Watching the watchmen: Is Ofsted fit for purpose?

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You may remember a blog I posted back in December: Get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons written after being invited to chat to Jonathan Simons and Harriet Waldegrave, the authors of Policy Exchange’s new report on Ofsted’s fitness for purpose: Who Watches the Watchmen?

Well, today the report finally sees the light of day. It asks some big questions, and makes some bold recommendations on the future of school inspections, concluding that although we need an independent inspectorate, “significant changes ought to be made to the way in which Ofsted conducts school inspections to make it as effective as it should be and that it needs to be”. To this end, it makes the following headline recommendations:

  1. The “total abolition of routine lesson observations” by Ofsted in the course of their inspections
  2. The abolition (or at least drastic reduction) of Additional Inspectors for future school inspections
  3. A 2 step model of school inspections that would, in the first instance be data driven and only involve a single inspector for a single day
  4. Schools will only be rated as ‘outstanding’ if they are engaged in some form of “serious and meaningful” school to school improvement.

Although getting rid of lesson observations and (possibly) AIs are the most dramatic of the recommendations, the real meat of the report is in the proposed ’2 Step’ inspection model.

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The first stage would be a 2 yearly cycle involving an initial off-site analysis of progress and attainment data followed by a  one 1 day inspection by a single inspector whose role would be to act as a validator not as an assessor. This could involve testing a leadership team’s understanding of the data and interrogating their assumptions, and might include “walking around the school at key intervals to observe behaviour and safety” but there would categorically not be any form of assessed lesson observation. The report does make the point that “Inspectors would still be able to drop into lessons and watch teachers to help validate any of their judgements, and to get a feel of the school” but their role is be a validator of the headteacher’s judgment, not as an assessor themselves, or as the report puts it, to act “as a hygiene inspector not a food critic”. Quality of teaching would be judged by challenging the head’s judgements of her own staff. On this basis the inspector will determine if the school presents a ‘risk’.

If a school presents no risk (Currently 80% of schools are considered at least Good.) that would be the end of the process. Grades would still be given on a four point scale as now, but the current separate judgements on attainment, teaching, leadership and behaviour would be subsumed into an overall grade of effectiveness and second grade on the school’s ‘capability’ resulting in Good/Good, Good/Outstanding and so on, and a short report would then be published. If a school is to judged as Outstanding then it must be seen to participating in school to school improvement. Simply allowing Ofsted to mandate how this should be done in practise is highly problematic; a school must have discretion and, “be able to consider the demand in its local area, and the school’s own capacity to support other schools.” The idea being that such a requirement would systematise this model of school improvement.

However, if either the data, the inspector’s ‘health check’ or any of a range of ‘failure triggers’ exposes a risk, the school would be graded as Requiring Improvement or Inadequate and would result in a new ‘tailored inspection’. The proposal is that these tailored inspections take longer and involve more inspectors than current Section 5 inspections. The lead inspector and as many of the inspection team as possible would be HMIs and be matched by phases and subject specialism. Interestingly, the report allows scope for a new, ‘more reliable’ form of lesson observation to be used during tailored inspections with the caveat that inspectors receive specialised training to allow them to conduct these inspections.

So, what do I think of all this?

Obviously abolishing of lesson observations would be cause for serious celebration and the report goes much further than I expected when interviewed early on in the process. Basically, this is everything that I’ve campaigned for over the past year or so. But away from the headlines, all may not be so merry. Buried on Page 54 we’re told inspection teams “would be trained to a high level, to allow them to carry out limited lesson observations, where necessary, to probe Quality of Teaching” in longer ‘tailored inspections’. This seems a bit of bit of fudge and makes little sense if we accept the proposition that observing individual lessons (as the report appears to accept) tells us very little about the quality of teaching in a school. Conceivably, this might turn out to be a retrograde step as the schools who are most likely to experience these inspections are precisely the schools where teachers have been most browbeaten into accepting dogma on how lessons should be taught.

But possibly the most explosive and seismic change is that the proposed 2 step inspection process paves the way for a drastic pruning of Additional Inspectors. Rightly or not, teachers place far more confidence in HMIs and ‘rogue’ inspectors seem to be drawn exclusively from the ranks of AIs. Currently we have only 141 HMIs employed to inspect schools compared to a bank of 3000 AIs. Most Additional Inspectors work on a part time basis and often spend their down time consulting in schools on ‘what Ofsted want’, perpetuating many of the myths which Wilshaw et al have tried to dispel. The fact that the training of AIs has already been brought back in-house speaks volumes, but the current system is definitely overly reliant on inspectors who seem to have no real loyalty or accountability to the organisation or its leadership. You’d have to think that Wilshaw would be grateful to any proposal that might allow him to have an inspectorate that actually does what he tells it. Of course there are very many excellent AIs and one negative result from this could be that fewer serving head teachers have the opportunity to take part in inspections.

