How can school inspection get what it wants?

I read a great piece by Dr Becky Allen in Schools Week this morning on inherent unreliability of school inspections. In it she makes the point that human beings are incapable of making reliable, high stakes judgements due to our adaptive reliance on heuristics and our inability to adequately introspect about our biases  and preferences. But despite the dangers, she says, “This is not to say that school inspection should not have a role in our system. It is possible that the threat of inspection, day-in-day-out, leads to better practice in schools that outweighs the obvious dysfunctional behaviours it creates.”

I think this is right. Human beings need to feel they are accountable if they are to be their best. In some cases this is straight forward: I am accountable to the readers of this blog. If I started turning out low quality posts, I would, I’m sure, rapidly lose readers. If I started churning out advertorials or paid for posts by third parties I would quickly lose all credibility. With schools, accountability is trickier to manage.

The first step might be to decide what school inspection is supposed to achieve. Are we trying to identify schools where students are routinely failed? Are we trying to help schools improve? Are we trying to reward schools who are going above and beyond minimum requirements? Are we checking to see how public money is being spent? Are we trying to identify and spread ‘best practice’? Are we trying to produce a ‘good schools guide’ for parents? Part of the problem is that at the moment we are trying to do all of these things and so, perhaps, we run the risk of doing none of them well. It’s ridiculously easy to create perverse incentives that encourage schools to look good rather than genuinely focus on something more substantial like making every single student cleverer.

I would suggest that we pick a single purpose and try to get good at doing that. The first thing to remember is that while we might value all sorts of things, few of the things we value can be measured with any degree of reliability. Flawed as it is, exam performance provides the best bet for establishing how well students are doing and exam performance can only hope to measure a narrow range of skills. This means we have to give up on holding schools to account on measures like ‘character’ or ‘creativity’. There’s a lot wrong with the way Progress 8, for instance, is calculated but that doesn’t mean we cannot correct some of the grosser errors whereby progress is averaged and establish a metric we all agree is good enough.

The next step would be to remove the pseudo certainty of grades. If inspectors believe they can reliably determine where a school fits on a 4 point scale in a two-day inspection then they are deluded. Even moving to a two-point scale of ‘good enough’ and ‘not good enough’ carries too great a risk of being wrongly applied to be adopted. All that can be done is report what may be genuine concerns and for these to be monitored and not published. As soon as inspector’s flawed and biased judgements are published they become true. Instead, schools should be put on notice that a second, more detailed inspection will be undertaken after, say, a year to put things right. The risk of allowing schools to founder for an additional year is vastly outweighed by the certainty of publishing wrong judgements which ruin careers and blight children’s life chances.

For accountability to be effective, two broad principles need to be observed. Firstly, the views of the observer must not be known in advance, and secondly, those being held to account must trust that the observer is well-informed and interested in accuracy. Only then will we create a climate in which schools are free to focus on doing what is most likely to help children get cleverer instead of trying to find ways to game the system because they know inspectors are looking for the wrong things.

Over to you.

12 Responses to How can school inspection get what it wants?

  1. James Glasse says:

    ·A solution would be to make OFSTED and the independent schools’ inspectorate services more accountable for their decisions. This would ensure that the school inspection regime is made to be a part of the solution and actively assist in implementing change in failing schools rather than just pointing out a school’s shortcomings and walking away from the problem as at present.

  2. Tom Burkard says:

    Our report recommending that Ofsted’s remit be limited to governance and finance has just been published by Parliament Street: http://parliamentstreet.org/research/2017/free-schools-free-society/

    We’ve quoted you on ‘making kids cleverer’–perhaps one of your most interesting posts last year.

  3. How about instead of being accountable for performing/showing off to Ofsted at the drop of a hat, we are instead made more accountable to and with parents? When my children were at primary school, I had absolutely no idea whether they were actually working at age related expectations, save for the fact that I knew they were academic and seemed to be ahead of friends. Reports? All about woolly progress and happiness and not about clear cut test results or any kind of quantitative data whatsoever. At the end of the day, I send my children to school to be taught how to read, write, add up; yearly reporting of official test results from the school to parents might make everyone, teachers and parents alike, up their game in terms of educating children. Surely this is much better than running ourselves into the ground making worksheets with handdrawn cartoons and drying to graft fun activities onto every lesson design just in case Ofsted show up expecting prog philosophy and mega-marking.

