Ofsted: requiring improvement

by Mick Waters, Professor of Education at Wolverhampton University

See also extracts about Ofsted from his recent book    https://reclaimingschools.org/2015/09/05/thinking-allowed-about-ofsted/

thinkingallowed

What are we to make of Ofsted? Is it the all-seeing regulator, the engine of school improvement, the guardian of standards – or the dead hand stifling development and professionalism?

Having staunchly defended its own effectiveness, consistency and credibility for years, Ofsted has revised its processes yet again. There is now a common inspection framework throughout the system from early years onwards. The starting point is to be the premise that schools and settings are good and we are promised that the new processes will lead to honest, rigorous and professional exchanges.

Many hundreds of freelance inspectors have been stood down and all inspections will be brought ‘in-house’. We should give credit to Ofsted at least for recognising previous inadequacies through action, if not through words of admission.

There is a sense in which those in schools have become resigned to it all; the tension, the negotiation, and the game that has to be played with the predictability of the outcome. Since the majority of schools end up in the Good category, the extent of outspoken criticism has reduced. Schools know that the outcome of the inspection is largely determined by the data they have secured, and so the inspection outcome is almost sealed in the previous summer. Most schools now predict the category they will be assigned, and of course most lie in that great swathe of nearly 80% of schools classified as Good. The chance of moving up or down a classification is experienced by relatively few schools.

The effect, however, is the opposite of what Ofsted and successive ministers might have intended, since the fear Ofsted engenders leads to defensive behaviours. Some schools might play safe and aim for the secure ground of good instead of striving to be excellent. Those in the top bracket seek not to lose their status for all the attached benefits. Those in the cellar scramble to escape the stigma.

Many schools remain happy to keep the wolf from the door and announce themselves as Good…which means being anywhere between the 82nd and 13th percentile of effectiveness. School communities are reassured by the rationale that their school is Good when this might mean they are among the least effective 20 percent. Maybe this ‘playing safe’ is what the government now means by ‘coasting’? In which case, Ofsted is itself creating the problem it is supposedly identifying!

The problem for many years is that Ofsted has veiled itself with the authoritative cloak of terms like ‘evidence’ and ‘triangulation.’ Yet many know that the ‘consistency’ of Ofsted lies in the reports being vetted by the reader back at base, rather than by the parity of judgments made in lesson observations or a scrutiny of pupil products. The data sets produce the hypothesis that generates the explanation that becomes the evidence during inspection. The need for the next contract has ensured that inspectors themselves play safe by ensuring that their judgement replicates the numerical data, without actually scraping the surface, let alone the depths of the school. This is why so many reports are bland and unhelpful.

Periodically the leader, HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw, identifies good and poor practice in schools. The trawlers then follow the seagull. They find the examples they seek and within no time it is ‘evidence’. The Chief Inspector only needs to mention the use of worksheets and, in the coming year, the evidence against their use will stack up. It is no doubt an insightful and long overdue criticism but why has the evidence not come through analysis of thousands of reports written annually?

This signalling by the seagull of where to seek the next shoal of evidence can be a good thing, but a side effect could be schools generating evidence for the potential visitors rather than authentic and sustained educational improvement.

Ofsted has often blamed schools for second-guessing what Ofsted is supposedly looking for. It insists that schools’ expectations are myths, with no foundation – yet the wave begins somewhere. Why did the ripple of multi-coloured triple marking become a wave? We should welcome the recent outbreak of the teaching of values, but some schools admit their efforts are merely an attempt to produce some scraps to throw at the trawlers. Headteachers talk openly of ‘ticking the boxes’ and ‘putting all the lights on’. They compile a net full of evidence, and here lies the root of the problem. This game risks factoring children out of schooling.

There is some chance that the change in personnel arrangements might improve matters. Instead of diligent freelancers always looking over their shoulders towards the private agencies that employ them, the new approach creates a potential for HMI leadership and headteacher involvement. HMI have traditionally been respected and their inspections valued. Before Ofsted was invented, they used professional insight rather than formulaic analysis, and heads were able to engage with them in honest dialogue rather than anxious negotiation.

Sir Michael Wilshaw once claimed he could tell a good school within half an hour. If that is the case, this professional and experienced insight could be the starting point, the basis for a hypothesis that seeks out and interprets solid evidence, including data. The professional dialogue during an inspection should be more about pupil experience and less about spreadsheets.

