I think it is time for a very significant review of the role of Ofsted, the nature of inspection and the whole accountability machinery for schools in England. I have a lot of time and respect for Amanda Spielman and I’m writing this hoping she will read it at some point. I’m sure that much of what follows is easier said than done, but I would like to suggest that we should be exploring Ofsted reform at a much more radical level than the current reform process would suggest is on the table.
I am encouraged by the debate about deeper reform that seems to be starting to gather some traction. Here are some examples:
- An excellent article by ASCL’s inspection expert Stephen Rollett : It could be time for Ofsted to stop passing judgement
- Rebecca Allen’s recent speech about education reform and trusting teachers.
- Stephen Tierney’s August post: Time to seriously question Ofsted.
- I recently re-read my 2013 post Accountability We Can Trust – written way before my personal experience of being crushed by the machine. It is still largely true even if graded lessons have officially ceased to feature in inspections.
Essentially my argument is this:
Ofsted inspections and DFE performance measures are not sufficiently reliable to justify the weight that is placed on the judgements that are made given that a) educational outcomes are not rising within the system b) schools are driven towards perverse short-term behaviours around curriculum and c) there are unacceptable and disproportionately damaging consequences from negative judgements for schools and individuals.
If it were the case that, as a direct result of our current inspection regime and performance culture, we had a world leading education system and teaching was booming as a graduate profession of choice, it would be possible to make a case for keeping it as it is. However, that isn’t where we are. In fact my contention is that the current regime is making things worse, not better. It’s like an enzyme or catalyst that’s been heated beyond its optimum temperature: things are starting to break up instead of working better.
I don’t want to dwell on this too much but it has to be restated that the negative consequences for poor judgements are massive. Read Louise Tickle’s recent article about Headteachers being ‘sacked and gagged’ in the Guardian. This is the reality of our system. Good people are spat out by the accountability machine in way that is completely disproportionate. As I’ve said before, it’s pretty f**ked up that our system does this to people – for no net gain. How long is the line of people queuing up to become Headteachers? Oh wait…. there’s no queue? Oh! And, for me, the thing that makes me the most angry about Ofsted is that there is no official acknowledgement of their role in creating these conditions.
An aspect of the accountability culture is that school leaders are driven to make curriculum decisions that are not supported by sound educational principles. Headteachers have a gun to their head on outcomes and a gun to their stomach on curriculum breadth. Rock vs Hard Place. Progress 8 is the latest incarnation of data delusion to infect our system and this is one of the major forces driving schools towards a three-year KS4 with very narrow options models. Nobody anywhere has decided to do that on principle – in government or in schools. It’s simply an outcome of accountability pressure. I’ve discussed P8 endlessly elsewhere. It’s a zero-sum arbitrary measure built on an unreliable incomplete KS2 baseline and GCSE outcomes that themselves have a virtual zero-sum foundation: 30% of students must ‘fail’ and, given the grade-inflation freeze, any improvement in school A over here must be matched by a decline in school B over there.
Progress 8 might be a useful technical data aggregation tool to provide leaders with information for evaluating progress across a school but it has no business serving as the main outcome measure at a national level. It simply isn’t robust enough. A 0.2 school is not inherently better than a -0.1 school. There are too many variables. But go shout at the hills. Nobody is listening; even Lead Inspectors do not understand it. Protest = excuse-making (and you’d be wasting your time making an official complaint.)
And then there’s the reliability question. It’s still the case that no secondary school inspection processes have been subjected to any form of reliability trial. Incredible really. Daniel Muijs’ appointment is good news but boy does he have his work cut out. I would argue that every single element is massively flawed. Interviews with leaders, lesson observations, book scrutinies – the whole lot. An Ofsted grade is essentially a giant subjective punt informed by layer upon layer of bias and selective interpretation of data which, in itself, is hugely complex, flawed and variable. I have heard so many tales of the horse-trading that goes on as inspection teams try to navigate their way through the framework to reach a plausible sounding final outcome. Good with Outstanding Features. On the cusp of Good and RI. Borderline Inadequate. The top end of Good. A secure Outstanding. It’s nonsense — isn’t it?
I have made this case repeatedly: it takes leaders, governors and school improvement professionals weeks and months to fully understand the detail of the quality issues in a school. If you look at how many lines of enquiry are embedded in the inspection framework – safeguarding, SEND, top-end challenge, pupil premium, curriculum, behaviour, leadership, teaching, assessment, performance management, numerous other compliance issues – it is simply utterly, utterly preposterous that this can all be meaningfully, accurately and reliably evaluated in a one or two day visit by a couple of inspectors running around like blue-arsed flies. (Which is how it feels to them – so I’ve heard.) “Oh, you can tell by lunchtime whether or not it’s a good school.”. Really? REALLY??
The argument is often made that parents like the grades and that they need good, simple and reliable information about their child’s school. But they are not getting that. There will be ‘Outstanding’ schools all over the country that are ‘worse’ than schools that are ‘Good’. There are RI schools that are better than some Good Schools. It will just be that different teams made different subjective judgements, snatched from all their rushed meetings, lesson fly-throughs and book grazings on different days and the various randomnesses in their minds on those days fell in a certain pattern.
- School A: P8 = 0.65 Good.
- School B. P8 = -0.11 Outstanding
- School C P8 = 0.44 Outstanding
- School D P8 = -0.33 RI.
All of this is delusional misinformation. All of this has to go. The appalling cult of Outstanding that has grown in the country is simply ludicrous. I know heads who have had massive mental health issues simply around whether their school falls on the right side of the Good/Outstanding divide -because they perceive the stakes to be so high. The competitive rat-race behaviours around school badging and promotion are ugly -disgraceful at times. I once had an email from a Head who had ‘Leadership Ofsted Rated Outstanding’ in her email sign-off. Nauseating. The next year, her results dropped 20%. Awkward.What kind of system creates that culture? Not a healthy one.
So, what’s the alternative?
I’ve got some extremely radical suggestions but, for now, I just want to suggest changes that are plausible and justifiable within our current system:
First of all, follow the Heads’ Roundtable/Stephen Tierney idea of taking safeguarding out of the standards inspections and do them separately. It’s too important and should be done annually by specialists.
Remove all the grades. They are simply too unreliable to sustain.
Abolish Progress 8 as a performance measure and relegate it to the place it belongs as a school management tool. It’s too flawed as it stands.
Publish an annual data report that does not contain any false comparisons or made-up algorithmic constructs. Attainment data by subjects, multiple benchmarks, prior attainment data presented in profiles, not averages – detail over simplicity; truth over falsehood.
Publish inspection reports informed by multiple visits including at least one person who has known a school over time. Reports should focus on key strengths and key areas for improvement written in a language that conveys the strengths and weaknesses in an honest and meaningful manner, including the appropriate degree of complexity where patterns are unclear. This could include suggested timeframes for improvement in certain areas where the issues are significant.
Create a separate process for schools showing chronic weaknesses. This should include a period of purdah to allow for rapid responses to significant areas of concern prior to reports being published. Schools need to have the opportunity to make radical changes in response to issues without being exposed to public scrutiny. I envisage something like a three-month rapid response window – not longer, as this would be counterproductive in terms of impact.
My view is that these changes would not be any softer or less rigorous. But they would be more humane, more accurate and more sustainable. And if that is true, or even close to being true, surely they should be given serious consideration. The question is whether the people with the power to make the change have too much invested in justifying the current system to allow themselves to contemplate reversing years of policy. It’s got to be worth a look though hasn’t it?