Overall though, I’m in favour of bringing the best AIs in from the cold. The report makes it clear that all inspectors need careful training to ensure they can analyse and interpret data in a nuanced and meaningful way: this is too important to leave to chance. Currently there are serious concerns about the way Ofsted are assessing the gap between Pupil Premium and non Pupil Premium pupils with schools being told they require improvement if this gap is considered to great. This is an utterly ridiculous bit of thoughtlessness which incentivises schools to lower attainment if they want to boost their chances of getting a higher grade.

But maybe the report have gone further. One missed opportunity may be the retention of the four point judgement. Various people have argued that Ofsted should merely judge whether schools are ‘good enough’ or ‘not good enough’. The Outstanding badge often seems to  exist merely to provide perverse incentives to do things that perhaps do not matter. I spent yesterday musing on whether the outstanding grade is a force for good or evil, asking What if there was no outstanding? The jury’s still out. But the real question is why should an inspectorate dictate what excellence looks like? As long as Ofsted tell us what is and isn’t outstanding we’ll never really be free of the pestilence of ‘food critics’ keen to impose their taste on us.

One of the elements of the report that I feel most pleased with (and proud of) is the recommendation tucked away on Page 60: “Ofsted should be exercise more caution in publications which seem to endorse certain teaching methods.” Damn right! If you missed it, here’s my critique of Ofsted’s latest advice for English departments.

Overall, this report is to be welcomed – most of it is solidly sensible and, if adopted, the proposals have the power to make the life of ordinary teachers a damn sight easier. It’ll be splashed over the press for a day or two and will flop onto the desk of Gove, Hunt et al – let’s hope that it’s taken seriously.

But what if it’s not? Well, we will continue to watch the watchmen. One thing that this report has made really clear is that blogs and bloggers can make a difference. Watch this space…

Related posts

Joe Kirby’s take: We, the teachers, must hold OFSTED’s feet to the fire

Stuart Lock’s analysis: The Policy Exchange Report on OFSTED

14 Responses to Watching the watchmen: Is Ofsted fit for purpose?

  1. johnpearce1 says:

    Good stuff again David. Looking forward to reading the report. (A bit worried about a bash Ofsted backlash by some who have use same methodology) A band of ex heads, inspectors, long standing advisers who call ourselves “school improvers” have been arguing for validated self-evaluation for years and years… Many dead, more retired hurt, a few, like me still kicking against the slings and arrows (yes I’m ex Emglish teacher too) This is another milestone and we (the profession – that’s all with a meaningful role incl all labels ) ought to at least try and work together – interdependently on this.

  2. Michael Tidd says:

    I’ve only read the introduction, but my understanding is that a tailored inspection doesn’t only apply to RI/SM schools, but could just be an indication that further enquiry is needed: a tailored inspection could still less to an Outstanding grade outcome.
    If my reading is correct then is important that this difference be made clear to parents and others, least schools’ reputations be tarnished unnecessarily.

  3. johnpearce1 says:

    If I allow you a “less” instead of “fewer” will you allow me my 3 spelling mistakes?.. Would love a proper face to face meet on all this instead of these late night limited wordplays…

  4. Great job for the summary David.

    Digging into the PE report a bit more

    I know some might suggest that the number of Ofsted categories could be adjusted, but if the current grades are kept what did everyone think of Policy Exchange’s suggestion that a school should only be graded outstanding if it “is engaged in some form of beyond its own gate e.g. school to school improvement”? (Page 10)

    Also if a new “short inspection” were introduced that was “heavily data driven” as suggest in the report what data would be used? If it is primarily a variety of test or teacher assessment measures would that data be up to date by the time Ofsted look at it? And would it only be at one point in the year? So would it be an accurate reflection of the school, or a reflection of what the school was like in the past?

  5. “””However, if either the data, the inspector’s ‘health check’ or any of a range of ‘failure triggers’ exposes a risk, the school would be graded as Requiring Improvement or Inadequate and would result in a new ‘tailored inspection’.””” ….just need to be very careful here. We have had some really dreadful examples of overzealous inspectors in the early years sector literally (with real examples, not hearsay) finding a tiny paperwork fault that was not material and grading as inadequate. Meaning a massive focus on perfect paperwork instead of outstanding practice. There needs to be proportionality to what is considered material and what is minor human error. Although it has not happened to me, close colleagues have had it happen (downgraded from Good with outstanding features to inadequate) and there but for the grace of God, surely anyone, if they look long and hard enough, can be downgraded with this approach. I for one (despite being an multiple Outstanding provider) don’t think Ofsted have the skills to be consistent with inspection outcomes and should therefore get rid of outcomes and instead just have a very high “compliance” bar which you either hit or don’t.

  6. Debaser says:

    ‘Quality of teaching would be judged by challenging the head’s judgements of her own staff.’

    Would this involve looking at results and internal SLT observations and then looking for some sort of secure correlation between the two?

    If so, I suppose SLT will continue to use some sort of graded observation system in order to quantify their ‘judgements’ of staff.

    • David Didau says:

      I suppose some SLT will continue to rely on something so thoroughly debunked as grade lesson observations, but if I were a teacher put on capability for this reason, I would be seeking legal advice.

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  9. […] support other schools. I think no: the 4 point grading system already has a warping effect and, as Policy Exchange’s report suggested, The outstanding grade should require evidence of outreach […]

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