Perhaps the biggest indictment of the UK’s current school inspection system is the fact that the inspectorate feels the need, from time to time, to publish guidance to dispel the various myths and misconceptions that exist around inspections and what Ofsted is and isn’t looking for.
The documents have become known as ‘mythbusting’ guidance.
Why do Ofsted publish ‘mythbusting’ guidance?
So, the current state of affairs is that Ofsted periodically updates its mythbusting guidance to schools. This is done to help schools as they prepare for inspection, to attempt to demystify the whole process. Ultimately, it’s also to try and ensure that schools do not waste time preparing for inspections based on mistaken assumptions of what Ofsted wants to see and will judge a school on.
The problem with ‘mythbusting’ guidance
On the face of it, all of the above seems fair. In fact, it would appear to be a supportive action on the part of the inspectorate. It would seem to be simply the right thing to do. Having recognised that schools have been led/are wandering up the wrong garden path, Ofsted is putting its hands on the shoulders of schools and politely and helpfully pointing them back in the right direction.
And all of that is also true, up to a point.
The problem really is that myth-busting is deemed necessary in the first place.
Why do myths need busting at all?
In a fair, open and transparent inspection system, the notion of any type of myths developing should never happen. It should be a virtual impossibility.
But Ofsted is a confused system driven by fear. Many schools, based on their own experience, would readily substitute the word ‘system’ with ‘regime’.
The culture of the last few years is of giant-sized banners emblazoned on the outside walls of a school declaring that a school has been judged to be ‘Outstanding’, ‘Good’, or with any shred of positivity that a school can find within its most recent inspection report.
The ‘Ofsted Judgement Badge’ together with league table data has been held up as seemingly the only things that show the qualities of a school.
Even more worryingly, many parents up and down the country actually believe this misconception.
Is it all Ofsted’s fault?
As mentioned previously, it seems a little harsh to criticise Ofsted for publishing guidance that is designed to be – and undoubtedly is – helpful to schools.
The obvious go-to counter argument to challenge this statement would be to point out that Ofsted itself – at least partly – has helped to create these myths. Similarly, despite what some of the mythbusting guidance might say, the most cynical will still find it hard to believe.
For example, in 2018, the inspectorate felt the need to address the ‘myth’ that a school’s exam and test results determine its Ofsted grade. Ofsted was at pains to bust this myth by saying that previous attainment of pupils does not determine a school’s inspection report. Instead, it claimed that published data merely informs the lines of enquiry that inspectors might take, and that these results will simply be a part of all the evidence that is taken into account when Ofsted evaluates a school’s outcomes.
Despite this claim, it would be fair to say that there will many headteachers up and down the country, whose schools have been inspected in the last two or three years, shaking their heads in disbelief and muttering to themselves, “I don’t believe you.’
Ofsted cannot be blamed, entirely, for parental misconceptions. Similarly, the government has to shoulder a massive share of the blame for creating a system where myths can exist.
Schools too are not entirely blameless. But it’s very harsh to criticise schools for looking for tips, tricks, patterns, etcetera around Ofsted inspections.
This is what happens when schools exist in a culture of fear. This is a by-product of a system where the stakes are so high and the consequences of ‘failure’ are so costly. This is the knock-on effect of trying to play a game where the goalposts are moved so often.
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