In a recent blog entry in The Guardian (6/2/2014), Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s national director for schools, raised a number of interesting questions relating to the future of Ofsted. Mike’s short piece forms part of a wider conversation within Ofsted circles as to how it perceives its future role and to what extent this is in need of reform. Mike acknowledges, ‘It’s evident that the education landscape of today is vastly different from what it was in 1992 when school inspection in its (more or less) current form was introduced’. It’s good to hear this acknowledgement as this change in the landscape is fundamental to responding to Mike’s request for views on how inspection should develop in the future.
To look forward it’s always helpful to look back, as the saying goes. Well, a lot has certainly changed in the education sector since the early days of Ofsted under the leadership of Chris Woodhead. After more than two decades of intensive inspection cycles, the one lasting legacy of Ofsted that anyone would find hard to dispute is that accountability has become part of the DNA of any school or college across the country. Teachers and managers have become experts in generating and gathering data to justify what they’ve been doing, why they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing and the impact this has had on the educational journeys of their learners. And much of this work has and continues to be done ‘outside of the day job’, certainly as far as teachers are concerned.
It is time now though for a reconceptualization of the focus of teachers’ work and with this a reduction in levels of audit and accountability and greater professional autonomy. In no way does this mean a return to the days where teachers were not held accountable for what went on in their classrooms. Those days belong to a bygone era and the world of work has transformed immeasurably since then. What it does mean though is recognising the progress that has been made in schools and colleges over the last two decades in terms of quality improvement mechanisms and systems designed to ensure that teachers strive to be the best that they can be. Now is the opportune time for a greater move towards self-assessment with more ‘light touch’ inspections. This would also present Ofsted with an opportunity to build bridges with the education community by demonstrating that there was a mutual respect and trust for the profession and the commitment and dedication shown by teachers in their work. Perhaps Ofsted’s role might even move closer to that of the QAA for Higher Education like a validator and/or moderator of self-evaluation in schools and colleges?
Finally, if Ofsted is serious about opening a national debate about what the future of inspection might look like, then it has to accept that it has some work to do on its image and relationship with the profession. It needs to shed its adversarial and combative image as the custodian and enforcer of good practice and connect more with teachers and engage in collaborative partnership to improve provision. This does not have to compromise its status as an independent inspectorate, far from it. In fact, it could positively enhance it. If it is true that Ofsted shares the same goals as dedicated and conscientious practitioners in striving to improve educational provision, then surely a sensible starting point would be to engage in a two-way professional dialogue with the profession as to how this might best be achieved. Without such interaction, it will remain aloof in the eyes of many teachers and thus find it difficult to shed its current image as ‘judge, jury and executioner’.
Dr Matt O’Leary is a principal lecturer and research fellow in post-compulsory education in the University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education. He is the author of ‘Classroom observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning’, recently published by Routledge.