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The Alternative Big Listen is just what the sector ordered

Our Alternative Big Listen, launched last week, complements but may also undermine Ofsted’s own Big Listen. We intend it to be helpful and insightful but also educationally subversive of the status quo. We believe Ofsted is reacting defensively. It is right to do so.

Already there are very encouraging signs that we are tapping into the teaching profession’s concerns. After just over a week since the launch we have many hundreds of responses, more are coming in daily and we expect many more in the next four weeks. Teachers’ unions are drawing their members’ attention to the survey. 

This means that we already have professional legitimacy for our campaign. We are determined to ensure that all our respondents’ voices are heard in the much-needed reappraisal of the current school inspection regime.               

Since its introduction in 1992 after the abolition of the well-respected HM Inspectorate of Schools, Ofsted has never been short of controversy.  However, in the past twelve months it has become the focus of intense and often critical professional, political and media attention, especially after the introduction of a controversial new inspection framework in 2017 and the tragedy at Caversham Primary School in 2023. Scrutiny is long overdue.

The newly appointed chief inspector, Sir Martyn Oliver has sensibly decided to conduct a major review. Unfortunately, that review has shortcomings the Alternative Big Listen is attempting to redress. 

Ofsted’s survey is designed to gauge how much professional and public support there is for its current remit. It does so by asking what many see as several leading questions. Its purpose seems to be to get endorsement of its current intentions and policies rather than invite critique.

In particular, it does not allow respondents to judge how successful Ofsted has been in fulfilling those intentions, nor does it provide a clear steer in terms of a preferred approach. We find this very disappointing.

Not having the resources Ofsted has at its disposal, our Alternative Big Listen focuses on the inspection of schools and post-16 provision rather than its broader range of work. It offers school leaders, teachers, governors, parents and others the opportunity to evaluate Ofsted’s current and past performance by asking how successful it is across the range of its school remit.

Our answers may be far less reassuring to Ofsted

Our survey tries to be as neutral as possible, avoiding leading questions and offering a range of possible responses to each. It deliberately uses many of Ofsted’s own statements word for word, but poses very different questions focusing on the effectiveness of the current inspection regime.

In sum, it attempts to answer the key question: How effective is Ofsted?  The answer may be far less reassuring to the inspectorate than the responses to its own listening exercise. We shall see.

Our survey also poses three major questions Ofsted avoids asking altogether. Should one- or two-word judgments of schools’ overall effectiveness be used in inspection reports? Is Ofsted fit for purpose? Should there be a moratorium on routine (not all) school inspection while wide-ranging reform of the organisation and its remit takes place?

We believe we may know the answers to those three questions but our respondents may tell us otherwise. We will be interested in comparing the outcomes of our survey with those published by Ofsted in due course, and we hope both sets of answers – and the differences between them – go on to inform the development of a more responsive future inspection system.

The Alternative Big Listen has been created by several former HMI, all committed to the principle of inspection but also its reform and renewal. The latter should be informed by the educational values of independent, experienced judgment made ‘without fear or favour’, inherited from HMI.

So far, the survey has attracted a wide range of support from many former HMI, school leaders, academy trust CEOs, governors and trustees, education researchers and journalists, as listed on our website.

We are particularly grateful for the endorsement from Professor Julia Waters, sister of the late Ruth Perry. So what better way to finish than to quote her:

“The case for radical reform of Ofsted is overwhelming. But in order to find the right solutions to the numerous flaws in the current inspection system, it is vital that the right questions are asked. Unlike the official Big Listen, the Alternative Big Listen ensures these questions are explicitly ‘on the table’.  We hope the answers received send a clear message to Ofsted and the government about the direction reform must take, to ensure the reformed school inspection system will be truly safe and fit for purpose.”

Your view really does matter, so have your say.

Findings from The Alternative Big Listen will be published in full later in the year.

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