When Labour’s Angela Rayner announced she would scrap Ofsted, I was surprised she was met with such widespread opposition. I mean, I expected some dissenting voices but, from what I saw on the Twiittersphere (and beyond), the idea of scrapping Ofsted wasn’t just dismissed by those from an opposing political camp but by educationalists from across the gamut of the political spectrum.
Now, given the almost universal dislike of Ofsted among teachers, this puzzled me. Why would the idea of disbanding a regulatory body so reviled by so many, fill so many of the same many with such concern? And that’s when it came to me – Ofsted has been holding our schools hostage so long they now have Stockholm syndrome. Ofsted has so long been a monolith on the educational landscape that many of us can’t now envisage the horizon without it.
But admittedly we need some kind of body to check standards in schools. So are there really any credible alternatives to an Ofsted style inspection regime?
Here I would argue yes. Although many people might be genuinely horrified at the prospect of disbanding Ofsted; for me simple deductive reasoning tells me it’s a good idea. I assume no one could be so hubristic to think that Britain is the only country in the world with a high-performing education system? But it is the only country with Ofsted. Therefore, Ofsted is surely a non sequitur in terms of creating educational excellence – QED.
But It we do need some sort of body for checking educational standards then what should replace Ofsted?
Here I might site two examples, both from countries where I’ve worked as a secondary school teacher in the state sector, Ireland and New Zealand.
Both these counties have what I would regard as very good education systems – that is; they have very high rates of literacy and numeracy, very high levels of participation in tertiary education and highly skilled and ‘knowledge-rich’ work forces. And, should this not be enough to prove their credentials, I also offer their Pisa rankings – both consistently rank above the U.K. (I mention Pisa tables here not without a large degree of skepticism. I am no great fan of either national or international comparison tables, but as Pisa seems to be the only ‘educational fact’ some quarters will listen to these days, here I will happily serve my turn upon it).
New Zealand’s body for assessing standards is called the Educational Review Office (ERO). It inspects schools every three years, ensuring they are carrying out all legally required safe-guarding and have all correct documentation. It also inspects standards of education, but does so quite differently from Ofsted. Firstly, it is much less focused on exam data. Secondly, it agrees with the school in advance the areas on which to focus and then works with the school to help develop these capacities. In the words of the academic Ursula Edington: “Research has asserted ERO reports are distinct from their Ofsted equivalents, because they are subject to numerous conversations between institutional representatives before being formally ‘agreed’ and subsequently published. This illustrates how… in these situations a space is available for professional dialogue which may explore the contexts of these learning centres.” The ERO does have power to mandate particular courses of actions for centres which are deemed to be causing concern, and to step in if these are not met or if serious safeguarding issues are found. However this ‘taking over’ of schools happens much less frequently than under the Ofsted model.
In Ireland, schools are inspected but the Department of Education and Skills (DES). The DES then produces a Whole School Evaluation (WSE) and, for secondary schools, a subject specific report for each subject taught. Subject inspections reports are not carried out at the same time as a WSE, nor all at the same time as each other, and are run by separate ‘arm’ of the DES compromised of subject specialists. The reports are short (about four to six pages of findings) and focus on as aspects such as child safety, the quality of teaching, learning and management and child well-being. These areas are ‘graded’ (using ‘very good’, ‘good’, ‘satisfactory’, ‘fair’ and ‘weak’ – notice there is no ‘outstanding’ or ‘requires improvement’) but schools are not given an overall summative ‘grade’. Recommendations are made, but are very brief (a few bullet points). Exam data is not considered or inspected (there are no published ‘league tables’ in Ireland). Again, the DES does have power to mandate particular courses of actions for centres which are deemed to be causing concern, or if serious safeguarding issues are found, but again this ‘taking over’ of schools happens much less frequently than under the Ofsted model.
Although both these models might sound similar to Ofsted, there are some fundamental differences to note. Firstly, the inspections are much more collegiate. Inspection teams work with the schools (not against them, as if often the case in the Ofsted model). The starting point is not that a school is almost certainly doing something bad and must be caught, but that a school is an institution run by trained professionals who want the best for students; the role of the inspection team is to work with the school to identify areas to help the school improve. And, in the Irish context, unless it is a safeguarding inspection single subject areas are inspected rather than the whole school.
Secondly, schools are not given one overall ‘blanket grade’. This is important because another big problem with the Ofsted model is that a school’s grading is so important – people’s jobs literally depend on them, as does a school’s ability to market itself and attract applicants. And immense importance creates immense pressures; pressures which (and with a great irony) have driven multiple unforeseen and deleterious short-termist practices in British schools – things such as reductive curriculum narrowing, exam ‘gaming’, off-rolling and a shortage of quality school leaders. (It’s worth noting that exam ‘gaming’ and off-rolling are almost non-existent in either Ireland or New Zealand, as are the ‘Premiere League’ style sacking of head teachers. And, from my experience, school curriculum in both countries also seem impressively broad, although I couldn’t say this definitively).
