Ofsted is the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, reporting directly to Parliament. It carries out hundreds of inspections and regulatory visits every week across England; separate bodies handle inspections in the rest of the UK.
According to Ofsted, inspection acts in a number of ways to drive and support school improvement.
- raises expectations by setting the standards of performance and effectiveness expected of schools
- provides a sharp challenge and the impetus to act where improvement is needed clearly identifies strengths and weaknesses
- recommends specific priorities for improvement for the school and, when appropriate, checks on and promotes subsequent progress
- promotes rigour in the way that schools evaluate their own performance, thereby enhancing their capacity to improve
- monitors the progress and performance of schools that are not yet good, and challenges and supports senior leaders, staff and those responsible for governance.
Of course, schools wish to perform well in these inspections, and to avoid the inconvenience and shame of being selected for "special measures". So it is not surprising that certain beliefs have grown up around these inspections.
Although I don't have direct experience of school inspections, I can easily imagine how such beliefs might develop. Perhaps the inspector visiting school A casually asks to see a particular document, or comments on its absence. This becomes part of the collective memory of the school. Before the next inspection, every teacher in the school has been instructed to prepare this document in readiness. In time, this knowledge spreads to other schools, and becomes widely accepted as "best practice" for passing an inspection.
Ofsted now wishes to dispel certain myths about the inspection process, and denies that it "requires" or "expects to see" loads of stuff. In its latest clarification, Ofsted officially deprecates a number of specific practices.
But there is a critical ambiguity in the notion of requirement. These practices may not be officially required by Ofsted; but if they happen to be strongly correlated with successful inspections, it may well be rational for school teachers to continue to regard these practices as implicitly encouraged and reinforced by the actions of Ofsted inspectors. It would be a brave head teacher who abandoned those practices that had got the school through past inspections, simply because Ofsted insisted that these practices were not officially required.
Ofsted is also charged with a range of political and social objectives, including promoting British values and tackling extremism, and these implicit objectives are believed to colour its assessments of educational outcomes.
And when Ofsted insists that "it is up to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits rather than by reference to the inspection handbook", this sounds suspiciously like a classic double bind. Of course you can have as much bureaucracy as you like, as long as you really want to do it for its own sake and not because we told you to. Oh, and please make sure none of it is "unnecessary".
Ofsted, Framework for School Inspection (July 2014)
Ofsted inspections - clarification for schools (October 2014)
Richard Adams, Ofsted tells teachers what not to do in effort to dispel inspection myths (Guardian 17 October 2014)
Graeme Paton, Ofsted being turned into a 'schoolroom security service' (Telegraph 28 November 2014)
Zoe Williams, Swamp or success: your school is being racially profiled (Guardian 23 November 2014)