More inspections will reveal a system close to collapse, so ministers had better get the chequebook ready, writes Ed Reza Schwitzer
The reaction was swift and predictable. From the moment it was announced that Ofsted will inspect every college, school and further education provider at least once by 2025, there were howls of protest.
It is not hard to see why. Critics are right that Ofsted inspections and the wider accountability system cause stress and anxiety for teachers and leaders. And they are also right that many teachers and leaders are struggling from non-stop work over the past 18 months.
Amanda Spielman recognised as much, telling the Association of Colleges conference this week it had been a “very turbulent year in education, and a difficult time for colleges”.
I cannot emphasise enough how much respect I have for teachers and leaders – and I completely believe the unions when they say many of them are close to total burnout.
But accountability exists for a reason – to ensure students are both safe and receiving a high-quality education. And it is exactly at a time when staff are most stretched that students are at the greatest risk.
We still do not fully know the impact of Covid-19 on students, and particularly the most vulnerable.
Students are at the greatest risk exactly when staff are most stretched
And while the vast majority of colleges and schools delivered heroics for them (moving education online, safeguarding vulnerable students on site, and often delivering vital supplies to students’ homes) this was not the case universally.
We know from focus groups that there are a small minority of colleges and schools where online teaching was essentially not happening, or was of insufficient quality. No one was inspecting them.
This isn’t about blame, but we cannot have a situation where, unnoticed by anyone, a small minority of colleges and schools has failed to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic. This would be to fail thousands upon thousands of students.
And, of course, the awful truth is that even the colleges and schools who pulled out all the stops during the pandemic may also be struggling from burnout, having given their all.
What we knew about their safeguarding, leadership and quality of education has gone out of the window during the pandemic.
And we all know that drops in these standards are likely to affect vulnerable students worst.
Which returns us to the original point and the role of Ofsted.
Having someone check up on you after most likely the worst, most traumatic experience in your professional career will always be seen as heartless and unhelpful – but in reality it is the time when this check and balance is most needed.
If we accept this argument, it is still important to deal with the legitimate criticism of the effect on staff wellbeing.
I would argue that much of the narrative around catch-up to date has been unrealistic. Money for tutoring or a longer day is helpful, but the more fundamental, human point is that teachers and leaders need time off to recharge.
They need support to help them cope, and need training to help them manage the transition to a new way of teaching. And this all requires funding.
I have heard many people say that anxious, unhappy students can’t learn, and I agree. But anxious, unhappy staff are a problem too.
Anxious, unhappy staff are a problem
So I say, keep the Ofsted inspections. It’s right to scrutinise education at this moment in time.
But if Ofsted confirms the many challenges schools and their staff face, as I suspect will be the case, then let’s use that to reinforce arguments for why proper catch-up funding is needed.
Amanda Spielman said this week that her plan “lets the government know how Covid recovery is going”.
So let us say to government: “You asked Ofsted to uncover issues – and they no doubt will.
“When this happens, be ready with your chequebook. It’s going to be expensive to truly fix a system that is close to collapse.”