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31.10.14

LGA calls for ‘urgent review’ of Ofsted

The Local Government Association has called for the government to launch an “urgent review” of Ofsted after a series of leaks and dramatic U-turns on inspection judgements brought into question the watchdog’s objectivity and credibility.

The LGA said public confidence in Ofsted has been undermined by its habit of re-inspecting schools when they hit the headlines, only to downgrade them from ‘good' or ‘outstanding' to ‘inadequate'. Five of the schools involved in the so-called ‘Trojan Horse' incident in Birmingham are among a number nationwide which have been downgraded to ‘inadequate', the lowest Ofsted category, in some cases in less than a year.

Councils believe this raises questions as to the validity of the inspectorate's judgments, as it is quick to re-inspect, and often downgrade, schools which are embroiled in a scandal.

According to the LGA the watchdog’s operations have become too “media-driven” rather than focused on “the experiences and outcomes of children and young people”. They say that only through an investigation can re-establish Ofsted’s credibility.

Ofsted responded by saying it had “raised the inspection bar” for both education and care services, and that nearly eight in 10 schools are now judged by it to be good or outstanding. It added that “when you challenge the system to do better, it will push back,” but that its job is to hold every institution to account “without fear or favour”.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT backed the LGA call.

He said: “Ofsted is not doing what it should, which is to get beneath the data and find out what is really happening in schools. Too often, overworked and under-skilled inspectors have time merely to confirm what the data already tells us, copy some narrative from a previous report and rush on to the next school.

“The LGA is right that a fundamental review is needed. Inspection should be about expert judgment and quality feedback which leads to improvement or the massive expenditure is wasted in what amount to a public relations exercise.”

Cllr David Simmonds, chairman of the LGA's Children and Young People Board, said: "Too many controversies have threated Ofsted's independence and credibility. Mums and dads put their trust in Ofsted's ratings when they pick a school for their children and its inspections can have implications for the most vulnerable children in our care.

"Councils, communities and parents need to know Ofsted and the chief inspector are independent and free from political influence and we need an independent review to discover what has gone wrong and restore faith in what is fast becoming a media-driven organisation.

"In cases where we have seen schools go from 'outstanding' to special measures within a few years, which verdict is to be believed? This is not a defence of underperformance; there is no place for it in our schools and children's services. Ofsted's knee-jerk response to a scandal seems to be to reinspect a school and declare it failing, but not every scandal will be true. We want to know that when Ofsted go into a school, they are being fair and impartial and are not playing to the court of public opinion.”

Responding to the criticism Ofsted said: “Of course, Ofsted is not perfect and we have been open about where we need to improve our own performance. We are currently consulting on radical changes to the way we inspect schools and colleges from next September as well as taking steps to bring all education inspectors in-house.

“However, it’s worth bearing in mind that Ofsted conducts around 30,000 inspections every year. The latest figures show that 93% of schools and 95% of colleges were satisfied with the way their inspection was carried out – a proportion that hasn’t significantly altered over time. In a survey of 850 schools inspected earlier this year, almost 85% believed that the inspection process had helped them to improve.

“Ofsted’s job is to hold every institution to account and to report without fear or favour. We make no apology for championing the interests of those who rely on the services we inspect nor for bringing our findings to wider public attention. Shining a spotlight on under-performance, however uncomfortable, helps bring about change.

“But it is simply incorrect to suggest our inspection judgements are influenced by anything other than the evidence we find. We know that previously high performing institutions can deteriorate rapidly when they suffer staff turbulence or a sudden change in leadership.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Inspection by Ofsted is an important part of our accountability system, providing parents and the public with an independent assessment of the performance of schools. Ofsted keeps its inspection arrangements under constant review to ensure they are fit for purpose.”

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