There is less agreement about what should change. Sir Michael thinks that the subjective judgments of inspectors have been allowed to overshadow data – so that schools in England can be judged good even when pupils are not making academic progress. Labour has promised to replace one-word headline judgments with more nuanced report cards. Sir Martyn Oliver, who will soon replace Amanda Spielman as Ofsted’s head, wants to employ more headteachers to carry out inspections. Lord Baker, education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, thinks more attention should be paid to what pupils do after leaving school at 18 (though this would not be a relevant criterion for primaries). In a poll conducted in 2021, most teachers said the inspectorate should be abolished.
Previous efforts to improve things have not worked, as is shown by the fact that Ofsted has burned through five different inspection frameworks in a decade. Most recently, the switch to an increased focus on the curriculum has not delivered, because inspectors lack the specialist knowledge to judge GCSE and A-level teachers in multiple subjects. This is no fault of theirs and should have been anticipated. It is doubtful too whether Ofsted is the right body to monitor safeguarding. Handing this responsibility to local authorities should be considered.
The most urgent priority, however, is a detailed diagnosis. Parliament’s education committee is currently taking evidence and will shortly hear from Ms Spielman and the schools minister, Nick Gibb. But the views of senior insiders with track records to defend are not the only ones worth knowing. Parents could be canvassed. So could teachers. Given current staff shortages, it is clear that ministers’ dismissive attitude to the profession has not helped. The inquest into Ms Perry’s death will offer further insight into her experience, requiring careful reflection.
There is no quick fix to the difficulties facing English schools – many of which are also faced by schools in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The after-effects of the pandemic and rising poverty have placed schools on the frontline of a crisis that goes beyond education. Harsh judgments on some schools are related to the falling living standards of their intake, as well as a longer-term lack of investment. There is evidence that schools in poor areas have faced unduly severe inspection judgments.
If the inspectorate is to continue, it must find a way of helping schools improve – and feeling more like a critical friend instead of a persecutor to school leaders. Accountability mechanisms are important, but so is the workforce. Ministers have prioritised the former over the latter, with disastrous consequences for all the pupils who now lack suitably qualified and experienced teachers. It is encouraging that Ofsted’s flaws are finally being admitted. But this is only a first step. The next one is to seek agreement on what went wrong and why.