As a former headteacher and Ofsted inspector, I know the system is not fit for purpose

It is clear to me that Ofsted needs an extensive external review so that changes can be made

Jon O'Connor
Tuesday 21 March 2023 16:33 GMT

Teachers protest outside John Rankin School ahead of boycotted Ofsted inspection

I spent 45 years in education, as a teacher, headteacher and governor – and for a short time, I served as an additional Ofsted inspector for five or six schools. It is clear to me that Ofsted is not fit for purpose.

The tragic death of Caversham head teacher Ruth Perry must mark a final line in the sand for this dysfunctional system. No public servant and their family, no school community should be put through such a harsh public experience as to destroy a sense of identity.

Ofsted has been failing our children and our schools – and should now be externally reviewed and refocused to be more supportive. The whole inspection process is flawed and there is a strong risk of crude judgements that do not give the full picture of a school.

Education fundamentally works by improving the skills you find in those learning. Teachers and other staff giving their time and commitment to an underfunded system, one key to the development of our children, need – and deserve – a clear, supportive appraisal upon which they can build on.

My experience as an inspector was mixed, to put it mildly. On one inspection, I reported to a senior colleague that the headteacher had physically collapsed with indications of stress. He responded curtly that it was “for the school to deal with” and turned back to his laptop. I then quit inspection work – on moral grounds.

Ofsted’s focus has increasingly blurred over the years. It was once used to seek out best practice and shared through pamphlets, seminars and advocacy. It is now a poor relative of the MOT system – carrying the threat of a technical fail, but no free retest or right of redress.

The former chief inspector of schools in England, Sir Michael Wilshaw, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “At the end of the day parents want to know, is this a school that’s good enough for my child to go to?”

Given Wilshaw is one of the architects of the Ofsted model, it is depressing that his words gloss over the question of whether Ofsted really does meet the needs of parents – by providing transparent and honest appraisal of schools.

There is a similarity of sorts between the Ofsted crisis and the Casey report into issues within the Metropolitan Police force. In the Met, prejudice embedded in police practice has not been called out or stopped, with truly appalling consequences.

At the heart of the matter, there is a sense that the Met has lost sight of its mandate: to serve the public fairly, dispassionately and honestly. Ofsted has manifestly failed in similar terms.

The Ofsted inspection system is too often a dehumanised quest to “process” information about schools and provide a crude TripAdvisor-like rating. This fails miserably to recognise the complexity of a school environment and fails to deliver the core purpose of celebrating educational quality.

Ofsted no longer stands up to scrutiny as a body to promote high standards; it is a negative model in which the teaching profession has participated because of what I believe is a personal and collective fear of a damaging report. Not now.

We all need to reject this patronising and authoritarian model and demand greater respect for the thousands of schools doing the most remarkable job of people development.

The departure of the current chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, at the end of the year offers the chance for root and branch change. It cannot come too soon: it is already too late for Ruth Perry, her family and her school.

Jon O'Connor is a former headteacher and freelance education consultant

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