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'Beyond Ofsted' - what does it mean for school and trust governance?

| 9 minute read

You won’t have missed the headlines calling for large-scale change at Ofsted following the sad death of headteacher Ruth Perry.

jimmy2 modifiedOne such call has come via an inquiry and independent report into school inspection, commissioned by the National Education Union, titled ‘Beyond Ofsted’.

There is a strong focus on governance throughout the report, so at GovernorHub - we caught up with inquiry chair Lord Jim Knight about the report and why it puts governance at the heart of its proposed reforms. 

Jim, please can you start by summarising the Beyond Ofsted report for those who may not have read it yet.

Yes, sure. First of all, we think safeguarding should be separated off altogether from Ofsted inspections of schools. We believe safeguarding should be quality-assured through annual compliance checks overseen by a national safeguarding authority. Ultimately, this could be done by local authorities once they’re consistently of a capacity and have the expertise to be able to do it.

That leaves the ‘quality of education’ aspect of school inspection. Here, we decided that at a school level, there should be what’s become known as a ‘report card’. In Beyond Ofsted, we’re calling it a ‘school performance review’. 
We’d publish the outcomes data for parents and stakeholders separately (and we can then have a conversation about what’s important to publish). Then, we would ask the governance of the school to appoint an external school improvement partner to validate the data and put a commentary on what it means and what schools are doing about it. This way parents can see what’s happening with outcomes and then what’s being done to improve those areas of the school that need to get better. 

Under the Beyond Ofsted model, Ofsted wouldn't have a role at a school level because that would be carried out by the school improvement partner and also the published data which provides that accountability.

We’d ask Ofsted to inspect the ‘school group’ - the multi-academy trust, the local authority, the federation or the single academy trust. In particular, inspecting the school improvement capacity and decision-making that's made at this level. For example, whether or not they’ve appointed the right school improvement partners for the schools that they have responsibility for.

Also for compliance, Ofsted would look at the data and review how the governance is using it, and any other insight, in order to make sure that governance of the organisation is doing the best for the children in its care.

In a way, this is a response to the importance of governance and a very strong sense that if you get the governance right, then, by and large, things will go well. When things go wrong, it is normally because of a governance failure. Governance is the first line of defence in making sure that things are going well. It ensures standards are being adhered to and that people are behaving professionally and responsibly.

Removing Ofsted from a role at school-level is also a response to the issue that it’s increasingly being asked to do more with less. Years ago we used to have large inspection teams staying for a whole week, delivering reliable and in depth reports at the end of it. We now have small inspection teams (or even individuals) staying for a day and a half or two days which is a lot of pressure on that inspector to get through a lot in a short period of time. If you're going to have annual safeguarding visits, and were to  carry on with the current cycle of school-based inspection by Ofsted, it would cost a lot of money to do it properly.

I don't think there’s the appetite in the Treasury to give Ofsted a lot more money. So there is a pragmatism attached to school-group level inspection, alongside that belief that governance is key to getting a consistent, sustainable level of quality in our schools. 

Thinking about our current governance community then. If you're a school based governor, your board would be responsible for the appointment of the school improvement partner. Under this model, would the board have any ongoing relationship with that schoo

Yes. In my vision, the school improvement partner would be expected to work principally with the school leadership, but also with the governing board and particularly the chair of governors or trustees.

If there’s an issue with SEND in the school - they might work with the SEND lead governor or trustee. Or perhaps there are issues attached to other aspects, there would be a delegation within the governing board for those.. The board would agree and have oversight on what the action plan is around and any required improvement. 

This is probably happening to some degree already in trusts. But for maintained boards, you acknowledge the dwindling resources local authorities have to support school improvement.

