Ofsted under the microscope

Ofsted under the microscope

England’s schools inspectorate, Ofsted, faced calls last week to pause its programme of inspections. It follows the suicide of Ruth Perry, a primary school headteacher. Ruth’s family linked her death to “intolerable pressure” following an Ofsted inspection. Now the inspectors find themselves under the microscope. Thirty years after the first Ofsted inspections, the tragedy has reignited debate about not just the suitability of Ofsted’s approach to inspecting schools but also the purpose of inspection itself. It is worth emphasising at the start that an inspection regime that works for some does not necessarily work for all – perhaps not even for the majority. Nor, it should be said, is criticism of Ofsted the same as rejecting the need for quality assurance in education.

Ofsted inspections and reports have evolved a great deal, of course, in the years since Ofsted first started inspecting in 1993, when schools received up to a year’s notice before an inspection. The early reports were huge documents – fifty or sixty pages (if memory serves – or was it more?). Inspections of a typical secondary school lasted perhaps a week and involved a team of a dozen or so inspectors. A teacher in a small department was liable to be seen four or five times because inspectors were expected to observe every year group.

Inspection reports – like inspections themselves – have become much shorter and more focused. A typical full inspection of a secondary school now lasts two days, conducted by a team of three or four inspectors, and the report is about four pages long. Though much of the team’s work is done before the actual inspection begins (which itself fuels concerns that inspectors are overly driven by data and that a view of the school is formed before the team even set foot inside the building), those two-and-a-half days (starting from when ‘the call’ is received the day before the inspection starts) are insanely intense – for teachers and support staff, for school leaders, for the inspectors themselves, and even for the children, who can quickly sense that something isn’t quite normal.

Add to that the practice runs and mock inspections and the months on tenterhooks waiting for ‘the call’, and is it any surprise that we hear so much talk of exhaustion, stress and emotional burnout – of wasted weeks and even months on autopilot following an inspection? Who benefits from this?

Ofsted reports as currently written are often turgid and surprisingly unenlightening. (A previous iteration at least had an informative front cover that concisely summarised what a school was doing well and how it needed to improve.) Important work in the life of a school may be ignored or receive no more than a cursory mention. Reports sometimes sound like nothing more than checklists, the tone cold and distant. Here, for example, is a paragraph from an inspection report for a secondary school not far from where I live:

There are a wide range of clubs and activities on offer for pupils at lunchtimes and after school. Leaders use a variety of carefully selected approaches for pupils to learn about careers. Nearly all pupils progress to further education, employment or training.

Some issues, on the other hand, attract intense scrutiny from inspectors. These are centrally-determined priorities and tend to go in and out of fashion. Once upon a time it was literacy and numeracy. At the moment it is – rather surprisingly – curriculum design and implementation. Read a recently published report and expect to see words like ‘building blocks’ and ‘sequencing’. Safeguarding is always of paramount concern, of course. It was apparently the reason why Ruth Perry’s school was downgraded from Outstanding to Inadequate, despite much of the report talking in glowing terms about the work of the school.

There are also issues that preoccupy individual inspectors. One way for schools to game the system has always been to quickly research the backgrounds of the members of the inspection team following the pre-inspection briefing for clues about their educational interests and likely preoccupations.

And then there is Sod’s Law – a child’s sudden unexplained tantrum, an angry parent, a playground fight, a thoughtless throwaway comment in the dinner queue overhead by an inspector.

Too much is worryingly at the whim of chance. Much of the current debate has indeed focused on the high-stakes nature of inspections – an Inadequate judgement can end careers and send a school into a spiral of decline – and on the adequacy, fairness and legitimacy of a system that ultimately reduces everything down to a single-word judgement.

Amanda Spielman, the outgoing chief inspector, has – unsurprisingly – defended the inspections process but accepted that the debate about ending the current grading system is a legitimate one. The Labour Party has promised reform if it wins the next election, perhaps introducing some sort of ‘report card’ for schools. The reality of party politics suggests that the current government is therefore highly unlikely to make any changes, especially in the run-up to an election, to avoid the suggestion that it is buckling under opposition pressure.

An oddity of using a grading system that relies so heavily on particular words is that it has led to the meaning of some of those words becoming mangled. The first inspections used a 1–7 grading system with ‘4’ signifying ‘satisfactory’. When the grading was altered to a 1–4 system, ‘3’ became the new ‘satisfactory’. The Concise OED defines the word ‘satisfactory’ as ‘fulfilling expectations or needs, acceptable’. Except it wasn’t. To be satisfactory was no longer deemed acceptable. ‘Satisfactory’ wasn’t, well, satisfactory, and so ‘satisfactory’ became ‘requires improvement’.

Meanwhile, a ‘1’ grading signifies ‘outstanding’ – literally ‘standing out’. Every school that receives an Outstanding judgement deserves to be congratulated, of course, but it is a curious word to use when one in five of all state schools are deemed to be outstanding. Why not ‘excellent’?

Survivorship bias is the logical error of concentrating on things that passed a test or selection process while overlooking those that did not. It is a form of cognitive bias, one that is relevant to this debate about inspection. Ofsted has many supporters, who argue that it has raised standards and therefore been good for generations of children and for schools. However, many schools – meaning children, families, teachers and non-teaching staff, communities – have suffered in what Gaby Hinsliff in the Guardian called Ofsted’s “climate of fear”.

It is time to look again at our quality-assurance processes and to rethink not just how we support all schools but also – and more fundamentally – how we measure school success.

Our next blog will explore how we might do quality assurance differently and in ways that align with Life-Based Learning principles.

Image at the head of this article by Victoria_Watercolor from Pixabay.

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