‘Consultation not referendum’: Oliver defends Ofsted’s ‘Big Listen’

Union leader raises 'significant concerns' about the design of Ofsted's consultation

Union leader raises 'significant concerns' about the design of Ofsted's consultation

Ofsted’s “Big Listen” is a “consultation” not a “referendum”, chief inspector Sir Martyn Oliver has said, as he defended the exercise following criticism from unions.

In a letter to National Association of Head Teachers general secretary Paul Whiteman, seen by FE Week, Oliver said he wanted to “dispel” the concern that data from the consultation “will be interpreted by Ofsted as a mandate to avoid change”.

Ofsted launched the “Big Listen” – a 12-week consultation on further inspection changes following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry – earlier this month.

Whiteman wrote to Oliver today to express “significant concerns”. 

The primary issue is “many of the aspects of the current approach to inspection that our members are most concerned about are not addressed through the sections of the survey that will produce quantitative data”, he said.

The “most obvious example” is the lack of a “direct or clear question” about the use of single-phrase judgments to describe school and college performance.

“Whilst there are free text boxes provided, our concern is this will only provide qualitative information, which could get easily lost or overlooked in comparison with the far easier to present results derived from the multiple-choice questions.”

‘Significant challenge’ over single-phrase judgments

Oliver acknowledged Ofsted had received “significant challenge on whether we were right or not to have a question on single-word judgments”. 

In a letter that again shows the watchdog has moved on from its previous closed shop approach, he added: “The absence of a specific question in the consultation does not mean we are not listening to feedback from your members – and others – on the issue of single-word judgments. 

“One respondent is so determined to use the available text boxes to ensure we hear the message that they have included ‘GET RID OF THE ONE WORD JUDGMENTS’ as their gender, sexuality and religion, for example.”

Oliver also aadded that he interpreted “that there is a concern that data from the consultation, for example general support for giving a clear judgment on the quality of education, will be interpreted by Ofsted as a mandate to avoid change”.

But he added: “I want to categorically dispel that view. The consultation, alongside the independent research and the wider engagement we are conducting as part of the Big Listen, is a starting point for real action and improvement at Ofsted. 

“We will use the full range of feedback and research to inform how we improve, which we will set out in our response to the Big Listen.”

‘Missed opportunities’

In his letter, Whiteman also described other “missed opportunities to really understand what respondents think about key issues relating to inspection”.

For example, the questions on notice periods “have been drafted in an extremely vague manner, whereas there was an opportunity to directly ask something far more precise such as ‘how much notice should a school / setting be given before an inspection is carried out?’.”

The NAHT also has “significant concerns about the way some questions have been designed and framed”, and feels questions are “leading”.

“More importantly, respondents are not being asked how effective the current approach to inspection is at measuring these things, or about the very different forms a ‘clear judgment’ could take.”

But Oliver insisted that the Big Listen is “first and foremost a listening exercise”. 

“I don’t want to give the impression that we are conducting a referendum instead of a consultation. We are not naïve about the likely sample of respondents to our consultation. 

“We know any ‘vote’ would not be representative of the views of all those we want to hear from. That said, we genuinely want to gather views on all matters relating to our work, from a broad church of respondents, which is why having an open consultation is so important.”

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