Having spent considerable time examining Ofsted’s methods, Frank Coffield claims they are invalid, unreliable and unjust.

While “unjust” may seem like a strong way to describe an Ofsted inspection, I have a clear example to illustrate it. Take its grading scale, which attaches one adjective, such as ‘outstanding’ or ‘inadequate’, to a large FE college with 20,000 students, 1,000 staff and 30+ departments. This is a statistical absurdity, because research has repeatedly shown that there is always great variation within an individual college and one adjective cannot capture complexity, diversity or contradictions

The area reviews are creating even larger colleges, for instance Nottingham, which now has 40,000 students. That Ofsted can or would judge such a huge enterprise by applying one summary term to it is, I repeat, unjust.

Ofsted has had 25 years to improve its methods but, despite numerous changes, it is still unfit for the present, never mind the future. Using Ofsted’s own scale to evaluate its performance, I would probably award it no more than a grade three; it ‘requires improvement’. But that would be to treat Ofsted as unjustly as it treats educators; it would discount, for example, its role in challenging poor practices, monitoring national standards and its record in closing illegal schools. Complexity has to be responded to with complexity.

We could and should be doing so much better

We could and should be doing so much better. We need not only a better model of inspection but a better system of education. I am, however, reminded of the preacher who advised: “If you are awakened at midnight with a vision of how to save the world, do us all a favour and go back to sleep.” I will therefore restrict myself here to introducing ideas for a new model of inspection.

Let us revisit the admirable work carried out by the Further Education Funding Council in the 1990s. Instead of assigning a grade to a college, the main curriculum areas were assessed separately; dialogue between assessors and assessed was promoted by having a college nominee participate in the inspection process, including the inspectors’ meetings. An inspector was also attached to each college before, during and after inspection to ensure that inspectorial knowledge was accurate and their recommendations acted on.

Inspection has a legitimate and necessary role in education. My aim is to move it from a concentration on summative assessment (judging the measurable outputs of education such as test results) towards a balance of both formative (improving the quality of teaching, learning and assessment) and summative assessment. That shift needs to be based on educational principles such as education seen as growth (do students leave college as lifelong learners?), trust rather than fear, challenge matched by support provided by Ofsted, dialogue, and appreciative inquiry, which gives pride of place to everything that gives life to a college when it is at its most effective.

I want to help Ofsted by recommending that its remit be drastically reduced, by making it genuinely independent of government and by reintroducing a system of local and national inspectors, working hand in glove. In this way inspectors would once again become respected colleagues, acting as the cross-pollinators of tough ideas and novel practices in a joint search with tutors for improvement.

None of the above will happen unless tutors and college leaders begin to demand change. Ofsted may appear to colleagues as a remote and punitive arm of government, but in fact it belongs to all of us who pay for it. We have a right and a duty to call, not for tinkering at the edges, but for radical reform. This is the essence of an open, democratic society that offers its citizens the freedom not only to think differently but to demand justice.

Frank Coffield is emeritus professor of education at UCL Institute of education. His new book, Will the Leopard Change its Spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted, is published by UCL IOE Press.