Ofsted in the spotlight – again

17 Aug

I        Inspecting schools/academies – a high-risk business

Working as an inspector for Ofsted is a high-risk business.   Because inspections are obsessed with judgements, the exercise can have devastating consequences on schools and academies.  It is, therefore, unsurprising that Ofsted is constantly under scrutiny.

The great and the good, including Professors Dylan Wiliam, formerly of University College and Institute of Education London, and Robert Coe of Durham University, have been critical of Ofsted in the past.

William Stewart wrote in an article for The Times Educational Supplement in April 2015 that Wiliam said in 2012 that Ofsted needed to subject its school inspections to a proper evaluation of reliability, claiming the watchdog did “not know good teaching” when it saw it. Coe warned, in 2013, that Ofsted’s practice was not research- or evidence-based adding that it needed to demonstrate that its evaluations of lessons were valid by testing the judgements of different inspection teams.

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector (HMCI) Amanda Spielman is making strenuous efforts to change the public perception of inspections.   First she is confronting schools/academy leaders who off-load their “disruptive” children – especially prior to a possible inspection and/or the examinations in which they are likely to fail.  Second, she is introducing a fairer inspection regimen that takes more account of children’s starting points.

Secretary of State Damian Hinds is giving his support.   For instance, he has made it clear that it is not going to be the Regional Schools’ Commissioners (RSCs) who will be inspecting and evaluating the quality of education in schools/academies but rather Ofsted that will judge the institutions.

II       Problems confronting Ofsted

While Ofsted is doing its utmost to be thorough and fair, problems exist.   Funding is a short.  Ofsted’s annual budget of £280 million in 2005-6 shrank to £167 million by 2015-16.  The watchdog spent £60 million inspecting schools and academies in 2017-18 having invested £125 million in a similar exercise in 1999-2000. This was a reduction of 52%.

Probably, the real reason why inspectors reduced the time inspecting a school/academy from four days to one – or two, if the school was likely be judged outstanding or in trouble – was because of the reduced budget, though the good reason advanced was that it did not wish to place extra burdens on schools/academies.

However, the shorter inspection – albeit one where a school/academy receives only half a day’s notice – is deemed by academics such as Professor William to be unreliable – especially when inspectors assess the quality of teaching and learning.   Huge weight is placed on pupils’ achievements – though inspectors do their best to take account of their progress too.

The research reveals that where pupils’ results are very good in grammar schools/academies, and those in the well-heeled parts of the country, schools and academies are deemed to be good if not outstanding. (Four out of five grammar schools/academies are rated “outstanding”.)  In the poorer sections of the country, many schools/academies (out of all proportion to the first group) are deemed to be requiring improvement or inadequate.  Little attention appears to be paid to the low starting points of the pupils in the latter group.    In fact, only 20% of non-selective schools secure the top grade – evidence that pupil intake rather than the quality of education on offer drives Ofsted’s ratings.

Information from Ofsted shows that 58% of schools/academies with the fewest white pupils from deprived backgrounds were judged “outstanding”.  In schools/academies with the highest number of white pupils from deprived background, only 4% attained the top grade.

Nick Brook, Deputy General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) who is leading a commission on accountability, does not believe that Ofsted inspectors uncover anything new about a school/academy in one day.  He insisted that such an inspection, where data becomes the be-all and end-all, is not long enough to be useful but has become the norm.

The National Audit Office (NAO) has been critical of one-day inspections. The NAO wrote that the one-day inspection allows “inspectors less time to discuss with schools how they might improve”.   It observed that inspectors had found shorter inspections spawned a practice which was more about checking compliance and less about improvement and follow-up work.

Spielman admitted that inspectors just don’t have the time.  The NAO has also looked askance at Ofsted exempting “outstanding” schools/academies from inspections every three years. This has meant that 1,620 schools/academies have been deprived of the inspection “privilege” for six years and 296 for over 10.  This is of concern because we know that while it takes a long time for a school/academy to improve the quality of education, create a culture of learning and raise standards, it takes only a term of poor education to make the school/academy “go down the Swanee” as our American friends would say.

Professor Coe admitted in an interview recently that assessing how well pupils were learning in lessons was daunting.  There is much that is going on under the surface that is invisible. While an inspector can comment on a teacher’s organisation and children’s behaviour, it is very, very difficult to know what children are thinking.   In fact, I, personally, find it a conundrum to know what I am thinking until I hear what I say.   Imagine how it must be for poor inspectors.

