Brand New Shiny Ofsted.

I’m on a list. I don’t quite know how I got on it, but this is the third time I’ve been invited to a meeting of significance. The first time (the DfE) we got dry, extra value biscuits. The second time, (Oftsted, Manchester office) M&S biscuits. This time was extra special (Ofsted, London office)– squishy doughnuts. Yum.

I was late but only in terms of missing introductions and my fellow biscuit connoisseurs were already known to me. So we got straight down to business. Sean Harford was outlining the proposals for the new (new new new) Ofsted framework for September 2015. I reported on the early ideas for this when we met Mike Cladingbowl, but things have moved on from then. The intention to bring FE, Sixth Forms and EYFS providers in line with schools inspection will still go ahead. But the original idea that schools considered to be ‘good’ would only be inspected every five years with a light touch inspection has been reduced to three. So if you’re a good school, you’ll actually be inspected more frequently than you currently are. But with a properly trained HMI “coming in with the expectation that you will remain good.” This sole inspector will stay for a day and if there is a need to extend the inspection (either to move you up or down), will return with a team to investigate whether or not you are actually now Outstanding. Or not.

If there are issues arising in the inspection that are not too serious, then the team will allow you to keep your good grade as long as it is clear in your SIP that you are aware of any issues. If not, you are in danger of being downgraded to RI(P).

Needless to say I had a few concerns about this. For a start, it is perfectly possible (I’ve seen a few) to be a coasting good school and this makes that even more possible. For good and outstanding schools now, as long as the data is roughly in place, your web site makes it look like you’re offering a broad and balanced curriculum with happy, smiling children and you don’t get any major complaints, you should be ok. If you’re flogging the kids to death in order to get results, or excluding them with a ‘zero tolerance’ behavior policy, farming out PE to a competitive sports coach or reducing the arts to an after school club, there will be little to stop you.

I wonder, if inspectors go into schools with the expectation that good schools will be good, what expectations do they bring to RI or inadequate schools? There is a huge range of progress within the RI band. From bordering on Special Measures to almost-Good-but-not-quite. It alarms me that we are told that it is ‘likely’ that three RI judgments will lead to an Inadequate grade. That it will be up to the inspectors to make the call as to whether or not a school has made enough progress to avoid the snake that will take them right back to the beginning. Progress should be progress in my opinion. Let’s just take a little look at what the consequences of an RI judgment are.

  1. You can’t recruit for love nor money. At a lovely school I work with, they’ve had to readvertise and beg for applications for an AHT post. Eventually after extending the deadline and practically dragging people in off the street they got 3 candidates. Down the road, a leafy Outstanding school had 49 applications for a similar post.
  2. You can’t hold onto staff. The relentless pressure of performance puts teachers under intolerable strain. We identified a group of brilliant, keen teachers this year and undertook coaching and action research projects with a view to them becoming lead teachers in the school supporting growth in others. Half of them are moving on to good or outstanding schools. This will get worse and worse as teacher shortages increase.
  3. Invariably these schools are in areas of high social deprivation. I blogged about this last week. Our current blindness to the challenges that schools face in getting children who can barely speak when they arrive in school to a ‘national average’ is nigh on impossible. Lifting children out of poverty makes for a better education system, not the other way round. I was driving out of a car park the other day. I had to slam my breaks on to avoid driving into two small children. Each one was clutching their head as their mother smacked them and shouted “Cross the fucking road!” You’re telling me that a bit of synthetic phonics is going to make them ready to learn?

I didn’t articulate all these points, but some of them. And several of us expressed a concern that the idea of treating all schools ‘equally’ – i.e. that there is ‘no excuse’ for failure is not actually fair. That fairness and equality are not the same.

There was some common ground on this point – Sean spoke of how in the new training for inspectors there had been a rebalancing of the guidelines to allow for two things. One, for context to be more clearly accounted for. And secondly that current learning would be more important than historical data. This would, hopefully offset punishments for temporary blips in data caused by, for example, turnover of staff. But he was unable to offer hope for the recruitment and retention nightmare that many schools are facing.

There is some good news – all Ofsted inspections are to be brought inhouse – the organization is no longer a franchise. And in comparison to 25% of inspectors who also worked in schools five years ago, the figure of inspectors with current school experience is now 70%. But almost all of those are senior leaders or Headteachers. Now don’t get me wrong – this is a move in a positive direction. But I know many senior leaders who don’t teach. And it seems to me that a truly representative inspectorate would have practicing teachers among its number – a point that Emma Hardy made.