And this leads to perhaps the biggest difference between Irish and New Zealand inspection regimes and the Ofsted model: they are coming from fundamentally different ideological positions.
In both Ireland and New Zealand, the responsibility of education children is left primarily to the schools. Standards bodies are literally that; bodies to a) check schools are meeting an agreed set of professional and safeguarding standards and then b) offer advice for further development. They are not hugely invested in driving pedagogical change – pedagogy is left to the teaching professionals and the government largely takes a back seat. However, the Ofsted model is different. In Britain, educational spending is seen much more as capital investment – your educational spending today is your economy of tomorrow. And it’s not to say that either the Irish or New Zealand governments don’t subscribe to this view on some, or even on many, level(s). But the British government is much, much more hung-up on being satisfied that its educational investment is being satisfactorily returned. Thus, Ofsted is much less about checking standards and much more about the government having a ‘soft’ lever by which it can move educational pedagogy on a national level. And herein lies the problem.
(Some may not accept this premise that Ofsted ultimately looks influence scoop practice but, as an interesting addendum here, I was recently involved in a brief twitter discussion with someone who was undergoing an Ofsted section 5 and 8 inspection. They maintained Ofsted were not even implicitly showing any preference on the school’s pedagogy. I haven’t been through an inspection myself, so I can only take their word for this, however I have read the most recent framework and have also read a number of school inspection reports; and in all of these, Ofsted certainly is expressing, and quite explicitly, clear pedagogical preferences – such as the teaching of more canonical text, how curriculum should be sequenced, whether schools give opportunities for regular recall of content and whether schools are delivering a two-year rather than a three-year KS4 curriculum. In fact, some big name MATs have been recently been downgraded for just this reason – as you can read here: https://www.tes.com/news/ofsted-or-mats-who-really-calls-shots. Now, the focus of this blog post is not whether these are inherently good or bad changes (for the record, I think much of the new Ofsted framework is an improvement), but more to show that any model for checking school standards which actually uses the inspection regime as a lever to shift pedagogy is always going to be sub-optimal due to the unintended but deleterious behaviours it inevitably drives).
Educational pedagogy is not the law of gravity. We are thankfully moving towards more evidence-based practice but there are still few immutable educational truths. I mean just take a look at the list of historic abominations that were created (either directly or indirectly) by differing Ofsted regimes deciding to only accept certain ‘objectively correct’ practices as ‘evidence’ of schools being ‘outstanding’: the graded lesson, showing progress every twenty minute lesson, double marking, triple marking, the mindless copying of learning objectives, teaching Pupil Premium students differently to the rest of the class, students self-selected from differentiated work sheets – and the list goes on. Some will argue that this is not Ofsted’s fault, that they didn’t tell schools to do any of this. But in some cases (such as a lesson where I received Ofsted feedback) they explicitly did! And, even when they didn’t explicitly, they did implicitly by releasing frameworks and inspections reports exemplifying ‘best practice’ which schools then felt compelled to begin to emulate. And the rumours of what Ofsted are ‘looking for’ are once more sweeping through schools like a grotesque game of national Chinese whispers.
With each new government comes a new incarnation of Ofsted; but its creaking foundations are always ignored and instead it’s just painted another colour. This time, we are assured, Ofsted has got it right. Yes, we were wrong to spend the last five years eviscerating those who did not promote a skills-based curriculum or embrace widespread discovery learning. But rest assured, we are not wrong now to expunge schools that don’t adopt knowledge-rich direct instruction or a two-year Key Stage 4.
No, Ofsted can’t be tweaked. It’s been proven, time and again, that it is simply unable to first predict or then to regulate the excesses it unwittingly causes. It introduced the 5 A*- C benchmark to improve standards – but was then shocked when this led to a massive national obsession with BTECs, IGCSEs and endless coursework sessions for mid-ability students. To correct this, Ofsted then changed to the ‘fairer’ measure of Progress 8 – and was then shocked to find out there was massively widespread gaming, off-rolling and curriculum narrowing. Now it has released its new framework with a new focus on breadth and content and sequencing – but who knows what unforeseen evils this will create. No, better knock it all down and start again. But this won’t be easy. Because for this to happen many traders in invisible ermine would need to admit that the Emperor has, in fact, long been naked.
Now, some may will agree with what I’ve outlined – and to you I say happy to have you on-board.
And some of you may not – and to you I say fair enough, present to me the alternative case and persuade me I’m wrong.
But a minority will respond to this by shouting through spittle-flecked mouths. Get rid of Ofsted? they will say. Where would our schools be then? Are you naive? Well I’m not and I’ll tell you where they’ll be; they’ll be in the gutter, ruined by apologist enemies of promise like you and your unwitting bigotry of low expectations.
But to you I say the following : they won’t. They really won’t. They’ll be absolutely fine. Don’t believe me? Then just look at Ireland and New Zealand – they don’t have Ofsted and seem a lot better for it.