Yes,  I’m really comfortable with the idea that Ofsted inspection could be part of the local authority service directorate or the education committee rather than the local governing board, but I'm equally comfortable if the local authority or Ofsted thinks that it's better at a local governing board level. I don’t want to prescribe that necessarily. I just think that Ofsted should come in and look at the quality of the governance of school improvement and, if that's not something that the local authority has the capacity to do, then they can delegate it to the local governing board.

For multi-academy trusts, this model would require a much bigger role for trustees during inspection.

Absolutely! I'm the chair of aE-ACT, a multi-academy trust with 28 schools. We manage over 150 million pounds worth of public money and I’m currently held to account privately by the Department for Education for that, but not publicly and I don't think that that's right.
Hard-pressed trustees might say, ‘Well this is just another job I don’t have time for’ but that presumes that Ofsted would remain a combative regime, whereas what we're also saying is that Ofsted needs to exhibit a duty of care and be a more empathetic organisation with no more single phrase judgements that can lead to black and white measures that get published in local newspapers. 

It should be a much more supportive relationship, and viewed in that way, we might expect inspectors to come along and say, ‘Okay, this is what we expect to see at your trust, this is how you're doing and here are your areas for improvement’.

At my trust, we’ve had two external reviews of governance in the last couple of years and they've been really helpful. In a way, what I'm suggesting is to institutionalise that. I'm suggesting having a system that builds on what my trust and many others already do in terms of appointing school improvement partners.

In my trust, these school improvement partners are internal appointments, and it might be that we would want to make sure that those for Ofsted are all external appointments so you've got a little bit more distance - but essentially it’s about creating a self-improving system.

As chair of the Council of British International Schools, our quality assurance system involves headteachers peer-reviewing each other’s schools. It’s fantastic professional development for them and it’s greeted as a professional dialogue, rather than a punitive regime. 

That's the other inspiration behind all of this, beyond some of my trustee experience and my earlier experience as minister for schools.

Would governance capacity need increasing in the sector? In the foreword of the report you express regret over the end of the National Leaders of Governance scheme?

Yes, I think we should equally be looking at how we better support governance. It's only when things go wrong that you realise how critical governance is.

Obviously there are services like GovernorHub Knowledge where you can get that support and advice but I think the National Leaders of Governance programme was not just a scheme but an opportunity. An opportunity to accredit people who have a lot of knowledge, skills and experience.

Again, we’re talking about a self-improving system, rather than a top-down system where the culture is one of fear over non-compliance. I don't think that's sustainable and I don't think that’s a healthy system. 

Can you still be confident that failing schools can be identified and turned around under this model?

I believe so. I think that’s the importance of the ‘school performance review’. It would be much more transparent than it is currently in terms of the outcome data and we wouldn’t just focus on one or two indicators. In the case of a primary school, it is almost as if the only thing that matters currently are the Key Stage 2 SATs results at the end of year six and how well the school is doing on attendance.

Primary schools are more sophisticated and complex as organisations, and we should be thinking and looking at a whole range of different indicators - the same with secondary schools.

What kind of other indicators do you think would be valuable?

I believe we need a discussion about what we think is important and the purpose of schooling. It’s not just the academic development of a child, but also their physical and emotional development. 

Attendance is an important proxy for engagement, but it might not be the only one, and there may be some other things that we want to look at. 

As we said in the report, we think that parent and pupil surveying is really important. The sentiment and the opinion of children, as well as their parents is a really useful indicator as to how happy and fulfilled they are in school.

What about Ofsted’s Parent View survey which exists currently?

Yes - this is a form of survey, but it’s a one-off snapshot. Three or four years ago, the school where one of my children attended was inspected and within the parent group, there was an operation to try to get the school to be outstanding via the Parent View survey!

It’s not that meaningful if parents tell you what you want to hear in order to make sure that their school does well. However regular surveying of parents by the school is valuable. At my trust, we’ve started surveying much more regularly. The insights that it gives us support the cultural change that we're trying to bring about and are really powerful - I would recommend it to everyone

Finally, we have a new Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Martyn Oliver. Have you spoken to him about the report and its recommendations?

