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Ofsted Inspections Are Still A Lottery – Its New Report About Consistency Doesn’t Tackle The Main Problems

"Are you’re honestly telling me that there are some inspectors who use the universal who-do-you-fancy system?"

  • Ofsted Inspections Are Still A Lottery – Its New Report About Consistency Doesn’t Tackle The Main Problems

I went to a dinner party the other day. As the night progressed and I sat wondering if our gracious hosts would ever bother to take the brie out of the fridge, one of the least interesting guests decided what this party really needed was a deep philosophical discussion.

And so, natural conversation paused as we began such stimulating debates as, ‘If a tree falls but no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?’ (Answer: yes.) ‘If the toast falls butter-side down but no one sees, should you still eat it?’ (Answer: yes.) ‘Do any of us really have free will?’ (Answer: who cares – can you please get the brie out of the fridge!)

I can only imagine that Sean Harford was at a similar dinner party a while ago, during which some drunken HMI posed the following philosophical question: ‘Do Ofsted inspectors dream of educated sheep?’ I imagine this conversation became the inspiration for the latest Ofsted led enquiry, ‘Do two inspectors inspecting the same school make consistent decisions?’ The answer to which, if you bother to read the 42-page report, is a rather unsurprising, ‘Yeah, sometimes, but not always.’

I can’t help feeling that this report doesn’t really tackle the main problem with Ofsted consistency. For a start, it is only dealing with one day inspections of ‘good’ schools. The expectation for these inspections (or, how they were sold to us) is to simply check that these schools are ‘still good’. The schools don’t have to prove that they are compliant with every tweak of the Ofsted inspection handbook. Instead, it is a review that seeks to encourage ‘constructive, honest and professional dialogue between inspectors and school leaders.’

So, if the inspectors are walking in expecting a good school, and they only have a day to hold their discussions, surely consistency should already be on the up? Unless results have plummeted, or the school is on fire when the inspector walks in, or the school leader is so ‘honest’ during the inspection that they let slip about the head declaring that the school is going to hell in a handcart, chances are it will all be fine with no surprises. Ofsted inspectors are shrewd and knowledgeable creatures, aren’t they? They are confident, experienced and self-assured, aren’t they?

Apparently not. For example, to kick these short inspections off, Ofsted commissioned a pilot study with double inspectors in each school to see if they came up with the same judgement. The pilot found that in some of the schools, the inspectors kept ‘bumping into’ each other and, as such, this made it difficult for them to remain independent in their views. Read that bit again, just to make sure it sinks in.

Are you’re honestly telling me that there are some inspectors who, during their team meetings, use the universal who-do-you-fancy system, adopted by teenagers across the globe, of ‘I’ll tell you if you tell me first?’. That, to me, is a pretty clear indication that some inspectors may not have the professional chops to carry out their work independently and certainly wouldn’t be able to form judgements consistent with the evidence. (Although I will concede that they would be able to form judgements consistent with other inspectors, just so long as they knew what the other inspector thought first.)

The fact, however, that such a report needs to be commissioned illustrates the fragility of Ofsted judgements. Regardless of whether it’s a full or one day inspection, schools are still playing a lottery in terms of the inspectors that show up. For me, quality control reports should be less about the consistency of views among different inspectors placed in the same setting, and more about the consistency of individual inspectors’ judgements over time. Long term tracking of an inspector’s performance would help identify inconsistencies within the whole system and allow schools to have faith that their evidence will be approached without bias.

There is plenty more evidence I would like to see explored: one day inspection conversion rates for individual inspectors; audits of the key evidence that resulted in a specific judgement; summaries of inspectors’ performance and their collated feedback from schools – I could go on. Only with this level of transparency could we be certain about Ofsted’s consistency, and only then will Ofsted really matter. What was that, Sean? You’ve cancelled the dinner party? Oh, OK. Guess I’ll put the brie back in the fridge.

The writer is the headteacher of a UK primary school. You can find him at theprimaryhead.com and on Twitter at @theprimaryhead.

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