There were further discussions about the role of data, especially in small schools or those with transient populations. To this end Sean was clear “in a small school, I would barely look at the data….I would look at the books and talk to the children.” He was clear that it was learning that mattered, but there was some confusion about how this learning might be evidenced without levels. In the end, it was agreed that schools were free to make their own assessment models and should be able to explain how they evidence progress and learning. And that national comparisons would now only be relevant at end of KS summative points.

I’ll let those present make their own points and cases about the meeting. I am grateful that Sean made time to meet with us and to listen so intently to our impassioned points. But ultimately I left as worried as before. Ofsted is an instrument of government control. It can be used to enforce whims and fancies of ministers. It can be used to ensure compliance in schools for policies that are not in the best interests of children. There was no clear indication that there was an appetite or interest in challenging policy or government – of course, given the current funding structure of Ofsted, to do so would amount to institutional suicide.

I would much rather see an inspectorate that was independent of government; that had the power to question the actions it was asked to take; that encouraged schools to think and communicate about the purpose and function of education (as Miss Smith argued) and which acted as a support mechanism for schools. But this is not what the organization is. There are, however, things that could be done.

The decision to raise the profile and importance of SMSC in schools is having an impact on the diet that children are receiving. What if Ofsted asked parents and children to assess whether the practices the schools adopted in order to achieve results were fair, healthy and in the best interests of the child? What if they insisted on seeing a broad and balanced curriculum in practice and not just on paper (come on, we all know schools that have all the subjects on the timetable for Year 6, but don’t actually teach them). What if Ofsted made a lot of noise about the mental health of children? How would this alter school behaviours?

Ofsted has a choice. It IS a puppet of government. But it is also a powerful puppet master. How the power is wielded and with what effect needs to be very carefully considered.

We have had in Mike Cladingbowl and now in Sean Harford, two decent, honourable men with a genuine intention to do good. But all decisions and actions have unintended consquences and whether or not this ‘new’ framework simply opens up a whole other set of problems remains to be seen. Regardless of this, I am glad to be on the list and glad that Ofsted are open and willing enough to engage.

And the doughnuts were lovely. Thank you Brian for pointing out that I left half of mine on my chin.

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5 thoughts on “Brand New Shiny Ofsted.

  1. Perceptive and informative post, thank you.

    Technically, Ofsted *is* independent of government. Constitutionally, it’s accountable to Parliament not the DfE. (Discovered this when I was trying to find out how a government minister’s wife could be Chief Inspector without a conflict of interest arising.) But because recent Parliaments don’t have a very good track record in scrutinising government policy, in effect Ofsted is, as you say, at the beck and call of government.

    The real problem is that education doesn’t need compliance inspection, it needs outcome inspection; and all outcomes for everybody involved, not just test scores. And the task of inspectors should be to identify what schools could do to improve outcomes and to put relevant information/support in place.

    Healthcare has exactly the same problem with the CQC, a huge expensive carbuncle that just diverts money from patients.

  2. If Ofsted is independent of Government, what is it doing on the Gov UK website (along with Ofqual and the Office of the Schools Adjudicator)? In theory, Gov UK is a one-stop shop listing (supposedly) independent organisations and is intended to act as a first port of call for anyone wanting info from these organisations. But internet search engines make the need for such a map unnecessary.

    However, having Gov.UK at the top of each page suggests these organisations are under the Government’s thumb. In theory, the organisations retain editorial control but how is that achieved when all the pages have the same format? There’s always the suspicion that, say, Ofsted announcements could be influenced by the Gov’t. It’s their website.

  3. Sean Harford said Ofsted would ‘barely’ look at the data for small schools. But when it comes to judging the ‘performance’ of local authorities (increasingly difficult when the majority of secondaries are academies), the results of small schools are lumped in with the others. This can have a disproportionate affect on overall results – one more Level 3 result, say, in a school where only 8 children took SATs, can affect proportion to a great extent.

    Ofsted recently criticised Bath and North East Somerset, describing it as a ‘problem’ area. Why? Because the ‘gap’ between advantaged and disadvantaged at KS2 was wider than the national average. But this area has a very large number of tiny schools. It didn’t matter that the performance of disadvantaged children had actually improved – advantaged ones also upped their score. This meant the gap widened despite the increased performance of the former. The problem was worsened because Ofsted’s interpretation of disadvantaged (pupils who were eligible for free school meals in the year) was not the same as in School Performance Tables (pupils eligible for FSM any time in the last 6 years). The difference in interpretation turned Bath and NE Somerset from a successful area to one which failed as I pointed out here: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/03/mind-the-gap-it-can-result-in-success-or-failure/

    To its credit, Ofsted number crunchers spent time discussing this with me. In the end it came down to interpretation. But when interpretation can mean the difference between success and failure (and people keeping or losing their jobs), then something is amiss.

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