Nick Brook is the Chair of NAHT’s Accountability Commission, and is the deputy General Secretary of NAHT. This is a sponsored post by NAHT, the definitive voice of school leaders.
John Major’s government created Ofsted 25 years ago to get a better grip on school inspection. Then, school failure was considered endemic in the system. In the quarter of a century since, school standards in this country have been transformed. Now, nearly nine in ten state-funded schools are rated good or better by Ofsted.
Yet despite having one of the most highly regulated education systems in the world, England continues to struggle to compete educationally with the best countries in the world. There is increasingly a consensus that the way in which we are holding schools to account is also holding schools back from making the journey from good to great.
In 2018, the school leaders’ union NAHT enlisted the help of leading educationalists and academics to form the Independent Commission on Accountability. They reviewed evidence to determine how well accountability arrangements were working in the interests of the country, schools and pupils; and set a new direction for the future, consistent with our ambition to have an education system to rival the very best in the world.
In September last year the Commission published the report, Improving School Accountability. They concluded that the approach that had lifted the system to good would not succeed in driving schools on to great, and that there is strong evidence to say that we need to rebalance holding good schools to account with helping them to improve.
The Commission highlighted seven ways that current arrangements are doing more harm than good, finding that, even in some of the best schools, fear of inspection was skewing priorities, driving a compliance culture and limiting ambition.
This week, Ofsted is proposing new arrangements for inspecting schools from September this year. Ofsted’s new vision is contained in a weighty, but flawed document. It recognises many of the challenges set out by the Accountability Commission but is disappointingly limited in their response to them.
At best, it is a step in the right direction when we needed a leap.
There is widespread doubt about whether Ofsted can provide the level of assurance schools and parents need. The Public Accounts Committee made this conclusion towards the end of last year.
The new framework has not remedied this.
Contained within the new proposals is a desire to rely less on test data when making judgements and focus inspectors more on what is taught and why. This is absolutely the right thing to do.
But as so much of what is proposed is open to interpretation, schools may be left second guessing what they are supposed to do to be seen as successful. Not only that, there is a very real risk that relying on the subjective views of inspectors will lead to more inconsistent judgements. This will make it even more difficult for parents who want to be confident that the information they use to make important decisions about their children’s future is fair and comparable.
Ofsted continues to struggle to distinguish clearly between Good and Outstanding schools. In parts, evaluation criteria appear vague to the point of unusable, or lack real depth. Take, for example, the new category of Leadership and Management. The distinction between “good” and “outstanding” leadership has been whittled down to three additional criteria: that leaders ensure teachers receive highly effective professional development; that meaningful engagement takes place with staff to identify workforce issues; and that staff well-being is good.
These are no doubt worthy things, but represent a depressingly unambitious view of what the best leadership in our schools should be. Compare this to the current framework and it appears that we are moving backwards. This further supports the view of the Commission that under the weight of accountability we have lost sight of what great leadership is.
A test of any education system is how well it serves its poorest pupils.
A child’s background, or family or postcode should not make a difference. But it is a fact that teachers and leaders are put off teaching in schools serving disadvantaged communities because they simply do not believe that they will be treated fairly by the inspectorate for doing so. Despite the desire of the Chief Inspector to address this we see little to suggest that these proposals go far enough to remove the disincentive to work in the most challenging schools.
Inspection arrangements that have lifted the system to good over the last 25 years will not push us on to great over the next quarter of a century and we risk becoming anchored to average internationally unless there is some loosening of the strait-jacket on good schools.
Ofsted’s new plans ought to be a moment to celebrate an improvement on current arrangements; a welcome re-think of what is required for the 21st Century. Instead, in its current form, this proposal from Ofsted will cause widespread concern amongst school leaders.
However, this is a consultation, so a lot can change. Our ambition – for an education system that rivals the best in the world – will not be achieved overnight, but it is well within our reach.We’re at a turning point, so we need to make sure we get it right.
The findings of NAHT’s Improving School Accountability report are a good place to start.