why nobody wants to be a teacher anymore]

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