HMIs: inspectors not improvers

Here is an extract from a recent letter sent by an HMI following an Ofsted monitoring visit to a school ‘requiring improvement’. After the normal analysis of where progress is being made and where further action is needed, the letter goes on to say:

        “HMI  will offer support through:

  • Brokering links with other similar schools elsewhere in the country to enable collaboration on school improvement
  • Once roles in the re shaped leadership team are established, offering to support the new team in refining the new quality assurances processes
  • Offering to provide some training for governors”

So it’s official: Ofsted are now acting as school improvement brokers and providers of school improvement services. It’s not clear from the letter whether these services are being offered free of charge or whether the school will be charged for them.

Leaving aside Ofsted’s capability to be a school improvement broker this is a worrying development. That may sound somewhat churlish since, it could be argued, the common good is best served by using all effective means available to support struggling schools to improve. However, it strikes at the very heart of Ofsted’s role as an independent regulator.

When Ofsted returns to the school how can it be in a position to assess objectively – and to be seen to be assessing objectively – progress in the areas which it is supporting?

What if quality assurance is still unsatisfactory? Will an HMI criticise the efforts of the HMI colleague who has advised on new processes?

How can Ofsted properly assess the quality of governance if it has been instrumental in training governors?

And won’t there be a risk that inspectors will pull their punches because the school is using another school recommended by Ofsted?

Ofsted are on a slippery slope. Those in local authorities may remember that we used to have a social services inspectorate that was part inspector and part improver: it didn’t work.

I understand Sir Michael Wilshaw’s desire to use Ofsted’s expertise to accelerate progress in schools. But he would be better advised concentrating on continuing the supply of the  generally excellent thematic/subject reports and leadership critiques produced by Ofsted. If Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector is up for more fundamental change then he should look at how to move Ofsted inspections from being a predominantly high stakes judgmental process into being more of a developmental one. Greater use of peer inspectors in inspection teams would be a good starting point. Including an assessment of the extent to which a school was moving in the right direction would be another possibility.

But once HMIs cross the line from being inspectors to improvers they erode their capacity and credibility to undertake their basic function. After all the in ‘I’ in HMI does stand for Inspector.

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