Covid and Ofsted - let’s call it Covsted - are the two big stories in education at the moment and a combination that is spreading terror.
With the pandemic far from over, Ofsted has resumed full inspections introduced in 2019 but suspended early in 2020 - a decision that has brought alarming reports of large numbers of teachers, and particularly heads, resigning in distress.
Newspapers have quoted several headteachers in despair at the combination of pandemic and inspection.
The truth is that, right now, everyone in schools is drained of all energy: completely, utterly, totally, exhausted. When we are staggering on the ropes, being asked to concentrate on inspection, particularly under an unfamiliar framework, can be enough to send us sinking to the canvas or make us throw in the towel.
Teachers who have worked hard under unprecedented pressure over eighteen months may not have expected recognition or thanks. But nor do they have the resilience to swallow their resentment and shrug when the Chief Inspector outrageously remarks that some schools have seemed too ready to focus on feeding children rather than teaching them.
Covid aside, Ofsted’s framework itself presents issues. Previous emphasis on pupil attainment drew widespread criticism, but attainment is at least easy to measure. This new framework says: “Inspectors will evaluate evidence of the impact of the curriculum” thus giving those inspectors a much less straightforward task.
Dame Alison Peacock of the Chartered College of Teaching described Ofsted’s approach as a “reign of terror” and claims Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman wants us to “all be like robots”.
There are also concerns that a framework used to inspect all schools seems designed for secondary. EYFS teachers have complained that some inspectors seem to have little knowledge of their sector, while primary schools are nervous of the “deep dives” into Foundation Subjects.
Amanda Spielman made things worse by commenting that this round of inspections would halve the number of outstanding judgements, a remark taken to mean the new framework is “harder” than in the past, though she was actually making a different point - that exempting outstanding schools from inspection artificially inflating their number.
I have beenn a critic of Ofsted for many years, but my advice to school leaders at this time is “Don’t Panic”.
The big problems with Ofsted remain what they always were: the huge consequences of being judged less than good, the inconsistency of judgements and a complaints process not fit for purpose.
Inspections are often unfair, and while there are certainly horror stories circulating on social media, I have not seen evidence that these are worse this term than before.
My advice is: be true to your vision and do your best for your children. Do nothing special, false or forced just for the inspectors. Playing their game does not mean doing things differently, or putting yourself or your staff under unnecessary pressure.
It means presenting what you do in Ofsted friendly terms. You will already be doing what Ofsted demands, you just need to explain how, which means knowing the inspection framework, the handbook and the research commentary
If you are waiting to be inspected, try not to lose sleep worrying. We can’t stop them coming. The unions have called for a halt to inspections and been ignored. But when the pandemic finally fades we owe it to ourselves and our pupils to still be standing.
John Cosgrove is a retired headteacher, author and writer.