Ofsted is sensitive to the criticism; this is why it has ceased grading lessons and, in 2017 held its first international research seminar on classroom observations with 14 world-wide experts, who shared their insights.

III     Reasons for Ofsted’s birth

Prior to 1992, we had a different kind of inspectorate.   Inspectors visited schools, but very few full-scale inspections per se occurred.   On rare occasions, as was the case in 1987, when the London Borough of Brent was administered by a very left-wing administration that bared its teeth to Mrs Margaret Thatcher government and, in the course of doing so, hugely overspent its budget making the authority almost bankrupt, Secretary of State, Kenneth Baker, sent in the inspectors, who found the educational provision in the local authority (LA) in a parlous state.   This was one of the major contributory factors for the Education Reform Act 1988.

Also, education was bedridden in the 1980s in England, brought to its knees by the then (very red) National Union of Teachers [that followed in the footsteps of the National Union of Miners (NUM)] who went on strike repeatedly in a bid to compel government to raise teachers’ salaries.   Children’s education and welfare hardly featured in these battles.   In fact, the government and the union operated like two bulls that had locked horns and trampled all over the ground – the children – in their fight with each other.

In such a climate, the government felt justified in bringing in an accountability regime with Ofsted leading the charge.  Ofsted is now viewed as the bedrock for the schools/academies system.   Parents and politicians, in equal measure, rely on its assessments of the educational well-being of the country.

Academics, however, cite the cases of other high-performing countries that do not have such a watchdog but do – if not as well as us – perhaps better.   In Finland an inspectorate is conspicuous by its absence.  Germany has decided to abandon inspections as the government does not consider that they benefit the schools much.   However, what needs to be factored in to these countries’ arrangements is the extent to which education is valued.  Their cultures – “culture” being defined as “how we do things here” – are different to ours.

Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford, the National Director for Schools/Academies Inspections, are keen to improve the system.  They are constantly “myth busting” about what Ofsted does (and doesn’t do) and engage with the profession on social media – albeit, unlike President Trump – seldom on Twitter.  In early 2017, Ofsted published a short study to demonstrate that 92% of inspections were reliable.  More recently, the newly installed head of research at Ofsted, Daniel Muijs, recognised that it was impossible to be conclusive about how reliable inspections were.

The simplicity of Ofsted judgments on schools being outstanding, good, requires improvement or inadequate makes it easy for parents to understand what the watchdog is about and is popular with government ministers.  Inspection is not an exact science.  There is a penchant for humans to become more definitive and strident in their views when they are unsure.  Take, for example, religious beliefs including those of the afterlife, if such a thing exists.   Humankind has engaged in some of the bloodiest religious wars over such issues.  Ofsted’s judgements, must consequently, be treated with care.

To deal with this criticism, Ofsted, published in 2017 the outcome of a study. Different groups of inspectors carried out one-day inspections at a number of schools and academies with each school or academy being inspected by more than one team.   In 22 out of 24 cases, inspection teams made similar judgements.

However, Professor Coe told the TES that judging how well pupils were learning in a lesson through classroom observation was daunting because while some elements of good teaching were visible, many were invisible.  The evidence or organisation and behaviour management could clearly be seen but not whether pupils were thinking productively about the subject matter.  Within a classroom it is very, difficult to make space to hear all pupils’ talk about their thoughts.

IV     The Future

The government relies on Ofsted to produce the necessary soundbites.  It trumpets that 1.9 million more children are being educated in “good” schools than there were in 2010.

The research findings of Parentkind, formerly Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) UK, revealed that just over 50% of parents had looked at Ofsted reports, albeit only a quarter said they were important to them when choosing schools/academies for their children.  Michelle Doyle Wildman, its Acting Chief Executive, said that having an independent inspectorate was important to parents and that Ofsted had been a “force for good”, though she acknowledged that there was a need for a debate about whether it was fit for purpose in the present educational system.

While the NAO was negatively critical, its report had some positive features about Ofsted.  Most heads it surveyed – 84% – said they were happy with their inspections. Another 44% mentioned that inspections had improved their schools/academies – more than those who said they didn’t, which was 28%.  The NAO also remarked that the government had reduced Ofsted’s budget for more than a decade while asking it to do more. “Government needs to be clearer about how it sees Ofsted’s present and future inspection role in the school system as a whole, and then resource it accordingly,” its report concluded.

