Today’s Ofsted annual report has both good and bad news. There has been a substantial increase in the number of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools – the equivalent of 1800 extra good schools in three years – but there remains a stubborn group where teaching is poor.
More needs to be done to improve literacy and numeracy at every level. And an increasing number of local authority children’s services departments is rated inadequate. Some of the problems being highlighted have been the focus of earlier reports. But the evidence is also that the focus of accountability – and independent inspection – is making things better.
Yet this year’s report has been accompanied by an unusually loud chorus of criticism from those who see themselves as the victims of Ofsted. The Local Government Association complains that the inspectors look for trouble too much. The National Union of Teachers says it doesn’t give schools that don’t get decent overall GCSE grades top marks even if they do well on the government’s value added measure. And the Association of Directors of Social Services thinks that the inspectors have got too tough, and that’s making it harder to recruit social workers.
One reason why the criticism is louder is that Ofsted inspects much more now than before. As well as schools, its role extends to nursery education and childcare, further education colleges, training providers, children’s social services and local authority children’s services departments. And the current chief inspector Christine Gilbert inherited an inspection regime where enforced efficiencies led to more reliance on data and less on classroom or frontline observation.
Those systems are changing. School inspections since September include more of what happens in the classroom. And together with spot inspections, inspectors talk more to social workers than before. Even so, data can reveal truths too. I doubt many parents would think a school – no matter how challenging its intake – could be deemed ‘outstanding’ if 75% of its pupils failed to meet the basic GCSE benchmark.
Of course, there is a legitimate debate about the government’s decision to merge so many children’s services and education functions, and on the weight given to the Every Child Matters objectives that are now part of the inspection mix. But the bottom line is that Ofsted remains an invaluable asset because of its independence and its willingness to act without fear or favour. And its findings can still make uncomfortable reading for governments as much as they do for some schools and service providers. Which is as it should be.
In the end, today’s detailed annual report throws a far clearer light on the strengths and weaknesses of many of our public services than the special pleading of those who should focus on their own improvement – rather than shooting the messenger