I had an exchange with him today. Once we've resolved how he might be able to meet with me as an opposition politician within the civil service code, it would be nice to get together for a conversation.  

But I think Martin's appointment is a good one. He is starting well in pausing inspections for training. We should try and work with him. In his previous role as CEO of Outwood Grange Academies Trust he was pretty good with the use of data and he could be really useful in helping us think through the kind of information we’d want to present on a school improvement review/report card  - what we’d collect and how to weight it. I think after the upcoming general election, there will be a set of decisions for whoever becomes the new Secretary of State for Education about what the longer term future of school inspection will be.

I suppose the other reflection I've had since publishing the report is that I want to show people that there are other ways of quality assuring schools. 

When I've reflected more about it, what I can see is that schools are not alone. Police, hospitals, care settings and prisons - they all are inspected in similar sorts of ways using a theory of change based on fear. Government inspectors go in, take a snapshot based on a set framework - and then, name and shame using a single word judgement.

And the theory of change here is that the fear this creates will drive improvement. I don't think fear drives improvement. I think support drives improvement. Yes, have candid conversations - the sorts of conversations that good governing bodies have. But have them in a supportive environment. That's what our inspection service should be. I think one of the reasons why we are seeing large numbers of public sector workers, not just teachers, but prison officers, police officers, nurses, doctors, leaving public service is in part because of the culture that our inspection creates and this is what we’re ultimately trying to reverse.

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  • Natalie Brownell 20 Feb 2024, 11:55 (4 months ago)

    As a Vice-Chair at a specialist secondary school, I find that the expectations placed upon our staff to encompass the roles of other professionals, such as mental health workers, therapists, social workers is eroding their primary role of educators. Ofsted don't appreciate or indeed even note (and cascade) the pressures placed on this type of school, mainly other professionals supposed to be supporting these vulnerable students don't step up when needed!! Culture needs to change! A more holistic review is required, at set points in an academic year rather than a minute snapshot that can affect a school for years to come. It's an outdated model that needs to change and urgently!
    I think Ofsted also need to consider that being a governor is a voluntary role (that you don't realise the extent of commitment required). There needs to be more support from Ofsted for governors, (alas these are reducing because of the academisation agenda) but they are vital to ensure strategic focus from an outside in view. Work WITH us rather than seeing a day or two of activity...

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  • Michael Moran 30 Jan 2024, 10:39 (5 months ago)

    I have been a governor of a local primary school for over 22 years and I have become increasingly frustrated at the ever increasing demands that are placed on our school leaders and staff coupled with ever decreasing resources. I've grown tired of headline political statements of so many millions here, so many millions there and yet, as with so many things these days, it is almost impossible to see the impact of that so called investment at local level.
    The report contains some elements that if implemented may improve things but when? What about the children and staff in our schools now....the time these changes take is not remotely helpful in tackling the issues schools are facing right now.
    As for governance...great, let's heap more responsibility / accountability onto governance when I assume up and down the country it is extremely difficult to recruit governors. In my opinion there needs to be a serious conversation, that includes governors, to determine whether these responsibilities are right, are acceptable and are proportionate given this is a voluntary role. For sometime I have felt there has been a move to form the make-up of governing bodies with professionals; i.e. legal, finance, health and so on. Whilst I am in agreement that these skills are useful, the focus on such skills seems skewed to me and attempts to shift responsibility from bodies that should already be employed to look after certain aspects. The overriding requirement must be a desire to want to make the school successful for every child in its care and for that be at the heart of every conversation you have as a governor.

