Expert’s take on improving Ofsted’s practice

13 Apr

In our 60th issue of Governors’ Agenda (pages 17 – 20, Quo Vadis, Ofsted), published on-line in January 2015, we mentioned that Birmingham’s former Chief Education Officer and the ex-Commissioner for Education in London, Sir Tim Brighouse, said that the time had come to “give greater respect and trust to schools by shifting the balance of inspection to a rigorous self-evaluation which could be “externally scrutinised and validated”.

Almost at the same time, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) announced that he was bringing inspectors in-house and abandoning the practice of outsourcing to contractors with a view to standardising the judgements of inspectors and making them more consistent. In fact, Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for schools, acknowledged that some inspectors had relied on a “narrow range of data” and were “guilty of using the published data as a safety net for not making fully rounded professional judgements”.

Tristam Hunt, the shadow education secretary, speaking to the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) at it spring 2015 conference, said that the watchdog Ofsted was starting to “choke” the “joy, wonder and beauty” out of schooling, which could end up under an “avalanche of bureaucracy”.

Over the last Easter holidays, we learnt from The Times Educational Supplement (see the issue of 3 April 2015) that Sir Mike Tomlinson, HMCI from 2000 to 2002, added his concerns to the other siren voices.  He warned that today’s inspection system was inconsistent and too dependent on data. 

Sir Mike was recently appointed Education Commissioner in Birmingham by ministers after the Trojan Horse scandal.  Speaking to the TES, he said: “Inspection is so important to the profession, it is so important to young people that maybe after 20-odd years there is every reason to look at it and say, ‘Have we got it right?’…..Ofsted and the government have become data-reliant” adding that “data in itself leads you to conclusions.”

He observed, “It doesn’t.  All it does, when it’s used properly, is enable you to ask the right questions. And that isn’t done as often as it should be.”

He welcomed the move of Sir Michael to make inspection judgements more consistent by bringing the process in-house and abandoning the employment of contractors.   He thought that the present practice spawned inconsistent findings and did not “directly ensure that different inspectors in the (same) school on the same day would make the same judgements”.  He acknowledged that human judgements inevitably were responsible for inconsistency. “The question is, ‘How do you ensure that subjectivity is at the minimum possible level?’”

Sir Mike said, however, that inspections were here to stay and the institution of Ofsted mattered.   “You have a body for inspection across the country.  You can reinvent it if you want.  You can rename it if you want. The government can do anything it wants, but at the end of the day you will not get rid of accountability with inspection as part of that.”

Sir Mike also observed that parents would fight any attempt to deprive them of the kind of information that Ofsted provided. “The genie is out of the bottle.  You can’t push it back in and put the cork on. This will not happen and should not happen. But I think that there is an interesting discussion to be had.”

When his remarks were put to Ofsted, one of its spokesperson admitted: “We do not always get it right. However, we are confident that our quality assurance procedures are strong and where we make mistakes, we will put it (sic) right.  Hopefully bringing all school inspection arrangements in-house from September (2015), there will be more opportunity to improve quality through training and quality assurance. “

The spokesperson stressed that the data of which the inspectors took account was only part of “a broad range of evidence including outcomes for learners, the quality of teaching, learning and assessment and effective leadership and management.”

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