The role and peformance of Ofsted - Education Committee Contents

Annex 1: Note of the Committee's Seminar with Ofsted Inspectors, 1 February 2011

These notes are a general account of the opinions expressed by a group of Ofsted inspectors, including those from the Regional Inspection Service Providers (RISPs), as described below, who met Committee members for an informal discussion.

The inspectors were sifted from over two hundred applications received by the Committee, in response to advertisements in the Times Educational Supplement and online. All inspectors not selected to attend were invited to complete a questionnaire asking four broad questions about Ofsted and relevant to the Committee's inquiry.

Comments in double inverted commas indicate a direct verbatim quotation, although these are not attributed.

The role and remit of Ofsted

There was a general agreement from inspectors that the role of Ofsted needed clarification. There was some disagreement within the group as to whether Ofsted should be focussed primarily on judgement, regulation and inspection, or on direct improvement of the services and settings it inspects. One inspector commented that the danger of fulfilling too many roles is that you could end up "not doing any of [them] well enough".

It was noted that Ofsted is still seen, predominantly, as a "schools inspectorate", and that this could be partly because of the composition of the senior inspectors and leaders in the organisation, who are largely from education backgrounds. However, the comment was also made that "restructuring isn't necessarily the solution". One serving inspector noted that Ofsted is widely regarded as the "best [inspection][ system in the world", but there was acknowledgement that its non-schools remits need to be taken more seriously.

There was consensus that, even if it is an improvement agency, Ofsted should not be responsible for 'after-care' or 'operational' matters for schools, and that there were "perverse conflicts of interest" inherent in inspecting your own advice. Another inspector commented that the organisation having any improvement function was "muddying waters". It was noted that the role of local authorities has changed significantly since Ofsted's creation, and that the support function has not been replaced with as tangible a system now. However, the crucial role that can be played by School Improvement Partners (SIPs) and school partnership working was noted. "Developing a school's capacity to improve"—or the HMI mantra of "doing good as you go"—was seen by one inspector as a good compromise between working as a direct improvement force and offering no advice whatsoever.

Inspections processes and frameworks

It was broadly agreed that setting leaders (for example head teachers) should be directly involved in the inspection process and the discussions around it—indeed, that this "dramatically improves" the inspection process. Giving advice was seen as a trademark of the very best inspectors, but managing to do this without being "cosy". Indeed, the follow-up support given to 'inadequate' schools was seen as "particularly effective" by inspectors, who would "hate to see it disappear". This is, not least, because inspectors have a "bird's-eye" view of similar settings across the country, whereas a head's view may be more localised.

One inspector commented that the slimming down of the framework was "crucial" in improving the focus on lesson observation. One inspector felt it would be "fantastic" if a new limiting judgement were proposed that every 'outstanding' school had to form a partnership with a weaker school, but there was general dissent from this view. However, separate inspections of partnerships' working practices were suggested as an alternative. On self-evaluation, there was a view that a "good school will do [it] anyway".

Giving teachers feedback was seen as a very beneficial exercise, but one inspector argued that there is not currently time to do this effectively, because inspections have become shorter. One inspector also suggested that, to offer feedback which is helpful, an inspector needs to have seen the teacher in action for a significant period of time.

The difficulties of gathering accurate data were emphasised. Edubase is often out-of-date, and inspectors' assessment of risk (relating to settings' performance) is therefore patchy across the country and across Ofsted's remit. It was suggested that a technical solution—such as linking Ofsted's data and the Department for Education's more exactly—would be a major saving in the longer term. It was suggested that 'outstanding' schools, which are now to be exempt from regular inspection, should nonetheless be closely risk assessed. There was a concern that reliance on the 'outstanding' grade could lead to self-satisfaction and slipping standards in schools, and that inspectors might lose sight of the benchmark.

The quality of inspectors

The credibility of inspectors, in the eyes of practitioners and the public, was seen as very important. Some examples were given of very poor knowledge by inspectors, although one attendee commented that, "By and large... inspectors do have the experience and specialisms... The incompetent are the minority." There was broad consensus that deployment is more of an issue than the breadth and quality of individual inspectors, and that deployment could be strengthened by Ofsted and the RISPs, although training and experience are also important.

The need "to recruit more serving practitioners into the inspectorate" was acknowledged, as was the current situation that "we would never have enough specialists to put one in every specialist area". The view that Her Majesty's Inspectors could be allowed to inspect any setting purely by dint of their seniority was seen as "dangerous". Conversely, effective practitioners did not necessarily, or always, have all of the skills to be good inspectors. Weekend training was suggested as one way of ensuring more serving practitioners became inspectors (because they cannot give up weekdays during term-time as easily), which can also improve the teacher's performance in-school as well.

The perceived difference (primarily by teacher unions) between HMIs and Additional Inspectors was noted, although the meeting's view was that Ofsted's own data was reliable and correct in recognising very little difference in complaint levels between the two groups. However, the different standards of treatment within Ofsted—for HMIs and AIs—was noted by some inspectors present, an, for this reason, it was suggested that there is a potential value-for-money case for using more AIs in inspection. It was argued that, in this regard, Ofsted could learn from best practice within its own walls as well as from outside them. Others present, however, argued that there is no actual double standard, and that all inspectors' expenses are carefully scrutinised.

Inspection reports

The question of who reports are written for was discussed, with a general agreement that they were for parents. However, the current style of writing was seen as "too technical" by some inspectors, but lacking in detail for the needs of teachers.

It was suggested by one attendee that "Ofsted does not focus enough on children from vulnerable groups", and by another that the focus should be entirely on outcomes for individual pupils rather than for institutions. It was suggested by one attendee that Ofsted reports should comment specifically on how the school is delivering for its most vulnerable 25% of pupils.

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