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  • Andy Croft 27 Jan 2024, 18:06 (5 months ago)

    School inspections/audits are no different from what parts of every industry undergoes daily to meet the likes of IOS 45001 (Health & Safety), ISO 9001 (Quality Assurance), ISO 18001 (Environmental) plus many more international standards. See for more information or All the ISO standards are also BS and EN ones with many having started within the UK and rippled outwards.
    ISO 19011:2018 Guidelines for auditing management systems; sets out the core framework for the above and many more standards and ensures that they work from a common framework, something that I'm sure education could be readily translated into. Where you are referring to governance, this is an area that all of the standards take very seriously using almost identical wording. As a retired lead auditor for 9001 and 45001 and am now a governor, if you had an education standard, I have little doubt that I could carry out a suitable and sufficient audit with only a few days of training. Although they are international standards, they do automatically suck in the appropriate national legislation and regulation so Wales would automatically get Cymraeg usage included for example.
    One of the key tenets of the audit system is to provide confirmation of the process - in other words, you say what you do and do what you say and identify both good practices and identify of areas for improvement. There is an option in your audit process to set up scoring and grading should it be required but it is very open to all involved in the process with observations and deficiencies clearly evidenced at every stage.
    Given that there are hundreds of thousands of audits and checks to meet the various standards internationally, I have not heard of anyone ever self-harming because of the results of one.

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  • Mary Massey 27 Jan 2024, 12:18 (5 months ago)

    I agree with a great deal of this - however, there is an ongoing issue that he has not addressed. If the quality of governance is to have a higher profile, then we need to be aware of the problems with recruitment. This is a voluntary role - already demanding in terms of time. I am a retired HMI acting as chair of governors in two secondary schools. It's a lot of work. If you increase the accountability then you need to think about how to get high quality, committed governors to be prepared to join in.

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  • Liz Jessop 25 Jan 2024, 17:15 (5 months ago)

    I found this article really helpful and interesting. Thank you!

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  • Samantha Hill 25 Jan 2024, 09:58 (5 months ago)

    I think this is really thoughtful and a serious examination of what could - and probably should - change. I have been a School Governor for 20 years now (I really need to find a purpose in my life!) and have been through 4 inspections, personally. They can be brutal. My abiding response, when I hear of stories like the tragedy of Ruth Perry, is - where was the Governance? If a school is failing, it is a failure at ALL levels of SLT; I cannot imagine a situation where I would allow a HT to be in a room alone for the final Ofsted judgment meeting - MY work is also being judged. As this article so rightly states, a failure in a school is a failure of Governance. If we get Governance right, the school shouldn't fail.

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  • Catherine Harrison 25 Jan 2024, 08:22 (5 months ago)

    I agree wholeheartedly of your definition of the problem and find your ideas very interesting. However to pick up the point of governance capacity - we would need to think how to we can encourage more people to volunteer and engage with governance. Increased pressure and responsibility is not going to make this voluntary role more attractive.

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  • hugh disley 25 Jan 2024, 07:41 (5 months ago)

    How do we get what is eminently sensible into operation through a political system that consistently focuses on point scoring and undermining their opponents rather than building on strengths and agreeing on what is best for each and every child so that they can become the best they can be. The demolition of the Every Child Matters agenda has created the current crisis because we discontinued the local dialogue across education health and social care. It’s reinvention is desperately needed so we can then look at school improvement from an educational perspective and likewise do the same with children’s health and social care and not have the confusion where a blame each other culture avoids resolving the issues at the right source. Nowhere is this more significant than with our most vulnerable children and the SEND system that is failing everyone; the child; parents and guardians; schools; supporting services. I really hope that constructive change happens

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  • Thomas Christian Hainsworth 23 Jan 2024, 15:17 (5 months ago)

    All the teachers I have met enter the profession because they have a passion for learning and helping others. A culture of fear created by Offset inspections causes teachers become box tickers rather than the passionate leaders we want and our children deserve. So I agree 100% with fear does not drive improvement. Support drives improvement and trust and takes time and patience to train and build momentum. Time to ask open questions and listen careful to the replies, time to understand and empathies with the challenges and time to empower and encourage those at the coal face to feel trusted to deliver improvement.

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