From fewer criteria to parents taking online surveys about schools, the Ofsted framework has undergone significant change. Alex Tomlin looks at what it could mean for you
During the 2010 election campaign Secretary of State Michael Gove stated in Report that "Ofsted is responsible for doing and investigating too much… rather than looking at 18 different criteria, it should only look at four".
True to his word, from January 2012, the school inspectorate will use four criteria to judge schools in England, including free schools and academies. The four criteria are: the achievement of pupils; the quality of teaching; the quality of leadership and management of the school; and the behaviour and safety of pupils.
They represent an attempt to simplify the inspection process. ATL policy adviser Adrian Prandle is reserving judgement. "It's probably a positive step as long as the consequence is less bureaucracy that teachers either have to adhere to or that they have the impression they have to adhere to," he says, explaining that schools' perceptions are often at odds with Ofsted's own stated aims. He gives the example of lesson plans that Ofsted says are not compulsory for every lesson but which teachers are often asked to produce by headteachers who want to cover their backs.
Besides the narrowing of criteria, another significant change is the decision to stop inspecting schools judged as outstanding, instead relying on risk assessments to demonstrate continuing high standards. "It's hard to see how risk assessments are going to be anything other than data driven," comments Mr Prandle, "so that instantly means your position in league tables and high pressure on exams."
By not inspecting outstanding schools, Ofsted can focus on weaker schools, returning to them more quickly after the initial inspection and working more intensely in a shorter time frame. "The idea they sell is that it means there's a better chance of them improving more quickly if you're working with them more closely and in a shorter period," explains Mr Prandle. "The reality is that it probably causes quite a lot of pressure on those schools.
"The other context is that Michael Gove now has additional powers to close schools," he continues, "so this narrowing of the timetable makes it easier and more likely for him to say, 'Right, that school's failing, let's make it an academy'."
Another change that will impact on more challenging schools is the removal of contextual value added (CVA) measures, a method of judging schools in the context of intake and the geographic and social area.
"Ofsted has been told it can use other value-added measures, but we don't really know what they are," says Mr Prandle, "and ATL would be worried that for those teachers working in really difficult schools there's a risk that it won't be recognised well enough."
The government position is that there shouldn't be excuses for not achieving, no matter where pupils are from.
One of the most potentially controversial innovations of the new system is the introduction of Parent View, a website allowing parents to give their views of their children's school. With potential abuse of this in mind, Ofsted has not included any free text options, to prevent personal comments. The survey comprises 12 questions on, among other issues, your child's happiness, safety and the school's effectiveness at dealing with bullying, with tick-box answers ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree. However, in reality the survey can be filled in by anyone with an email address and five minutes to spare, with the results appearing instantly online and informing Ofsted's view of a school.
"Even if it wasn't sabotaged, it could still give a very one-dimensional view," explains Mr Prandle. "It would probably attract people who are angry rather than positive. One of the big things we've tried to say is that there are already ways for parents to engage with schools, and schools should encourage that. What you really need is schools developing good relationships rather than anonymous surveys."
The relationship between Ofsted and schools is also key, Mr Prandle believes. "We've said they need a much more respectful relationship between inspectors and schools. Ofsted talks about supporting teachers, but then how teachers feel is quite different. Our members give quite mixed reports on the quality and regularity of feedback.
"Our position remains that it is not the right way to hold schools to account, and that local methods of accountability concentrating on support and improvement would be better than national or public judgement. Ofsted needs to work with schools on training and development and turn what schools feel is a punitive system of accountability into proper professional accountability."
You can view ATL's response to the Ofsted framework consultation here.
Image (c) Alamy
Even if it wasn't sabotaged, it could still give a very one-dimensional view