The pandemic appeared to provide a moment to rethink, to consider the function and purpose of institutions such as Ofsted in a context where it seemed teachers were revalued as integral to the wellbeing of the nation, and their professional judgement was to be trusted, particularly in terms of examination results. Ofsted suspended all inspections during the first full lockdown of 2020, and schools were, briefly, set free from the perceived need to be ‘Ofsted-ready’.
In July 2020, Ofsted1 announced a programme of ‘interim visits’, which were intended to be checks on health and safety issues, and the smooth running of schools after the extended closure. Schools were reassured these visits were advisory, and no grades would be issued. The tone from Ofsted was softer than usual, promising that inspectors would ‘work collaboratively with leaders, listening and providing appropriate challenge’ and Amanda Spielman declared: “we want to help schools, by having constructive conversations and not passing judgement.”
This seemed to be a chance to revaluate, to recalibrate the relationship between the inspectorate and schools. Could the more corrosive effects of Ofsted (on the autonomy of leaders, the creativity of teachers and their retention, for example) be ameliorated by a softer, less judgemental, more supportive approach?
Unsurprisingly perhaps, in December 2020 Ofsted2 announced a phased return to inspection, with Spielman arguing: “The usual level of scrutiny within the education and care system has been absent since last March, so it’s important that it returns next year as we all hope for a greater level of normality.” She didn’t really justify why this was so important, and made no reference to lessons learned from the benefits of the more supportive pandemic approach. March 2021 brought the return of ‘light touch inspections’, with Spielman describing Ofsted at the Festival of Education as “the carrot or the stick (depending on your point of view) that can drive changes in schools”3; and full inspections resumed in 2022.
In her annual speech to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) Annual Conference in March 20224, Spielman reiterated the re-entrenched position of Ofsted as “a force for improvement”. Alas, at the time of writing, nothing has changed – Ofsted has returned to full graded inspections, and doubled down on its commitment to a curriculum focus. Ofsted as summative assessment rather than formative feedback, judgement rather than advice, pressure rather than support, a driving force, stick rather than carrot.
It is possible to have a more supportive inspectorate – for example in some countries, among them Austria, Iceland, and Denmark, inspections do not place sanctions on low-performing schools and do not make reports public, which takes the pressure off schools to perform, so they can get support with issues requiring attention. Functions of inspection can be categorised along a continuum of support and control, and different inspection regimes have different purposes according to which function they prioritise. Some countries adopt a low stakes capacity building approach, others operate at a level of powerful high stakes enforcement. There seems little doubt that Ofsted is in the latter category, and is, it seems, incapable of fundamental change, even in extraordinary circumstances. Only an alternative system can provide the support that our schools deserve.
Jane Perryman is Professor of Sociology of Education at UCL Institute of Education, University College London.