    • David Didau says:

      Schools are accountable to parents already but most parents don’t agree on what they want. There’s an extent to which Ofsted reflect the desires of parents – certainly that’s a big part of the justification for the way the scores schools and structure their reports.

      • But look at the questions parents are asked via parentview: overwhelming bias towards social and emotional concerns which are going to attract views of parents not overly concerned with academic side of school life.

  4. Michael Pye says:

    How would accountability to parents look?
    It certainly won’t abide by Davids suggestions

    “Firstly, the views of the observer must not be known in advance, and secondly, those being held to account must trust that the observer is well-informed and interested in accuracy”

  5. Andy McHugh says:

    For too long schools have been able to game the system to hide what they are really like. Like you said, Ofsted need to clearly identify what they are there for: to make schools better (in which case offer ongoing support rather than snap judgements every once in a while) or to assess summatively what schools do well or badly (in which case stop pretending you are there to ‘help’ schools). The lack of clarity just on this issue (never mind the others) causes bad, or at best, inconsistent decisions to be made by inspectors and school leaders alike.

  6. Joe Mulvey says:

    I think the real weakness is the one-person, one-shot nature of the process. How do we genuinely come to believe that a school is good? It’s usually a consensus built up from the whole range of evidence: the results, the inspections, the kids look happy, teachers are motivated, parents say it’s great etc. Furthermore, this consensus is usually built up over time. It takes ages for a school to shake off a bad reputation and, conversely, there are many schools out there trading on past glories. So, how could inspection fit into this better? (1) By being incremental: smaller, more frequent inspections so that there is no high-stakes gamble involved in having the inspectors in. Except in cases of egregious malpractice, no single inspection could make or break a school. (2) Having more diverse and targeted inspections, eg focussing on specific subject areas or aspects of school life such as pastoral care. That way, the inspection process would (over time) build up a much more nuanced and detailed picture of the strengths and weaknesses of the school. Revisions would be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The obvious problem is that this approach is probably more labour intensive than currently.

    • Michael pye says:

      I am going to make a few assumptions here and my idea is an extension of Joes. Moving from many inspections to permanent oversight.

      Ofstead is interested in outcomes and uses data to assess this (ignore the accuracy of that data for a moment). That data is generated automatically and sent to be analysed. (Assumption – this is the biggest predictor of an ofstead grade). Why not report that immediately back to schools (or local area if logistacilly necessary) flagging concerns immediately and asking for additional info.

      You could have local ofstead liasons in schools (they should also have supportive roles and teaching loads in other schools) these inspectors could even be rotated around to prevent biases and allow a more accurate perspective. It would also tie them to the process more explicitly and allow them to be both accountible and motivated to work with schools.

      These inspectors could be flawed but at least both school management and unions would be able to develop a relationship with them. Eccentric inspectors would also leave a very distinctive signiture when compared to their peers.

      I believe most issues with ofstead at the moment are driven by the personal biases and opinions of individual inspectors. (And they often used to be teachers). This method could potentially hold them to account for imposing personal paedegogies.

      Overarching themed inspections (like Joe said) could be carried out among groups of schools to share ideas and practice (but remember the inspectors themselves will be rotated and tasked with driving improvements).

      Advanced practicers would be the logical group to recruit most of these inspectors from allowing a different progression route to management. Most importantly ofstead would be tasked with resolving as well as identifying problems at the inspector level.

      Hopefully we would have a constant low stake oversight and avoided the damaging stress and knee jerk reactions of the current approach.

      I am assuming a more independent proffession then what we currently have. Specifically one designed to mitigate the vissitudes of governments. (Of whatever leaning)

      It is not a fully formed idea and I can see some obvious pitfalls but what do people think?

  7. jameswilding says:

    I am currently involved in working with independent schools, ensuring they comply with Regulatory requirements. Almost no view on teaching and learning is given. Fundamental judgements are around school being safe, secure and well ordered. That’s a good thing btw.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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