A profession-led inspection system? There’s a lot of work to do

At the risk of stating the obvious, there are many problems with Ofsted. Most worrying is the enormous fear it instils in the profession, limiting innovation and creativity, and driving too many teachers and leaders away from the job they love. Change will not be easy, but in my conversation last week with the new Chief Inspector I heard a clear commitment to listen and to reflect honestly, along with a desire to work together with the profession rather than against it.

Ofsted is huge in its scope, inspecting across all provision for children, which many see as a danger but which Sir Martyn sees as an attempt to make sure that no child gets lost in the gaps between services. When I asked him what he had learnt in his time so far in his new role he spoke passionately about the opportunity to see this big picture, and to share learning from different providers across the system. He also clearly wants to be able to use that perspective to show the challenges in the system, to point to the issues outside the teaching profession that impact on the job we can do. 

My biggest question for Sir Martyn was whether Ofsted could really become a force for school improvement. Could inspection become a formative process rather than one focused on judgement and validation? Could it be about professional conversation and challenge rather than promoting adherence to a formula defined by the inspection framework? While we spoke about a range of issues (and members can listen to the full recording here), the Chief Inspector pointed particularly to his concerns about the broader accountability system and the difficulties of inspector consistency and training.

Inspection is only one part of the accountability system. I was reminded of this with the recent uproar over single-word judgements: in the end, the government decides how the outcomes of inspections are reported, as well as what happens to schools if they’re judged ‘inadequate’. As Sir Martyn put it, even if we replace those judgements with a broader report, government still has the power to mandate consequences based on the outcomes. But to my mind, a fairer system would recognise that schools have strengths and weaknesses: all should be empowered to share their strengths and improve their weaknesses, and some will need additional support. An inspection system that identifies those nuances, that recognises the school’s context and where inspectors and leaders have honest conversations about the work of the school in meeting pupils’ needs, would make it easier for government to provide the right level of support and challenge.

One of the difficulties in having those honest conversations is the feeling leaders have that the inspection framework is a formula they must follow to get a good judgement. This is understandable, as many inspectors seem to use the framework like this. I’ve heard too many frustrated school leaders saying, ‘I’d love to do that, but I can’t because of Ofsted.’ Sir Martyn suggested a framework is necessary so that inspections are more consistent, but since schools will change what they do to meet the framework, he proposes a framework that meets the needs of children and young people. I recognise that accountability needs to be consistent, but somehow we need to be able to balance consistency, or fidelity to a framework, with professional agency. And we need a shared understanding of what ‘good’ looks like.

Part of what drives the need for a framework is the lack of consistency from inspectors. In the responses to our poll earlier this year, so many members spoke about the unfairness of this – the different approaches and attitudes of inspectors, with some appearing to be actively seeking evidence to support a school’s self-evaluation and others seeming to have already decided their own judgement. Sir Martyn described his vision of a small pool of highly experienced inspectors that he could bring together for regular training and reflection, who would then provide consistent leadership of the broader inspection teams. 

What really interested me though was his support for Chartered Status, and its validation of rigorous, evidence-informed reflection on practice. How exciting would it be if every inspector had to have Chartered Teacher (Leadership) status: a public acknowledgement that their leadership practice is underpinned by research, that they have taken time to reflect and to be challenged by their peers on their leadership journey. Sir Martyn went further than that, speculating on the idea of a specific Chartered route for inspectors, and I will definitely continue those conversations with him.

At the moment of course, inspection is a process done to the profession, and any hints of change will be viewed with scepticism. I have no intention of using Chartered Status for example to prop up a system that has done so much harm to the profession. But I found glimmers of hope in our conversation. And the question I’m now asking is how can we, as a profession, be part of the changes that are sorely needed? How can we continue to build professional confidence, be willing to take risks and be creative, so that we can use inspection as one source of evidence amongst many about our impact on our pupils? Is it possible for the profession to work together with Ofsted to build an inspection system we can trust, and then to use that to improve the system as a whole?  

With huge thanks to Sir Martyn Oliver and his team at Ofsted for taking the time to speak openly with the Chartered College of Teaching. Ofsted has promised to write a blog with their reflections on the conversation but as we are now in an election period they are blocked from this kind of communication. They have agreed to provide the blog in early July.

The Big Listen closes on Friday 31st May 2024.

The Alternative Big Listen is open until Wednesday 12th June.


  • Claire Hewitt
    May 24, 2024 at 6:47 pm  -  Reply

    Schools are organisations that carry out many functions. Some of these functions can be audited in a quantitative manner, while many other functions require more qualitative assessments. An adequacy judgement is suitable for some functions such as related to documentation on policies and procedures, use of data, and record keeping. While a much more formative approach to reviewing teaching and learning would mean that continuing professional development is more likely. I agree with a ‘strengths’ and ‘areas for continuing development’ style of discourse.

  • Idara Hippolyte
    May 26, 2024 at 6:56 am  -  Reply

    If formative assessments inform actions, and summative ones provide agreed meanings, then at some stage we must move to judgment. Families making decisions may well care how provision is getting better, but won’t they want a snapshot of how things are now? Requiring improvement may be the natural condition for all systems, but for urgent shortcomings that make it hard to deliver the very purpose of a setting, is there no need for an agreed and succinct way of making this clear? It is horrible that this need means stress and heartache for anyone, but can we dispense with it without losing those valuable shared meanings, captured simply (but with more extensive data and commentary into which decision makers can delve)?

    I feel similarly about summative exams for students. Placing a badge on a 16 year old that pronounces on their last 11 years in formal education feels harsh. Yet when hiring years later it can be a useful of the jigsaw. And it is not easy to think of other objective ways to compare them to an anonymous pool of their peers. Yet I can see it is anxiety-inducing for some.

  • Rebecca Hanson
    June 2, 2024 at 7:39 am  -  Reply

    Sir Martyn referred to the legal context within which he works, which is here:

    It’s horrifying compared with other legislative frameworks and, as he said, it needs to be substantially updated.

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