Labour Is Right To Scrap Ofsted, But This Is The Only Way It Will Work

Putting inspections into the hands of communities will be far more effective than an inspector swooping in every few years, New Local Government Network director Adam Lent writes.
Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn
PA Media

What is the point of Ofsted? The standard line is that it’s there to make sure schools and colleges offer the very best education to the communities they serve. Ask a teacher who’s faced an agonised Monday-morning scramble to match up to their scrutiny, and you might get a less diplomatic response.

Now, the Labour Party is echoing decades-long calls from the National Teachers’ Union in its pledge to scrap Ofsted, citing its negative impact on teacher stress-levels, and the proven disadvantage it gives when grading schools from deprived areas.

Labour plans to replace Ofsted with regional teams from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate, alongside more regular “health checks” by local authorities. On a broad level, this makes sense. After all, local authorities are far more likely to know what they want from a public service than a government agency based in Central London. Equally, they are better able to assess a service in line with local needs compared to a body applying a set of universal criteria to thousands of schools, hospitals and care homes.

But reforms will not work if they simply empower local government, shifting from a national to a local bureaucracy. What’s missing from Labour’s proposal is the input of the community: people, who live, work, teach, go to school and send their kids to schools in their area, and who are therefore sensitive to the challenges, demographics, opportunities and outcomes around them. These people are far more equipped to assess education than inspectors swooping in and out every few years. Furthermore, they have a greater investment in improving things.

Many public sector bodies are discovering that empowering communities is the key to success. In unleashing the hidden skills, assets and drive in our communities we can begin to unpick what policy types call “wicked issues” – things that are difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements. And the inequalities in our education system are some of the wickedest issues around.

What might such an approach look like in practice? School panels might be made up of local people who would work collectively to set their inspection criteria and develop their plans. Most importantly, they would be tasked with ongoing improvement, not just one-off inspections. Improving public services would therefore be a team effort – recognising the influence of the community on the children who attend their schools and the power they have to affect positive change.

And why stop at Ofsted school inspections? More recently our report on children’s services called for Ofsted to be replaced by community inspectors for children’s services too. In healthcare, Healthwatch is doing excellent work gathering local views of what’s working and helping to shape services accordingly. Panels could inspect all public services in an area at once – and therefore grow attune to overlapping issues and complementary innovations in healthcare, policing, social care, and so on.

Of course, there are objections to Labour’s plans. The most telling challenge is the fear of the potential loss of independence for inspectors. Could a community-led inspectorate be co-opted by the local public sector whose leaders they may know well? This is indeed a risk and one that would need to be controlled for. One of the best ways of doing that is to ensure that such bodies are genuinely led by members of the public, as they are less likely to have direct relationships to public sector leaders than professional public servants. The other is to ensure that local inspectorates maintain an open, participative approach to the decisions they make.

There is also an argument that “ordinary” people lack the motivation and the expertise to take on such an important role. But extensive anecdotal and research evidence shows that when people are given real influence, they are extremely keen to engage in efforts to improve their areas. Inspection teams themselves would, of necessity, include specialist professionals working alongside members of the public. But the important point is that it is the local community - not a distant band of specialists - who set the strategy and goals of any such body.

Ofsted is emblematic of that awkward and increasingly dysfunctional marriage of top-down target-setting and league-tables that was cooked up in the 1990s and which still rules today, as much by inertia as design. But as both state and market models of public services prove unfit to meet the challenge of rising demand, growing numbers of public servants are looking to “communitisation” as a more effective solution. Once national politicians catch up with this frontline trend, it seems inevitable that all inspectorates will be rethought, and real power put in the hands of the public for whom these services were built.

Adam Lent is director at the New Local Government Network


What's Hot