Correcting inspecting

Ofsted needs to change its approach to school inspections – and technology could provide the answer, says Keith Wright

I’d be the first to admit that accountability is a good thing in our education system. That’s not to say schools wouldn’t improve without it, but there needs to be at least some degree of accountability to reinforce the efforts that every teaching professional makes. But schools currently have to deal with too much of it, or rather they are struggling to deal with the impact of it. 

There are signs that the system is finally acknowledging this issue – Ofsted racked back on the inspection regime by taking outstanding schools out of the normal inspection cycle and introducing lighter touch inspections that place more emphasis on the school’s own evaluation of its performance. 

One of the latest development from the body – which took effect in September – is to make the guidance it gives its inspectors much broader and less prescriptive. Some parameters for what inspectors should be looking for have been removed. 

At first glance this looks like a good development but in fact it opens up the doors of uncertainty for schools because they are still firmly locked into a system where judgements still have very clear parameters.

Generalities work if the inspection process changes to one designed to partner schools in an improvement process, rather than the ‘talk softly and carry a big stick’ approach which we still have today.

Although inspectors now have much more freedom on what they look for on school inspections – there’s no set criteria on what a good lesson looks like, for example – schools will still need to be thoroughly prepared to be able to answer any questions they are asked. 

This uncertainty leads to more accountability pressure, not less. Now they have to be attuned to unexpected requests. They have to be prepared to keep a million plates spinning rather than a few thousand. 

Schools can prepare for this uncertainty by using technology in the form of school improvement management systems. This will allow them to quickly meet the multitude of information requests that they could be subject to during an inspection process.

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But there needs to be more fundamental change in the longer term. The inspection body needs to move away from the school inspection cycle and become a true partner in a school’s journey of improvement. Technology has a part to play here as well.

By using a common online technology platform shared by school and inspector the two parties will be able to share information about that school’s performance without the information gap that can occur during an inspection visit. 

If the inspector – or improvement partner – has exactly the same view of the performance information as the headteacher then this creates a shared understanding. And that provides a firm basis on which to develop school improvement plans. 

There’s already good evidence for the effectiveness of this approach. I work with a large number of schools run by a major international school chain and they have embraced a school improvement management platform developed by us.

The platform is used by 52 schools across a number of countries. Instead of each school developing its own, often ad-hoc, approach to managing school improvement processes like CPD, improvement planning and performance management, and then scrambling to draw down the right information when inspectors visit, they now work on a common platform with management and inspection teams. School and inspector share the same view of school performance. They see the same information in real time. It means that schools get intelligent, focused support on specific areas, while inspectors can target inspection visits on the schools that would most benefit from that approach.

An improvement partner approach, in which school and inspector work in a close partnership based on a shared understanding of performance information, should be the future of school accountability. 

The blunt approach of high stakes inspections – such a major contributor to the accountability nightmare endured by schools today – has to be consigned to the past. 

Keith Wright is managing director of school improvement planning specialists Bluewave.SWIFT. For further information please visit www.bluewaveswift.co.uk.

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