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Commit to not sacking heads over bad Ofsteds, says MAT boss

All trusts and governors should “guarantee” to staff that “no one will be sacked because of an Ofsted report”, the boss of the country’s biggest academy trust has said.

This would “sharply reduce the fear” of the watchdog, added Sir Jon Coles, the chief executive of the United Learning trust. “We as leaders in the trust should examine ourselves, not scapegoat an individual school leader.”

In a blueprint for Ofsted reform, shared with Schools Week, Coles also called for ungraded inspections to be ditched.

Inspections should instead be “longer or better resourced”, inspectors paid more and primary visits “simplified”, the plan said.

Labour, likely to be in government next month, has proposed big accountability reforms, including the end of single-word judgments and introducing annual safeguarding audits.

But Coles said Ofsted was “not fundamentally broken. There are things that can be improved… but also some significant strengths that we need to keep.”

‘Change governance, not heads’

While some of these are “in Ofsted’s hands, others rely on government action or changes in behaviour in the wider school system”.

No one “has been or will be sacked as a result of an Ofsted judgment” at United Learning, he said.

“I’d consider it a huge failure if Ofsted came up with something that we were not aware of in one of our schools … we’d have completely failed in our job.”

Instead, the “default setting” should be a “a change of governance rather than leadership”.

Schools Week analysis previously revealed three in five leaders had moved on a year after receiving an ‘inadequate’ judgment in 2021-22, amid a “football manager culture” of heads being fired.

But Coles said if those overseeing schools could “make sure their own evaluations are sharp enough” and their “dialogue with leaders open and honest enough”, then every governing body and trust could “guarantee” that “no one will be sacked because of an Ofsted report”.

“Every governing body, trust board and local authority can and should commit to knowing their school or schools well enough that Ofsted will not identify unexpected problems during an inspection – and that they will never therefore remove a leader on the basis of an inspection.

“That would sharply reduce the fear of Ofsted and greatly improve the quality of governance in the system.”

‘Ofsted isn’t broken, it needs more cash’ 

While Labour has set out the broad direction of Ofsted reform, it has promised to consult on how to achieve it.

Coles said the “current narrative about inspection has a disproportionate sense that ‘Ofsted is broken’. In our experience this isn’t true.”

The trust, which now has 90 schools, has had about 150 inspections over the past decade, including 23 since September.

The current framework was “the best we have had in recent years” and required tweaks not an overhaul, he said.

Proposed changes put forward by Coles include ditching ungraded inspections for ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools. 

Inexperienced and under-resourced inspectors often gathered “insufficient evidence to provide meaningful insight”, he said.

Ofsted’s budget was 29 per cent lower in real terms compared with 2010. A 50 per cent increase to the watchdog’s £30 million budget would have “minimal impact on the resources available to schools”.

But it would allow “longer or better resourced inspections”. Inspectors could be paid more to “attract people with the right level of seniority”.

However Frank Norris, a former Ofsted inspector and trust boss, said less inspection was needed, “but with highly skilled and respected colleagues. I am not convinced at all that piling more inspectors into a team is going to be the answer.”

‘Narrative Ofsted reports’ warning

While it may be possible to make reports “clear without a single overall judgment”, there must still be a “clear way of identifying which schools require urgent change”, the blueprint said. 

“Headline categories are meaningful and do communicate useful information,” it added.

And the current Independent Schools Inspectorate system, which is “purely narrative” with no overall grades, “should be avoided”.

“Parents should have access to the judgments made by inspectors without needing to ‘de-code’ a report.”

But Loic Menzies, visiting fellow at Sheffield Institute of Education, said if “simplicity ends up leading to misleading information, then it doesn’t really serve anyone’s interests”.

Transparency needed over complaints

Labour has also pledged annual checks on safeguarding.

But Coles said trusts and other governance authorities could instead carry out annual checks, with this validated during inspections. 

Meanwhile, trust inspections – another Labour pledge – should be “assessed by reference to the quality and improvement of the schools” in the trust.

Clarity was also needed about who reports were aimed at.

The blueprint also said complaints should be “meaningfully improved” so there was “effective redress and transparency” – rather than “closing ranks”.

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