Concerns over regulators increased size and remit – rebalancing of inspections framework needed

 MPs back teacher’s complaints about too many centrally driven initiatives


The DCSF Select Committee has just published its report (7 January) on Schools Accountability.

 Although its conclusions were flagged in advance it will still be uncomfortable reading for both Ofsted and the Government.

Although the Committee supports Ofsted’s overall approach to inspections, matching frequency of inspection to levels of performance with short notice inspections and its independence, it also registers concerns over the extent of Ofsted’s responsibilities which now encompass inspection of not just schools but also early years settings, colleges, initial teacher education, adult education, children’s social care and local authority children’s services. The report says ‘Whether this is sustainable for a single organisation in the long term is debatable, and both Ofsted and the Government should be alert to any sign that the growth of Ofsted’s responsibilities is causing it to become unwieldy or unco-ordinated.’ The Committee recommends that Ofsted should rebalance its inspection framework in two ways. In evaluating academic attainment, Ofsted should give less evidential weight to test results and give more weight to the quality of teaching and learning observed by inspectors in the classroom. Also, when evaluating performance in non-academic areas such as pupil well-being, Ofsted should focus on developing qualitative measures which capture a broad range of a school’s activity.

On the quality of schools inspections and school inspectors, the verdict was relatively positive. The report notes that Ofsted employs some 200 HMI inspectors with approximately 1,000 more inspectors supplied by contractors to work full-time or part-time. Christine Gilbert acknowledged that HMI were generally “well respected” but she maintained that “additional inspectors are also good inspectors” and she insisted that flexibility rather than cost was the reason for employing non-HMI inspectors. The report states ‘A common view was that the quality of inspectors was variable or depended heavily upon the composition of the team itself .On the other hand, the NFER told us that it had collected evidence indicating that those who had been inspected had “a very positive view of the professionalism and qualifications of inspectors”.’ Although the report observes that ‘ there was little direct evidence of a major gulf in quality between the two types of inspector, HMI inspectors are generally better respected and are rated highly.’ It adds ‘ We believe that Ofsted should plan to have HMIs lead all inspections. Schools causing concern should always be inspected by a team headed by an HMI. We believe that all inspectors should be rigorously trained to the highest standard’ However, given that policy should be evidence based it is odd that while the Committee finds no evidence of a gulf between HMIs and contractors it then goes on to recommend that HMIs should lead inspections, based apparently on little more than inconclusive anecdotal evidence and the views of a Union leader.

 While welcoming the new school report card, with some caveats, the Committee was not persuaded that an overall score on a School Report Card is either needed or appropriate. It also wants to know how the Report Card would mesh with the interim assessments by Ofsted of high-performing schools—which only receive inspections approximately every five years under the new inspection framework. It recommends that the Government and Ofsted should work closely to produce a model of a School Report Card which can be used by Ofsted to make decisions on which schools should undergo a full inspection within the five year period.

 But it is in its attack on the main thrust of Government policy and its inherent contradictions that the committee is at its most trenchant. It backs teacher’s claims that there are too many centrally driven initiatives, too much bureaucracy and too little time to consolidate.

The Committee notes that while the Government preaches school empowerment so schools can take charge of their own improvement processes- the ‘shifting Government priorities and the pressures of inspection, targets and Government programmes for school improvement combine to prevent schools from having the freedom to take ownership of their improvement.’ So, in short, Government policies and the complexity and fragmentation of the accountability mechanisms may actually be obstacles to school improvement. The report states ‘It is time for the Government to allow schools to refocus their efforts on what matters: children. For too long, schools have struggled to cope with changing priorities, constant waves of new initiatives from central government, and the stresses and distortions caused by performance tables and targets’

Committee members seem genuinely perplexed as to why the pace of change in Government policy needs to be so relentless and so centrally directed. Local authorities, School Improvement Partners and Headteachers have told them that one of the biggest problems facing schools is the number and frequency of new initiatives emanating from central government.

The report concludes ‘Schools and local authorities now need a period of stability so that they can regroup, take time to identify where their priorities lie, and then work to secure the necessary improvements.’ Ouch!


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