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Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby

Russell Hobby, general secretary of NAHT blogs about his thoughts and passions and the work of the National Association of Head Teachers.

Next steps for Ofsted reform - part two

In a previous blog I outlined some fundamental principles for inspection reform. In this follow up piece, I try to put them into effect with some concrete suggestions.

The fundamental problem with Ofsted is overreach, both in terms of scale and in terms of intrusion. This affects quality, because it is doing too much to do it well, and behaviour, because people in school over-interpret every announcement.

I still believe we need inspection. The alternative is a purely data driven approach to managing schools. Data does not reveal the price paid for results. It is always vulnerable to distortion.

But one of the problems with Ofsted reform is that people look at it in isolation. As if it is the only way of holding schools accountable. This is a cause of overreach because we ask it to do everything. When reforming Ofsted you need to pay as much attention to other institutions as to Ofsted itself.

So my goal is for Ofsted to play a proportionate role within the system.

Step one: eliminate the multiple grades. A regulator should not define excellence. Use a good/requires improvement judgement. As now, a 'requires improvement' school has three attempts to achieve a pass before formal intervention. It is inspected every 12-18 months. Schools should still aspire to excellence, but it should not be the regulator that defines it. We need to give excellence back to the profession where it belongs.

Step two: implement a system of accredited peer review for good schools. All schools must participate. Ofsted will quality assure and moderate. Schools can still be formally inspected should their results fall below a threshold or the peer review recommend it. Where a formal designation or status depends on quality (e.g. teaching school), the relevant organisations can use their own review process or adopt one of the accredited versions. Peer review should take place at least bi-annually.

(To borrow an analogy, Ofsted becomes the hygiene inspector and peer review provides the restaurant critic.)

Step three: split safeguarding from teaching. Ofsted and peer review should focus on quality of teaching and leadership and the curriculum. A bi-annual safeguarding and financial audit is conducted by a local authority on every school. Severe failure can result in formal intervention; minor failures have a 'notice to improve' and a swift return visit. Peer review or Ofsted can also call for a safeguarding audit.

Step four: end Ofsted's school improvement role. This is a conflict of interest and uses up resources. Inspection should lead to improvement but the inspectors are not the ones to do it.

Step five: each team is led by a full time HMI but the rest of the team is composed of serving school leaders, seconded from their posts for a fixed term. At least one must come from the phase and sector of the school being inspected. Ofsted should operate a fully independent complaints and appeals process.

Step six: formal intervention should only follow inspection or safeguarding audit. There is one channel of accountability so that schools are able to focus without competing demands. This is not an Ofsted problem in itself, but the Department's team of brokers has, in the past, acted like a shadow inspection service. Add in local authority teams and you have a disconcerting mix of competing channels of accountability. These distract school leaders from focusing on pupils.

Incidentally, school leaders working in challenging schools tell me this is one of the most unattractive parts of the job - when combined with fear of an inspection right when you are making difficult decisions, this 'unintelligent accountability' becomes part of the problem not the solution. So here's another suggestion: when you take on a struggling school, you get one inspection straight away and then a three year window to make a difference before the next.

The chief inspector should retain a role summarising the state of the nation and challenging both professionals and policy makers but there should be a requirement to confine comments to the evidence generated by inspection.

Where schools are operating in trusts and federations the safeguarding audit should be conducted across the whole group. The judgements for leadership and management should also be shared, but individual judgements on teaching quality and curriculum would be provided for each institution.

So, how does this fit with my earlier reform principles. I think these suggestions are clear on the role of inspection - it is a safeguard against failure and an alternative to pure data. It is not the catch all agency or an attempt to impose a single vision of education. I think these proposals firmly site inspection within a wider framework of institutions and processes. They improve quality by tightening its focus on raising the skills of the team. Consequences are tough but predictable. The various triggers are clear and, above all, Ofsted ceases to dominate education thinking to the unhealthy degree it does now.

We wait now, the election to clear some space for long term thinking but that doesn't mean we need be idle. NAHT is already piloting our own model of peer review in the Midlands. We're pleased with the results. And you may remember that at a previous conference we stated it was a long term aim for participation in a form of peer review to become a duty of membership. That's a pretty strong position for a union but it fits with our strategy of taking back ownership of standards and taking responsibility for each other.

20 March 2015