Watching the watchmen: Is Ofsted fit for purpose?
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:
- The “total abolition of routine lesson observations” by Ofsted in the course of their inspections
- The abolition (or at least drastic reduction) of Additional Inspectors for future school inspections
- 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
- 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.
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…
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