School inspections in England began in 1839 – they are older than the zip, toilet paper, or tea bags. But for the first time in the inspectorate’s history it is facing a major and potentially destabilising problem: school leaders are politely withdrawing their labour.
A few years ago, Ofsted decided that instead of grading schools using inspectors who had never worked in one, it should recruit more school leaders; they would be employed part-time for the inspectorate, and as senior school staff they would have greater on-the-ground credibility. The idea was roundly praised. But no one foresaw that if an inspectorate used current school leaders, there would be trouble if those people suddenly became disillusioned and downed tools. Which is the problem Ofsted is facing.
Last year the inspectorate changed the way it grades schools. Exam results are no longer enough: inspectors now also look at the topics taught in lessons and how well pupils remember them. They want to see schools building “cultural capital”, which helps to “engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement” – a phrase that could cover everything from hot yoga to reading Dickens.
Teachers were relieved that less attention was being paid to exam grades and excited about the wider focus on school life. But their dreams have been dashed. Speak to a headteacher, and you’ll hear about staff in tears after intense grillings on exactly why they taught a lesson on ice caps, or of schools being failed because one child couldn’t describe a Viking. Or of Lynne Fox, an award-winning headteacher who had weathered 12 inspections, resigning after her school was downgraded – despite it being the second-highest performing in Stockport.
Now, an unexpected alliance of the grassroots Headteachers’ Roundtable and the National Education Union is asking heads to withdraw senior staff from the inspectorate and is pressing for a “fundamental review” of Ofsted’s work. The hashtag #PauseOfsted is gaining traction.
When something endures for 187 years – zips, teabags, or inspections – there’s usually a reason. As someone who attended a comprehensive that was sinking into chaos, being able to rely on inspectors to highlight the situation really mattered. When Ofsted reports began in the 1990s it was the first time many families had a clue that their child’s school was not as good as it should be.
Stephen Tierney, chair of the Headteachers’ Roundtable, says it is demoralising for families to hear their local school has again been labelled “inadequate”. True. But it is also demoralising to be ignored, to feel like no one is bothering to visit your school and to tell the truth about its struggle.
Of course, my job isn’t hanging on a random inspector’s whim. If it were, I might feel differently. One headteacher I know, with an Ofsted due in the summer, is already having sleepless nights. That’s ridiculous– yet it is also not Ofsted’s fault. There is no compulsion on academy chiefs or local authorities to fire a headteacher who receives any grade – not even an inadequate. Fox resigned because her school was given a grade 3, “requires improvement”, which used to be called “satisfactory”. Perhaps if we changed the name back the pressure might ease? Satisfactory is not good, but it’s not the end of the world.
One friend offered another suggestion that could help. After an inspection, why not have a period of six months in which the school could work to respond to the criticisms, and then have a second visit from inspectors? A new report would be written and both published – the initial report and the new one, displaying the capacity to improve once issues are flagged.
Doubling the number of inspections would be expensive. But it might save the inspection system from civil unrest while rescuing headteachers from anxiety attacks. It is worth a pause to consider it.