Come with me to a fantasy world; a land where Ofsted operates completely effectively. Knowledgeable and kindly HMI glide from room to room, congratulating teachers on their successes, acknowledging the challenges they face and empowering and motivating them to be better.
Where they encounter issues, teachers and leadership teams are supported and equipped to improve, with Ofsted staff sharing the benefit of their experience to help in the drive towards a common goal of educational improvement. Grateful head teachers wave inspectors on their way, excited to get to work on all the things they can do to improve their schools.
The strongest argument I can think of for the ineffectiveness of Ofsted is to contrast this idealised version of their function, with what often happens back on planet earth. It’s a photographic negative of that vision. Experiences, of course, vary but it’s far from uncommon to hear teachers speak of cursory visits to classrooms, shallow and ineffective feedback and inspectors who have their own personal hobbyhorses which they obsess over.
When I was given feedback on a Year 13 English literature lesson that had been observed, I was desperate to receive constructive criticism from a more experienced teacher who could give me pointers to improve my practice. Instead, the inspector peered over her glasses, shuffled through her paperwork and told me that I hadn’t pointed out a spelling error in one student’s work. And with that I was sent on my way, confused, disappointed and hugely underwhelmed.
Inspections are more or less entirely ‘done to’ schools; there is little to no sense of us all being on the same team, pushing together towards a shared target. Rather than being offered support to improve, schools are publicly slapped with a one-word label which is supposed to sum up the myriad activities carried out every day by dozens of teachers and hundreds of children.
And far from growing and developing as practitioners, teachers are leaving the job in their droves with many of them citing pressure directly or indirectly linked to Ofsted in their decisions. It's not in the least surprising when whole school communities operate on a knife-edge, often for years, with key decisions made not in the best interests of the students, but for what will appease Ofsted.
Exam results are prioritised above all else, with things like love of learning, inspiration and joy relegated to afterthoughts. You could argue that these things aren’t a criticism of Ofsted or its effectiveness; they’re to do with how schools respond to inspections. But you’d be wrong, because with head teachers’ jobs often on the line, it’s the absurdly high stakes that surround Ofsted inspections which press schools to act in these counter-common sense ways.
Few of us would deny that accountability is important in the education system. And I am not naïve enough to think that my utopian vision of Ofsted is realistic. But it’s my view that in many, many cases Ofsted makes schools worse not better. Surely there can be no more damning indictment of the effectiveness of an inspectorate than that. It’s long since time that we rethought Ofsted and got to work on repairing the significant damage it has wrought on our education system.
Ryan Wilson, author of “Let That Be a Lesson: A Teacher’s Life in the Classroom”