It is now widely acknowledged that Ofsted is an agency with major internal problems of quality control. Inspection teams lack expertise in the subject/age range they inspect; are unreliable in their inspection judgements; and are unaccountable – without external validation, Ofsted is its own judge and jury when it comes to quality control of its operations.
For teachers and school leaders, Ofsted has become what the first chief inspector, Chris Woodhead, wanted it to be – a weapon of fear and terror. Respondents to the government’s workload challenge survey cited accountability as the major driver of unnecessary workload which has led to teachers and leaders working, on average, a 58-hour week, and school leaders even longer.
A teacher recruitment and retention crisis looms as the profession becomes more unattractive to potential new entrants and to experienced teachers.
It is recognised, even by Ofsted itself, that something must be done. Ofsted’s response to criticism is to frequently change its inspection framework in a vain attempt to ‘keep pace’ with all the new priorities for inspection. Constant change on this scale merely adds to the sense of fear and uncertainty in schools.
It results in a lack of confidence on the part of school leaders that they are able to shape the priorities of their school. And when school leaders lack authority, teachers suffer as they are required to fill in yet another progress report; engage in yet more ‘deep marking’ – do whatever is required so that, when the inspector calls, all their practice is documented and ready for inspection.
The time has come, therefore, for a radically different approach to school accountability. ATL believes that schools must be accountable for their use of public money; school leaders and teachers must be accountable for the work they do with children and young people who get only one chance at education. It is not the principle of accountability which is contested, it is the current practice of accountability and its effects on the education system.
ATL proposes a new approach to accountability. An approach which is tailored to school improvement; proportionate in its impact; working with, not against the teaching profession; conducted by experts in the subject/age phase being inspected and which results in carefully calibrated, nuanced inspection judgements which acknowledge the complexity of effective teaching, learning and assessment practices.
But the time is right, now, to think creatively and to ask ourselves the question: do we want under-confident, constrained school leaders and teachers, or do we want a creative profession – held rigorously to account, but confident in the exercise of its own professional agency? ATL believes we need the second option and so has developed our proposals for the alternative to Ofsted inspections.
Dr Mary Bousted is a member of the panel for ATL’s pre-election debate on accountability, “What’s the top priority: inspection or improvement?” which takes place in London on 24 February.
In this, the last in a series of free discussions about key education issues, our panel will address which arrangements best support innovation in education and whether the focus should be on saying which schools and colleges are effective or if we should concentrate more on helping every institution improve what it does for young people.
There are limited number of places still available – to find out more, see the ATL website.