What are we to make of Ofsted? Is it the all-seeing regulator, the engine of school improvement, the guardian of standards – or the dead hand stifling development and professionalism?

Having staunchly defended its own effectiveness, consistency and credibility for years, Ofsted has revised its processes yet again. There is now a common inspection framework throughout the system from early years onwards. The starting point is to be the premise that schools and settings are good and we are promised that the new processes will lead to honest, rigorous and professional exchanges.

Many hundreds of freelance inspectors have been stood down and all inspections will be brought ‘in-house’. We should give credit to Ofsted at least for recognising previous inadequacies through action, if not through words of admission.

There is a sense in which those in schools have become resigned to it all; the tension, the negotiation, and the game that has to be played with the predictability of the outcome. Since the majority of schools end up in the Good category, the extent of outspoken criticism has reduced. Schools know that the outcome of the inspection is largely determined by the data they have secured, and so the inspection outcome is almost sealed in the previous summer. Most schools now predict the category they will be assigned, and of course most lie in that great swathe of nearly 80% of schools classified as Good. The chance of moving up or down a classification is experienced by relatively few schools.

The effect, however, is the opposite of what Ofsted and successive ministers might have intended, since the fear Ofsted engenders leads to defensive behaviours. Some schools might play safe and aim for the secure ground of good instead of striving to be excellent. Those in the top bracket seek not to lose their status for all the attached benefits. Those in the cellar scramble to escape the stigma.

Many schools remain happy to keep the wolf from the door and announce themselves as Good…which means being anywhere between the 82nd and 13th percentile of effectiveness. School communities are reassured by the rationale that their school is Good when this might mean they are among the least effective 20 percent. Maybe this ‘playing safe’ is what the government now means by ‘coasting’? In which case, Ofsted is itself creating the problem it is supposedly identifying!

The problem for many years is that Ofsted has veiled itself with the authoritative cloak of terms like ‘evidence’ and ‘triangulation.’ Yet many know that the ‘consistency’ of Ofsted lies in the reports being vetted by the reader back at base, rather than by the parity of judgments made in lesson observations or a scrutiny of pupil products. The data sets produce the hypothesis that generates the explanation that becomes the evidence during inspection. The need for the next contract has ensured that inspectors themselves play safe by ensuring that their judgement replicates the numerical data, without actually scraping the surface, let alone the depths of the school. This is why so many reports are bland and unhelpful.

Periodically the leader, HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw, identifies good and poor practice in schools. The trawlers then follow the seagull. They find the examples they seek and within no time it is ‘evidence’. The Chief Inspector only needs to mention the use of worksheets and, in the coming year, the evidence against their use will stack up. It is no doubt an insightful and long overdue criticism but why has the evidence not come through analysis of thousands of reports written annually?

This signalling by the seagull of where to seek the next shoal of evidence can be a good thing, but a side effect could be schools generating evidence for the potential visitors rather than authentic and sustained educational improvement.

Ofsted has often blamed schools for second-guessing what Ofsted is supposedly looking for. It insists that schools’ expectations are myths, with no foundation – yet the wave begins somewhere. Why did the ripple of multi-coloured triple marking become a wave? We should welcome the recent outbreak of the teaching of values, but some schools admit their efforts are merely an attempt to produce some scraps to throw at the trawlers. Headteachers talk openly of ‘ticking the boxes’ and ‘putting all the lights on’. They compile a net full of evidence, and here lies the root of the problem. This game risks factoring children out of schooling.

There is some chance that the change in personnel arrangements might improve matters. Instead of diligent freelancers always looking over their shoulders towards the private agencies that employ them, the new approach creates a potential for HMI leadership and headteacher involvement. HMI have traditionally been respected and their inspections valued. Before Ofsted was invented, they used professional insight rather than formulaic analysis, and heads were able to engage with them in honest dialogue rather than anxious negotiation.

Sir Michael Wilshaw once claimed he could tell a good school within half an hour. If that is the case, this professional and experienced insight could be the starting point, the basis for a hypothesis that seeks out and interprets solid evidence, including data. The professional dialogue during an inspection should be more about pupil experience and less about spreadsheets.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Accountability and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s