MPs tell Ofsted to back off

07 Jan 2010

 An influential House of Commons committee has warned that the current complex arrangements for monitoring school standards are creating a 'barrier' to genuine school improvement.

In a report that will please teachers - but probably annoy the government and Ofsted - the Commons Children, Schools and Families Select Committee says it is time to 'place more faith in the professionalism of teachers'. 

The MPs reserve particular criticism for the new Ofsted framework of inspection, which puts a greater emphasis on examination and test results when determining a school's overall inspection grade. The MPs say Ofsted should 'rebalance' its framework to 'give less evidential weight to test results' and to give more weight to what inspectors actually see in the classroom. 

The cross-party Select Committee also notes that HMI inspectors are generally 'rated higher' than the newer breed of contracted inspectors. It says that in future Ofsted should plan to have all school inspections led by HMIs, even though there are only 200 of them. 

More generally, the MPs say the Ofsted has 'grown enormously' and it was now 'debatable' whether the full range of its activities is 'sustainable' in the long term.

The report also takes a swipe at the government's plans for its new school accountability project: the School Report Card. Ministers favour a Report Card which gives an overall grade or score to each school. The MPs say this is 'neither needed nor appropriate', saying it could never offer a full account of a school's performance. 

After two decades of relentless growth in school accountability (admittedly from a point where there was relatively little in place), this report may now signal a turning-point. 

Until the 1980's, schools in England had great autonomy but little accountability. That has steadily shifted to the point where schools are suffocated by accountability and - in practice - feel they have little autonomy, as they fear treading outside the orthodoxies set out by government and policed by Ofsted.

It is now time for a better balance. Let schools do their own thing, as the independent sector does. Checking they are doing a good job with taxpayers' money remains essential. But the monitoring should not dictate how schools set about achieving their ends. School performance should not be reduced to simply checking on raw exam results.  

For some time now, the government has paid lip service to school autonomy - this report suggests a way to match rhetoric with action.   

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