THE DEATH OF OFSTED
The relationship between Ofsted and the teaching profession has always been a tortuous one. The death of the primary school headteacher, Ruth Perry, and the tensions caused by Ofsted inspections continuing while schools struggled with the chaos caused by the consequences of the pandemic have taken us close to the breakdown of this relationship with an unprecedented volume of calls for non-cooperation with Ofsted, its radical reform and the abolition of it in its present format.
Ofsted was established in 1992, alongside the National Curriculum, as part of a radical programme of education reform aimed at a form of ‘marketisation’ of the education system, which combined increased central control with increased school autonomy. This embedded organisational diversity, financial autonomy, and state regulation within the education system. Ofsted provided, through the inspection of schools, the centralised regulatory function, while schools were encouraged or compelled to leave Local Education Authority control as financially-independent, semi-autonomous institutions. Within this mixture of increased central control and a quasi-free market many schools developed through chains of academies with networks of governance spanning public and private sectors. Locating schools within a form of market economy accelerated a discourse of management in education with an emphasis on transparent and quantifiable outputs, compliance, and accountability.
In this environment the Ofsted grade of Outstanding is seen less as something which is located within a process of school improvement and more as an outcome in itself, and a term for advertising, to be placed alongside the school logo. Some schools were more able to secure a favourable Ofsted judgement because of their more privileged pupil. intake or because they were able to deploy resources to prepare for inspections through the use of consultants When Ofsted began to change its inspection framework, for example, to inspect schools formerly graded as Outstanding, to introduce a default overall grade of inadequate for what was judged to be any significant safeguarding issue, to place less emphasis on quantifiable outcomes such as examination and test results, many schools previously judged to be outstanding found it harder to secure that judgement when reinspected. The pressure from academy chains and to achieve in the marketised education economy placed huge pressure on school headteachers/managers.
The speed with which Ruth Perry’s death ignited a simmering resentment of Ofsted suggests longer standing issues in education. It points to a growing distrust, by the teaching profession, of Ofsted and its motives, and the fragility of Ofsted’s legitimacy, (the acceptance by the education profession of Ofsted’s right and ability to make accurate judgements about the quality of education).
To be seen as legitimate, Ofsted needs to demonstrate its independence from political interference and show that it is not just the mouthpiece of the political party of government. Ofsted is a non-ministerial department of His Majesty’s government which reports to Parliament. Although it is independent from government it has to respond to ministers’ questions and concerns. This means that, in part, what and how Ofsted inspects is in response to government concerns e.g., Ofsted guidance on ‘Woke’ issues and the sudden inspection of schools which have been demonised in the right-wing press (e.g. holding a snap inspection of a school based on a TikTok video snippet of a classroom argument and the subsequent media coverage) ‘. Although its independence is not guaranteed but the product of an ongoing negotiation to a significant degree the direction Ofsted takes is in the hands of the Chief Inspector. Regular changes in the Ofsted framework reflect issues and concerns identified by previous frameworks but also the priorities and educational beliefs and practices of Chief Inspectors. In this context the appointment of a new Chief Inspector is being greeted with some apprehension. Sir Martyn Oliver, due to be appointed Chief Inspector, was the leader of a large academy trust of 41 schools which the Guardian noted was ‘renowned for high numbers of suspensions’. Concerns have been expressed that Ofsted, under his leadership will reverse the direction taken by Amanda Spielman, the last holder of the office, and return to an over-reliance on quantifiable data such as examination results and attendance data so that Ofsted grades then simply follow GCSE, benefiting schools in more prosperous areas. Many may also be concerned about some of the many positions Sir Oliver occupied in his ascent to national prominence. These include his membership of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. This was established in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and essentially sought to undermine it through its somewhat overoptimistic view of racial equality in the UK. The report has been roundly condemned for its conclusions and in particular for its misrepresentation of evidence presented to it. The historian David Olusoga, in particular, accused the report’s authors of appearing to prefer “history to be swept under the carpet” and compared it to the Trump-era 1776 Commission.
We need to look for the sources of legitimacy in different educational contexts: in teachers’ subject identity and communities, in pupil age phase specific practice, in pedological theory and understanding and in the organisational goals of the school. The current wave of criticism shows that it is time to rethink Ofsted and its role for school improvement. How Ofsted is to change and what it should become need to be preceded by a full discussion by the teaching profession, which should draw on all the sources of legitimacy. An Ofsted shackled to the political whims of government or directed by the unchallenged views and prejudices of its Chief Inspector will be an inspection regime which will be increasingly challenged by teachers, increasingly condemned for its impact on schools and teachers and increasingly irrelevant to the future health of schools.