Sir Michael Wilshaw’s latest appearance at the Commons Select Committee was part of an investigation into the quality and purposes of education.  He brought with him Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for schools.  Mr Harford said that the current cost of inspecting schools was roughly a fifth of the cost of a teaching assistant per school per year – £2,000. This equates to 0.1 to 0.2 per cent of a typical school’s budget and is a derisory amount to spend on the main vehicle of quality control in schools.  Mr Harford and Sir Michael Wilshaw defended the current system in predictably emotive terms – Sir Michael had been “subject to” inspections under the pre-2005 regime, and Mr Harford said teams of 10-15 inspectors “descended” on schools. In fact,  the number of inspectors in primary schools was rarely more than 5, and teams of 15 or more would only be used in schools with large sixth forms.

Sixth form inspection has virtually disappeared – the retiring HMI for languages told the Westminster Forum three years ago that she couldn’t form a view of language teaching in sixth forms, “because we never see any”.   Subject inspection too has almost vanished – the only survey currently listed on the Ofsted website is maths.

It is all very well for Sir Michael to tell the committee that inspectors are “now looking at science and languages” – the recently appointed languages lead has, as I’ve pointed out, emailed primary schools asking if they are doing any – but Ofsted is still not ensuring that teams have a balance of skills that enable them to do this. Mr Harford said that inspectors would be linked to a specialist by April, but that the specialists would be telling colleagues what questions to ask, rather than asking them themselves. It’s pretty obvious from this that the people asking the questions would not be in a position to assess the answers, let alone evaluate the work.

Sir Michael  doesn’t think this matters – he told the committee that weaknesses in a school tended to be the same across the board. He is, however, the latest of a line of HMCI to have been appointed without practical experience of inspection, and he is quite wrong in this. There are very often pockets of good and even excellent teaching in a failing school, and a fair inspection system will find these out, rather than tarring all of the teachers with the same brush.  An example from a failing school whose inspection I led before 2005 was a brilliant head of science who was managing to hold his department together and obtain good GCSE results despite a severe staffing problem that, at the time, affected many schools just outside London. Cameos of his excellent work helped to demonstrate that both he and the school had been treated fairly.

This principle has been abandoned.  Sir Michael told the committee  that “virtually all academies in Cambridgeshire are either inadequate or require improvement.”  A quick check of the reports on its secondary academies showed six outstanding, nine good, eleven requiring improvement and one inadequate. A serious problem, but not one that merits emptying a bucket of tar on every school in the county. In fairness to Sir Michael, his error may have arisen from the practice of not inspecting the most successful schools, so that he only saw reports on the weaker ones, but he still owes Cambridgeshire an apology.

The unfairness extends to the treatment of the very leaders that Sir Michael thinks are important. Kirby High School in Knowsley, for example, had its leadership and management rated as requiring improvement when the detail of the report showed that new management was doing all that could be expected of it – it was quite inconsistent with the grade awarded. An HMI letter to Neale Wade Academy in Cambridgeshire was similarly complementary about the impact management was making on problems. A skilled inspection service should be able to distinguish good work from bad, whatever its context.

Ofsted, as presently constituted, can’t, and needs to be restructured. The basis should be a return to the format of the “short inspection” that was introduced prior to Labour’s Education Acts of 2005 and 2006. The preparation for a short inspection was the same as for a full one, with a scrutiny of documents, pre-inspection questionnaires for pupils and parents, meetings for parents and governors, and a day’s visit to the school by the lead inspector and a colleague. This allowed us to meet the staff, discuss data with the head and senior managers, identify issues that he or she would like to be looked at closely during the inspection, and write a pre-inspection briefing.

The inspection would then take place over two days (not the day or day and a half now typical) with a reduced, but balanced team, of two or three inspectors for a primary school, and perhaps five or six for a large secondary school with a sixth form. The lead inspector would feed back to the governors and senior managers. Short inspections were reserved for more successful schools, but could trigger a full inspection and HMI visit if serious weaknesses were found.  This backup was an essential element of fairness throughout the system, and it has been lost.

Inspection reform would cost a tiny proportion of the education budget, and would not require a new Act. All that is needed is a revision of the Framework to ensure that core subjects, and a selection of others, are reported on in each school inspection, and that lesson observations should return to a basic 30 minutes. Pre-inspection preparation should be restored to its former position, except where a no-notice inspection is needed for specific reasons, and reports need to be written in enough detail to provide parents with more than a bare grade. Cameos of excellent work should be restored, and, as a personal view, the grading system extended to distinguish the exceptional, from which the country should learn – eg Mossbourne – from the very good.

Or we can, of course, continue as we are.