From education to employment

Ofsted is terribly bad for the quality of Further Education

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

Ofsted is terribly bad for the quality of Further Education. Half of the problem is that it makes recommendations.

The other half is that despite its reasonable efforts it induces anxiety in senior managers. The combination is toxic.

One effect of this is a curious and widespread paradox: the very people who would cheerfully postpone their next college inspection to the day after forever hastening to implement Ofsted recommendations by the day before yesterday. ‘Because,’ they reason, ‘we dare not have them still to do when Ofsted next come back and ideally we want everything sorted out well in advance.’

This sounds quite reasonable. Surely it must make sense to do as Ofsted says? And if you’re anxious about something, what better than to tackle it straight away? How could any of this be bad for quality?

Quality of education certainly depends on managers setting high standards but it depends every bit as much on individual members of staff routinely achieving and even exceeding those standards.

And that depends on motivation, on going the extra mile, on what the management textbooks call ‘discretionary effort’. And just how motivational will it seem to teaching staff when it becomes clear that significant change is going to be required of them, perhaps at break-neck speed, all because senior leadership are anxious about Ofsted or ‘because Ofsted say so’.

A great many teachers go into teaching in the first place, and go to work every day because they want to make a positive difference to learners’ lives. In all my years in colleges I never met one who was enthused by the thought of doing Ofsted’s bidding. Have you? Some were not much enthused by the thought of doing the boss’s bidding either!

How to win teaching staff round?

Take as much time as it takes to discuss with staff how best to respond to Ofsted’s recommendations in the light of the college mission. Making the mission the criterion for finding the best way forward motivates everyone with the confidence their team endeavour and the college’s identity are the most important things. It also protects the senior team with a veto on suggestions made in the interests of teachers not students.

Above all, it is THE way to guarantee that quality is improved not harmed by acting on Ofsted advice. It hugely increases the chances of actions emerging which are thought-through, which are consensual, and which are capable of rooting in the college’s own culture.

All very well, but meantime this does nothing for that Ofsted anxiety. Indeed, it only makes it worse by delaying matters with staff consultation. What’s the way round that?

The answer lies with someone we haven’t mentioned yet and who should have been in the picture from the very first: the Chair of Governors.

Just a few words from them are enough to remove at a stroke all that Ofsted anxiety which attacks quality like acid. Here they are:

‘Thanks for putting me in the picture about the Ofsted result. You and your team have my complete confidence and that of the Corporation. Together we’ve created a college mission we all believe in.

‘Ofsted’s findings should help us but first we need to work out how to make the best of them in light of our mission. I look to you and your team to lead the staff in devising those steps. Keep me apprised at every stage and you can rely on me to assist in piloting changes needing their approval through the Corporation. There are real opportunities here. Exciting times!’

Chris Thomson, Education Consultant and former sixth form college principal

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