Ofsted has been in operation since 1992 with the aim of making a contribution, through inspections, to raising standards and improving the quality of educational experience and provision. In the years that followed it has undergone many changes in its methodology and organisation most of which have improved its work as an inspection agency.
Ofsted, for example, no longer requires excessive data and information from schools, grades lessons or makes judgements on the basis of historic external assessment data. Significantly Ofsted now has moved away from an exclusive focus on core subjects to enable it take account of subjects such as the humanities. These changes were welcomed but Ofsted presents more fundamental issues which should be the object of consideration and discussion. The aim of Ofsted is school improvement but Ofsted is an agency for accountability through the inspection and grading of schools. The tension between these two roles is apparent when, for example Ofsted has tried to pay more attention to the whole school curriculum while at the same time making time constrained graded judgements about the quality of education, or in making judgements about the impact of education on pupilsl but avoiding the school’s internal pupil progress data or historic external data.
Ofsted’s framework has increasingly tried to focus on pupil learning across the curriculum but its scope to use inspection for school improvement is continually limited by its accountability function and school inspections have reflected this.
The closure of schools in response to the virus has meant that Ofsted inspections have been suspended. In the Autumn Ofsted will make some limited visits to schools to ‘help them through collaborative conversations, without passing judgement’ and intends to resume full inspections in the Spring term. It is too early to guess at what schools will be like in the Spring term and what might be the continuing consequences of the virus and the economic recession but the impact of at least 6 months of school closure does mean that schools will not be the institutions they were. This raises questions for Ofsted.
Will it be appropriate to simply return to the existing regime of inspection as if nothing has happened? Will Ofsted have the capacity for a return to a full programme of inspections after 6 months of inactivity and with inspectors employed by schools needing to be at their schools will. It is patently absurd to think that inspections in their present form can be in anyway useful or meaningful for the foreseeable future. This could be the opportunity to fundamentally review and rethink Ofsted’s accountability role and to build on its Autumn term programme of supportive collaborative conversations to fully develop Ofsted’s school improvement role.