The Ofsted approach to inspecting England’s state schools has evolved over the last thirty years. Read our blog Ofsted under the microscope for more on this. But its high-stakes nature – and the costs it incurs – remains essentially unchanged. Let us for a moment accept that the education system needed the radical shock therapy that Ofsted delivered in the 90s. It does not follow that the same approach is still needed, when – even on Ofsted’s own terms – the vast majority (85%) of state schools are deemed to be good or outstanding. The benefits no longer outweigh the costs, if they ever did. Even worse, the current approach sets up some schools to fail. It is time to look again at our quality-assurance processes, to consider alternatives to Ofsted and to rethink not just how we support all schools but also – and more fundamentally – how we measure school success.
Ofsted’s focus is too narrow, and is overly driven by what is easily measurable – assessments and exams, attendance, exclusions, post-16 destinations. All of these things matter, of course. But exam results, attendance rates, exclusions data and the rest tell only a limited story – partly because data can be misleading and needs to be handled with care and partly because so many other things are also important in the work of a school.
Data is great for creating performance tables and comparing schools. Performance tables are hierarchical, creating winners and losers. Think of the Premier League in men’s football. If, at the start of the season, six clubs set their manager a target of achieving a top-four finish (to qualify for the following season’s Champions League) two of those six managers are bound to fail.
The same zero-sum logic applies with school league tables. It sets up some schools to fail. They are in effect ranked against each other, with some doing ‘well’ and some not. And yet, research published by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership showed that the government’s preferred Progress 8 measure for schools’ GCSE results fails to give an accurate picture and “effectively punishes schools teaching high proportions of disadvantaged pupils”. In other words, the system isn’t fair.
A huge emphasis is put on GCSE exam results when judging secondary schools – but the exam grading system itself creates winners and losers. It is the logic of thinly disguised norm referencing via moveable grade boundaries and political pressure to guard against ‘grade inflation’. If a limit on the number of students who can achieve an ‘acceptable pass’ at GCSE is put at (say) 60% then 40% – four in ten students – will, in effect, fail.
A high-stakes competitive system results in an obsession with quantifiable targets that skew priorities and create perverse incentives – off-rolling, a focus on some children at the expense of others, a hollowing-out of the curriculum for ‘key’ year groups to concentrate on passing assessments or exams. In short, the impoverishment of children’s educational experience.
And it is those with the deepest pockets who benefit. Pick an indicator at random – attendance, children’s attainment, exclusion from school – and the figures are better for those from affluent backgrounds than for those from deprived backgrounds. As noted above, Progress 8 is much criticised: “Progress 8 can … be argued to give too much emphasis to schools, rather than government or society, as primarily responsible for the national underperformance of these groups.”
A former Ofsted inspector told the BBC this week that the current system was “scrutinising” schools without giving them support, and that he felt his role could cause “more harm than good”.
We can choose to continue with the big-stick approach to quality assurance, a brutal system capable of causing immense damage to individuals, schools and communities, one that simplifies complex situations and institutions down to single-word judgements and forces schools to compete against each other on a playing field that is anything but level.
Or we can choose to do things differently.
It isn’t hard to imagine these three principles as the basis of a new approach to school improvement and quality assurance, one that challenges schools but in supportive ways, helping them – and the individuals who work in them – to grow and develop, rather than forcing them to compete against each other.
In the eyes of some, the National Education Union is part of the reason why Ofsted is needed. The NEU is the largest teaching union in England and Wales. It wants to get rid of Ofsted and is running a campaign called Value education – Value educators. Its Replace Ofsted website cites an effective accountability framework drawn up by the OECD. Three (of nine) points immediately catch the eye:
1. Support and challenge the work of teachers and leaders and assist schools and colleges to support and improve their performance.
2. Encourage teacher creativity and local innovation and promote teacher self-efficacy and agency.
4. Reflect the complexity of teachers’ professional understanding and practice and not be driven by summative performance measures.
Frank Coffield is emeritus professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education. His proposal for an education inspection model that would be “just, humane and developmental”, based on an Education Improvement Agency, was the outcome of three years’ work by a group of teachers, lecturers and researchers.
The EIA would be a democratic organisation of local and national inspectors, with the former assessing the quality of education for all students in a given area rather than individual institutions in order to prevent some schools gaining an advantage by excluding pupils. The latter would be called in when serious problems were found and to ensure comparable standards across regions.from the article Ofsted: what would an alternative look like? by Frank Coffield on the TES Magazine website
Some sort of collaborative system, then, that helps schools to improve and grow. A healthy combination of robust self-evaluation and let’s call them ‘challenge partners’ who work closely with individual schools, taking time to find out about the context in which the school operates and really uncovering the work the school does. And, as others have said, little but often, removing the fear factor so that quality assurance becomes something to be valued rather than dreaded.
More generally, we need to rethink what we are trying to measure and work out how to effectively evaluate the things that really matter. Ironically, the current Ofsted inspection report template does centre on two sensible questions:
Underlying all of this is the question of what the purpose of education is and, more specifically, what sort of education system we want for our children and young people in the years and decades to come.
Life-Based Learning is predicated on the idea that we cannot simply carry on as we are in education. It is a bold call to make life itself and the life challenges that we all face – now and in the future – the focus of a fully-rounded approach to children’s learning and development.
How interesting it would be to read school improvement plans and inspection reports that focused their attention on some of these LBL priorities:
Image at the head of this article by Donate PayPal Me from Pixabay.