Ofsted is still fighting a war it cannot win to justify the high stakes nature of inspection. The decision to move to inspecting outstanding schools only as necessary, where data or whistleblowing reveals a cause for concern, was sound; shorter, more focused inspections follow from this and seem sensible; in theory this means that resources may be deployed where they are needed most.
But to what end? Ofsted’s never really been clear about whether it’s there merely to identify failure, describe it, and/or to instigate action towards improvement - which requires direction. Identifying the priorities is one thing; knowing what to do about it is another. Getting to the bottom of why a school’s results might have gone into decline, or even the reasons for failure, and who should be held responsible, isn’t straightforward. While there is evidence that negative judgements generally prompt decisive effort to figure out what’s gone wrong and how to fix it, the reports themselves hardly inform that process.
Confusion on this question has over the years led to vacillation between over-reliance on exam performance data on the one hand (leading to questions about the value it adds), and individual inspectors’ judgments on the other (leading to problems of inconsistency). Unfortunately, the institution is now so inured to its critics that its leaders now respond to charges of unreliability merely by brashly asserting the organisation’s authority: so a rise in the proportion of schools judged to be good or outstanding ‘proves’ that tougher inspection ‘galvanises improvement’. Now that it’s decided to take service provision back in house, there’s even less contestability too.
At the core of Ofsted’s credibility problem is that it has developed far in advance of what we really know about what works for improving pupil attainment. Until the general paucity of evidence around much what is taken as best practice in schools is recognised, and we are prepared for a fundamental root and branch review of arrangements on this basis, it’s difficult to be optimistic about the prospect of genuinely impactful inspection reform. The consequences for school leaders’ motivation for challenge could be devastating.
James Croft is Director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education