Quo Vadis Ofsted?

3 Jan

Ask teachers, headteachers and governors what their views of good education are and they will tell you more often than not that it is to educate the whole child to grow, develop and take her/his place as an adult in the world to make it better place.  But the school preparation for such a condition can be something completely different, driven by two aspects of our education system that is now dominating the provision we make for our youngsters.  These are

  1. preparing for the next Ofsted inspection and
  2. ensuring that the pupils achieve excellent results in the Standard Assessment Tests/GCSE/A Levels so that the school is as high up as possible in the league tables.

Both, the model of inspections and the manner in which we assess our children’s progress and achievements, are in a constant state of flux.   Elsewhere, I have written about the abandonment of levels in primary assessment and the changes in the secondary examination system. For the purposes of this article, I wish to focus on Ofsted’s inspection model that never fails to bewilder and petrify so many of our teachers, headteachers and governors.

I           Myths Document

(a)        What Ofsted does and doesn’t do

On Friday 17 October 2014, the Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, wrote to all schools about a myths document published by Ofsted. The document sets out the “facts” and attempts to dispel myths about what Ofsted requires from schools both, before and during the inspection process. According to Ms Morgan, this has emerged from the current programme of talks between the Department for Education and trade unions. She welcomed the publication as a positive step towards tackling teacher workloads in schools.

Ofsted recommends that the document be read alongside the ‘School inspection handbook’. Governing bodies are also exhorted to look at the National Governors’ Association’s  (NGA’s) guidance on preparing for Ofsted.

However, does the myth document enlighten or add to the bewilderment of those subjected to these inspections? It states, for instance that Ofsted does not require the school being inspected to provide lesson plans for inspectors. It goes on to add that inspectors will not award grades for the quality of individual lessons.  However, God help the teacher who attempts to teach an unplanned, unstructured lesson.  And, by the end of the inspection, you can bet your bottom dollar that the school will receive an overall grade for the quality of teaching and learning.

Staying with the quality of teaching, the document states that inspectors will not expect to be apprised of the individual salary grades of teachers.  However, it is a given that the headteacher will have to report overall on the performance reviews of the teachers and the links to the teacher standards on an non-attributable basis to convince the inspection team that the leadership has a firm grasp of teaching quality and the direction in which the school is moving.

Lower down, the document mentions that the watchdog does not require self-evaluation to be provided in a specific format.  What lies between these lines is that Ofsted does, however, require a school to know precisely what it is doing in the light of what it wishes to be in three to five years’ time, to know what its strengths and weaknesses are, the reasons for them, how it builds on the strengths and what it is doing to deal with the weaknesses.  All the factors would normally be included in the self-evaluation form (SEF).

Inspectors also, according to the document, will not expect “see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders”, acknowledging that the amount of work in books will depend on the age and ability of the pupils.  However, they will expect to see written work, per se, and that it is marked in a way that will help pupils to know how they have done, what they should do next and how they can improve in the future.

(b)        What Ofsted will do

So, in preparing for an inspection, the school’s headteacher and staff should be familiar with the contents of the inspection handbook, which makes explicit that inspectors will assess how well the school is doing by taking account of pupils’ performance in their daily work and test/examination results, and judge pupil progress through a scrutiny of the school’s tracking data.

Finally, and especially for governors, inspectors will judge whether or not the leadership is complying with the statutory arrangements – covering issues like safeguarding, equal opportunities, the admissions arrangements, provision for pupils, staff and the wider public members who have special educational needs and disabilities, and, most important of all (in my view) whether pupils are receiving an education in line with their statutory entitlements.

In July 2014, Ofsted drew particular attention to the following inspection features which a school ignores at its peril.

(i)         There is now a great emphasis on requiring a school to promote British values actively.

(ii)        There’s an expectation that schools will have a system for tracking pupils’ progress with assessment tools that are reliable and consistent, now that levels have been removed.

(iii)       The governing body must be clear about its strategy for the long-term future of the school and engages in succession planning.

(iv)       A school (especially a secondary one) will need to have robust career provision for its pupils resulting in a positive impact on their futures – so it would be well-advised to keep itself briefed on pupils’ destinations.

II          Reflections

The watchdog has been operating in its present format for over 22 years now.   Over that period it has morphed, a not-necessarily bad feature of Ofsted.  Many mistakes were made in its infancy.  It is now a young adult and even though it might surprise many on these shores, Ofsted is held up as a shining exemplar of an excellently functioning body across the Atlantic and in areas like Shanghai and Singapore, which are high on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) league tables.

Ofsted continues to be an organic body that will change further over time.   This is to be welcome, because there is, in the view of many, scope for improvement in one area in particular.  Its raison d’être is based on a model of improving schools by humiliating them.  Yes, of course, the Chief Inspector “rejoices” (as the early Christians did) when schools are improving and/or on an upward trajectory as they are at present across the country.  However, what lingers in the educational psyche is the Old Testament model of “the wrath of God” when schools fail – the naming and the shaming.

The number of schools in special measures on 31 August 2012 was 332.   Two years later, 447 schools were in this category.  The watchdog claims that schools in special measures make much swifter progress than those not.   This is true for a host of reasons, not least that there is more ground to make than schools that are outstanding, who, notwithstanding, need to make strenuous efforts to maintain their position.   Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess of University College London and the Institute of Education suggest that the average grade improvement for pupils is 10% higher in the special measures category.

However, is “naming and shaming” the best way to improve institutions?   Teachers are trained to improve pupils’ behaviour and performance without demeaning the children per se.   Can we not do something similar for teachers and schools?

Sir Tim Brighouse, former Education Chief in Birmingham and Commissioner for Education in London, writing in The Times Educational Supplement (TES), said that the time has come to “give greater respect and trust to schools by shifting the balance of inspection to a rigorous self-evaluation”, which can be “externally scrutinised and validated”.

He welcomed the move of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector, to make inspection judgements more reliable by bringing inspectors in-house and abandoning the outsourcing practice to contractors.   However, he questions the addiction of inspectors to rely on pupil attendance and performance data to the neglect of other information that is not easily measurable.  Where inspectors rely less on these data, it is mainly because of the compelling self-evaluation of the school and the eloquence of its leaders when guiding the inspectors through the SEF.

Sir Tim goes on to add that inspections could be based on school’s self-evaluations – moderated by the inspectors at regional level and in accordance with a timetable drawn up by the Chief Inspector. Teachers from other schools (not being inspected) could be trained to join inspectors and engage in a scrutiny of these SEFs as part of their own professional development.  Inspection judgements could then be based on both, the pupil attendance and performance data as well as the self-evaluation findings.

Other types of inspections would be surveys across the country on different aspects of education in our schools – such as the quality of teaching, transition, truancy, behaviour and special educational needs.   HMCI could then base his annual report on the information derived from such surveys making Ofsted similar to the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR).

The third function of Ofsted would be to advise the Secretary of State on policies and procedures, similar to the advice that the Head of the Bank of England gives to the Chancellor to the Exchequer.

Sir Tim Brighouse, in the past, was the Pipe Piper of the educational world.  He has lost none of his compelling wisdom. But is anyone paying heed?

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