Inspecting the inspectors: students assess Ofsted regime’s toll on wellbeing

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

What do young people think about Ofsted? Astonishingly, perhaps, 30 years after the school inspection service was established, that question is rarely asked. But a group of sixth-formers in east London have been inspecting the inspectors, prompted by studies suggesting the education system is one of the most common causes of stress and anxiety in their generation.

They have spent the last three years interviewing pupils, teachers and former Ofsted inspectors, and say their findings were a “revelation”. They have now made a film, Breaking the Silence, released online, and they are finalising details of an alternative inspection regime that they say would hold schools to account more effectively and be better for young people’s wellbeing.

“When I first looked into this, I was quite angry about how it affected me,” said one of the student researchers, Joel Neelamkavil. “The narrative about mental health is too often about social media and not enough about the impact of league tables and Ofsted, which forces young people to fit into very narrow definitions of success.

“The more we investigated, the more we realised that the pressure of league tables and Ofsted creates anxiety and stress for pupils and teachers and makes the whole environment tense. No one likes being judged. We also found that pupils and teachers felt they behaved differently when Ofsted was in the school, so their findings may not even be accurate.”

The project, which involved about 150 young people and 80 teachers, heads and former inspectors, arose from research carried out by States of Mind, an advocacy campaign that seeks to understand the causes of poor mental health in young people and provide new ways of helping them. Evidence kept pointing to the impact of the education system.

The campaign group helped the young people, all from sixth-forms in the London borough of Newham, to set up surveys and focus groups. A recurring response was that young people felt the inspection framework did not include enough opportunities for them to talk about their wellbeing and mental health.

The alternative proposals are radically different. They include an end to two-day inspections, which the researchers say do not give time to adequately capture the student voice, and no more grading of schools, which former Ofsted inspectors told them led to “game-playing”.

They are calling for a model in which schools work in clusters, evaluate each other and rely more heavily on surveys and focus groups about mental health and wellbeing, pupil-teacher relationships and life skills.

The most recent consultation on the Ofsted framework was in 2019. It sought views from the public and those “working in sectors affected by the proposals”, but did not specify pupils, and of the 15,000 respondents only 34 were categorised as “learners”.

After the first phase of the research project, which coincided with the consultation, the sixth-formers wrote a detailed account of their findings and offered to meet the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman. Among the concerns they raised were the focus on cramming and memorisation at the expense of deep learning, and the effect of academic pressure on the self-esteem of children who do not meet expected grades.

The students called on Ofsted to take a broader view of what is considered success. “Being human and being part of society involves more than being a number on a piece of paper. You need manners, sympathy, empathy and honesty,” they wrote.

Spielman did not take up the opportunity to meet them, but in a written response the deputy director of schools, Matthew Purves, said the latest Ofsted framework was designed to increase the focus on a broader curriculum and opportunities to develop resilience, confidence, and physical and mental health.

Gabriel Pineda Perez, 17, another of the student researchers, said: “The intentions about wellbeing and personal development may be good but the execution is not right. Inspections are still focused disproportionately on academic achievement in certain subjects.”

He said very few of the pupils interviewed were aware that inspections were required to include pupil surveys. Few reported that they had been given the chance to share their views with inspectors, even though more than 90% of young people surveyed said “student voice” was important or very important.

“I didn’t know about the survey or that student voice was part of the framework,” said Pineda Perez, an A-level student at the London Academy of Excellence who has been offered a place at Oxford. “None of us felt we had the opportunity to contribute to inspections and the consensus was that Ofsted doesn’t listen to students, and that does show.”

Dr Chris Bagley, a psychologist at UCL and a director of States of Mind, said he believed there was a longstanding culture of either not canvassing or ignoring young people’s views. “In a sense what we have been doing with this project is giving the young people time and space to explore and challenge an issue in a very different environment from the way that schools work,” he said. “They get a deeper understanding and time to reflect on how schools should be evaluated – precisely the sort of opportunities they feel are lacking in the current education system.”

A spokesperson for Ofsted said the inspectorate did not routinely survey pupil opinion about itself, but that inspectors spoke to pupils on visits to schools. The latest Ofsted strategy development included roundtables with young people.

“The best way schools can have a positive impact on pupils’ mental health is by providing a good quality education, supported by strong pastoral support and the sense of community that comes from attending school. Inspectors spend a significant time looking at how well schools are supporting their pupils, and personal development is a key judgment our inspection framework,” she said.

The young people are still hopeful that Spielman will agree to meet them, and they have launched their own public survey to try to get some of their ideas incorporated in future inspections.

Neelamkavil, 18, who has just finished A-levels at School 21 in Newham and is hoping to go to University College London, said: “I would say to her that the inspection framework has an impact on us all the time, not just when we have an inspection, because of the pressure it puts on teachers. It would be better if Ofsted looked at ways to improve rather than critique schools.”

Pineda Perez, said Ofsted should not fear the views of young people. “Education is about the enrichment of young people, so listen to us, and don’t fear losing control. There is value in what we are bringing to you; there are no losers in this situation.”

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