School leaders and teaching unions have reacted with dismay to the Conservative party’s plans for longer and more disruptive Ofsted inspections, with one warning the changes would “do more harm than good” if implemented.
Boris Johnson denied that the changes – lengthening a standard secondary school inspection from two to three days and carried out at no notice – were “draconian”. But representatives of headteachers argued that the proposals were potentially damaging, forcing schools in England to divert energy into preparing for inspections rather than teaching.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the proposals confirmed that current inspections did not give “a fair and reliable judgment” on a school’s performance.
“Ofsted is indeed stretched and is undoubtedly spreading itself too thinly. However, the answer is not to do more of the same, in fact it is the precise opposite,” Whiteman said.
“Ofsted needs to focus its efforts on the small fraction of schools that are struggling to provide a good standard of education and offer a stronger diagnostic insight on what is going wrong, to help them improve more rapidly.
“For schools that are already good – the vast majority in this country – high-stakes inspection has been shown to limit progress and stifle ambition, as schools are driven to spend more time on being Ofsted-ready instead of improving teaching and learning.”
Others noted that previous efforts, including during Michael Gove’s time as education secretary, to make all inspection visits no-notice were shelved over practical difficulties. Ofsted already carries out snap inspections in circumstances where it has serious concerns, such as safeguarding.
Headteachers say routine snap inspections mean schools would struggle to prepare the data required by Ofsted, and could mean that senior staff or governors were not available to be interviewed.
“The current notice period is very short, with Ofsted contacting the school only the lunchtime before the inspection begins. Even if they were inclined to do so, which they are not, it would be difficult for schools to perform whatever sleight of hand the Conservatives suspect them of by 8am the next morning,” said Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents many secondary school heads in England.
Whiteman said no-notice inspections “will do more harm than good – they will result in more wasted time for inspectors, while arrangements are frantically put in place to meet their needs, they will be more disruptive and stressful to teachers and pupils and will give zero additional insight in return.”
Barton noted that the extra £10m the Conservatives pledged for Ofsted’s budget would pay for 200 more teachers at a time of funding shortages.
“Parents might well feel that the Conservatives have got their priorities wrong by choosing to divert desperately needed money into the inspection system,” Barton said.
Interviewed by ITV News about the plans, Johnson struggled to explain why the more intensive inspections would not increase stress on teachers. “We emphatically don’t want to increase stress levels, and again, I don’t think that draconian is the right word for what we want to do. We want to be supportive of teachers, supportive of their fantastic work,” Johnson said.
Mary Bousted, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said further inspections would imperil efforts to keep experienced staff. “If it is the Conservatives’ aim to drain teachers of hope and to force them to leave the profession they love, then this announcement is just the ticket,” she said.
Earlier this week the Department for Education revealed that it had missed its own targets for secondary school teacher recruitment for the seventh year in a row.
The Tory proposals would only apply to schools in England. Education policy is devolved to national assemblies, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each having differing systems of school inspection.