Meanwhile, Sean Harford announced, at the watchdog’s spring conferences in Manchester, Nottingham and London that in 2019 there was to be “an even sharper focus” on the curriculum during inspections.  He referred to research that Ofsted had carried out to develop a common language for the curriculum to encompass the following.

(i)        What knowledge and understanding is the institution promoting for pupils to develop at each key stage (intent), i.e. what the school/academy is trying to achieve in the curriculum.

(ii)        How does the institution translate the framework over time, i.e. how is the curriculum being delivered? (Implementation)

(iii)       Finally, what knowledge and understanding do pupils gain against the expectations and what difference is the curriculum making in their learning lives? (Impact).

The Chief Inspector is of the view that schools/academies have narrowed the curriculum to ensure that pupils do well in tests and examinations.  Accordingly, from September 2019, she plans to direct her inspectors to make judgements on breadth and balance of the curriculum and move away from judgements based on tests and examinations.  Inspectors will be searching for the answers to four questions.

(i)         Is there too much focus on English and mathematics at Key Stage 2 making the wider curriculum a casualty?

(ii)        Is the time spent on non-core subjects at Key Stage 3 shortened with justification?

(iii)       What is the range of subjects available for pupils, especially those from disadvantaged groups and those with poor attainments?

(iv)       Is a school’s/academy’s intentions being translated into practice and what positive impact (where it exists) has there been?

In November 2017, Ofsted published a report on international lesson observations.   The upshot has been that Ofsted now admits that pupils’ learning cannot be measured solely by single lesson observations and sound judgements are based on high standards of training.

Ofsted’s five-year strategy signals its intention to “scrutinise education, training and care structures, including at Multi-Academy Trusts”.  However, at present, it is up to the Department for Education (DfE) to decide whether or not Ofsted carries out inspections of MATs.   There is considerable opposition from trustees and governors against the watchdog on the grounds that inspectors lacks the necessary experience and/or expertise about their functions.  Besides, there is a real danger that they will be treading on the turf of Regional School Commissioners (RSCs), they claim.

V       Changes that take effect from September 2018

In the meantime, minor changes were made to the Inspection Handbook that took effect from September 2018.

(1)       Religious Education and Collective Worship

Under Section 48 of the Education Act 2005, the governing board of a voluntary (aided or controlled) or foundation school/academy in England ensures that a designated religious body conducts regular inspections of its religious educational provision and the acts of worship.  However, Ofsted inspectors are now required to look at the content of religious education (RE) in voluntary controlled (VC) schools/academies (see page 74 in the Annex) because a VC school follows the local authority’s agreed RE syllabus.    On pages 75 and 76, the Handbook sets out the timings for such inspections.

(2)       Myth-busting

Pages 12 to 16 of the handout sets out what inspectors do not expect to scrutinise or know about i.e.

  1. the attainment of past pupils,
  2. how primary schools/academies carry out assessment or record pupils’ achievements in subjects,
  3. the process for the performance management arrangements for staff and anonymised lists of teachers meeting or not meeting the performance thresholds for pay progression,
  4. whether the school/academy has policies related to staff behaviour, and
  5. retrospective applications for references for staff members appointed prior to and continuously employed since the introduction of the vetting and barring.

(3)       Schools causing concern

Paragraph 112 of the handbook states that maintained schools and Pupil Referral Units (PRU) that are issued with academy orders and allocated to new sponsors (if already academies) or to sponsors for the first time if they are controlled by local authorities, won’t normally receive monitoring visits from inspectors. However, the affected local authorities, proprietors or trusts will still need to prepare statements of action to include how the schools/academies will transfer to new academies.  Paragraph 113 explains this.

VI       Final thoughts

These changes, as the reader will probably know, will not be the end of the matter.  Many problems remain, one of the chief being the reliability and validity of Ofsted’s judgements.   How on earth can Ofsted judge the quality of teaching if inspectors spend no more than 20 minutes on observing each of a very, very few lessons that come under the microscope?   And can they really make profound judgements on the quality of education being served up at a school/academy if they spend only one day inspecting?

Governors, headteachers and staff members of schools/academies moan that inspectors come to inspections with their minds already made up based on the documentation they’ve scanned.  All that they do at the schools/academies is make strenuous efforts to confirm their guesswork and hunches.  And who can blame them, if they are in schools/academies for only a day.

If, on the other hand, they spend four days inspecting a school/academy as they did in the halcyon days, governors, headteachers and the staff will find the experience very stressful and resent the inspection.   Ofsted is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

We live in exciting times and must wait and see how matters unfold.

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