Like a punch to the face, the thought of Ofsted is worse than the reality. The recent outpouring of fury about the impact of our high-stakes accountability system is certainly worthy of exploration by the sector and its regulator. But will this moment of challenge lead to a moment of change? I doubt it.
Media commentators and unions are carrying the hopes of the profession by enticing us to imagine a life without Ofsted. But the rallying cry for its dismantling is frankly just noise. If it was sent to the scrap yard tomorrow, we’d have a new Frankenstein agency welded together and released back into the wild by a week on Wednesday.
Just because you want something to happen doesn’t mean it’s going to. And this is never going to happen. Nor should it. No one wants Ofsted to appear at the gates, but that doesn’t mean they are not required to check standards.
That doesn’t mean regulation can’t be improved, but it’s not all down to Ofsted either.
True, judgments can be devastating. But this isn’t the fault of the judgment. It’s the culture in which the judgment is given and received. To paraphrase Cassius, the fault lies not in our stars, but in our minds.
We educators hand over too much power to the judgment. If governing bodies and communities, leaders and staff collectively had the will, we could take the high-stakes feel away from accountability. Where is our confidence in our evidence beyond the Ofsted criteria? College reputations exist in communities, for whom Ofsted only plays a small and often over-estimated part.
Having said that, it’s easy to go too far the other way. A principal colleague recently mused that ‘a lion shouldn’t concern itself with the opinion of a sheep’. But as trust in public institutions declines, it is our duty to rebuild it, and this can only happen through mutual respect.
The problem is that our sector is in perma-crisis. This means Ofsted judgments are increasingly likely to damage institutions through no fault of their own over the coming years. This is unlikely to foster respect for it, which is already at an ebb.
Ofsted will need to work with the sector to figure out how it will handle judgments amid not just chronic underfunding but substantial change. Curriculum reform looms that will displace thousands of young people from technical routes. In this context, how will Ofsted judge curriculum intent? And how will judgment land when providers stop delivering apprenticeships because they don’t pay their way and drag down quality indicators or increase audit risk?
The greatest danger is that the axe repeatedly lands on individual colleges, when it’s actually a system issue. An ongoing data-led, desk-based accountability system is worthy of further exploration. As is a more collegiate approach like peer review, adopted in many systems in Europe (who also have higher standards).
Removing grading isn’t a realistic option. Ask anyone in the street about a school or college and they’ll use their own more informal language to give you a one-word assessment. But there’s no need for the stigma and reputational impact of the current system. A binary system – good enough and not good enough (yet) – is ample. The reality is that at any given time some providers really aren’t good enough. But ‘outstanding’ is a distraction – a pedestal from which to fall.
The current inspection framework is well structured and broadly sensible. But it’s unwieldy and more difficult for GFECs, and in my experience Ofsted’s outcomes are variable regardless. Do less, but better, focusing on the professional, considerate dialogue and clear, dispassionate judgments that are the most valuable aspects of inspection.
In reality, amid the many strategic priorities on my desk Ofsted isn’t even in my top 10. I don’t enjoy Ofsted visits, but I don’t enjoy my prostate examination either. Both cause me fairly constant low-level anxiety, I’m fearful of both when the time comes, and ultimately they both leave me feeling a bit violated. But both give me important information about whether I need further help, so I welcome them.
Just not this week. Please.