Since its inception Ofsted has had its critics. Since its establishment, the focus for schools and for the education they provide has been on whatever Ofsted inspects – rather than what professionals think, feel and know are the most important aspects of education, schooling and learning. Yes, this may never have been the intention (though maybe it was) but that is the reality. The focus for Ofsted inspections has been determined by politicians and their advisors and not by those who truly understand what education is all about – i.e. the teachers and managers within schools, and also academics who’ve spent years researching, implementing and sharing work on pedagogy.
As we commented in our previous post, there are two areas of external interference in education. One concerns governance and the structures of accountability, and the other is the content of the curriculum and the quality of teaching and learning. Ofsted – the “Office for standards in education” was established mainly to regulate and assess the latter, though they also had, and continue to have, a role in assessing the leadership and management of schools. However, its role was not to be an instrument for structural change. Admittedly, in “failing” schools, Ofsted has always had the role of deciding whether to place a school in special measures, but once that judgment had been made it was up to the school community, the local authority and HMI to make the right decisions for the future of the children and the adults within a school. Following the judgment on category, Ofsted’s role was at an end.
This is evidently no longer the case. However much Ofsted claims its independence from government, the cases described in our previous post tell a completely different story.
This is one reason why people within schools are so concerned about Ofsted. When the inspector calls, there’s an immediate feeling of anxiety as more and more frequently the sole, main or absolute focus is on academic attainment. The worth, value and individuality of schools are seemingly ignored. There’s a persistent danger that a poor judgment in any aspect will be accompanied by a telephone call from the Academies Brokers – beginning with a mild hint they might consider a change in the school’s governance, and progressing to all-out bullying pressure on schools to choose the option of academisation.
Is it any wonder, with that potential outcome, that people are somewhat suspicious of the real motive behind the judgments that some Ofsted teams give?
(Please note, we are extremely aware that there are some excellent Ofsted inspectors who’ve spent a lifetime steeped in knowing, understanding and implementing positive organisational and pedagogical changes, and have a real understanding of how a school actually operates.)
So the question remains whether there are alternatives to Ofsted that wouldn’t negatively impact on the improvement in “standards” that have undoubtedly occurred over the years, that would maintain a purposeful level of positive criticism, that would account for other aspects of education that have been sidelined and largely ignored by the Ofsted regime, and would be truly independent from the clear political agenda to turn every school into an academy?
According to Russell Hobby of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), there is an alternative which they are currently trialling.
In a recent interview with Peter Wilby and the Guardian, Mr Hobby outlined the ideas behind “Instead” – the alternative to Ofsted, whereby headteachers take part in peer inspections that are focused on positive criticism, sharing of good and effective practice and consideration of all aspects of education – not just academic attainment. In relation to the new SPAG tests, Mr Hobby quite rightly points out that as a profession, “We don’t object to assessment. We do object to assessment that doesn’t accurately reflect performance”. The same can be said about the whole inspection regime.
(To read the interview with Russell Hobby, click on the following link. It’s an excellent interview with some sound ideas that go far beyond the focus of this particular post.)
On the NAHT website Mr Hobby says, “We believe in the power of constructive inspection, which gets behind the numbers and looks at both the academic performance and the wider ethos of a school, which understands context and which uses the expertise of highly skilled practitioners to help chart a way forward.”
According to the NAHT website, “Instead” will
- ensure heads and school leaders conduct all first line inspections
- use broad and rounded measures of school success, which will include but not be limited to exam performance
- see an ongoing relationship between inspectors and schools to ensure continuity once inspection concludes
- ensure inspectors have specific experience of working within the phase they are inspecting
- encourage peer to peer review and school collaboration
For a further account of how this system might operate, go to the NAHT website:
Here are some key quotes from the website.
“A peer-led system would raise standards by giving school leaders the freedom to recognise and share best practice across education, while allowing Ofsted itself to focus its resources more effectively.”
“Schools dance to Ofsted’s tune but don’t really learn from the experience – they are too busy defending themselves against it and then recovering. Their leaders are passionate about delivering the best for their pupils and understand the role external scrutiny plays in providing a first-class education. Through Instead, heads and senior management will be offered a chance to take ownership of standards by inviting staff from other schools to challenge their judgments and plans. We have every reason to believe peer review will be challenging and rigorous, as often it requires professionals to spot problems others may miss.”
“NAHT believes it should be a duty for experienced heads of stable schools to participate in peer inspections under the Instead system. In turn, those heads will also develop professionally.”
It will be interesting to see how this pilot progresses.
Sometimes the media gives the impression that the teaching profession is against all forms of scrutiny and accountability. That is so far from the truth as to be offensive in its misrepresentation. As in life, we should all be accountable for how we behave, how we affect the lives of others and ultimately how we are true to ourselves. It’s far easier to accept the positive criticism of a friend who really knows you and understands your uniqueness, than from a complete stranger who has no understanding or empathy as to who you are, how and why you function in the way you do, and what it is about you that is special, important and significant – as an individual.
The same goes for schools. Practising teachers and headteachers are obviously going to understand the day to day pressures of school life far more readily than those who haven’t worked under the current prescriptive system, with the ever-present threat of changes of governance if your results aren’t quite right, and without any due regard for the sort of issues in schools that affect results – changes in staff, abilities of specific cohorts, real life experiences that happen on a day to day basis in schools that have to be dealt with immediately, be they about safeguarding or sorting out an extremely local dispute). Even the most enlightened and empathetic Ofsted inspector can’t take account for these real issues when their own accountability is so ridiculously narrow.
Ultimately, the key issue which politicians have such little regard for is that schools are about people. They’re about life. All too frequently, there are aspects of life that can’t be measured and can’t be put on hold because the inspector is about to visit.
Any accountability has to reflect this fact, which is why we are so determined that any “inspection” be it Ofsted or “Instead” should broaden its focus to achievement rather than attainment, ensuring that the needs of the child and indeed the staff within a school are at the centre of what is inspected.
Had Ofsted been called the Office for Quality in Education in the first instance, with an emphasis on the holistic achievements of pupils and schools rather than ‘standards’, then we might be in a different situation.
Standards are a significant part of achievement but achievement is far more than the attainment of academic standards.
- Ofsted, Politics and Primary Schools (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Ofsted methods may not be valid, says senior academic (schoolsimprovement.net)
- Why is Ofsted lashing out against primary schools? (schoolsimprovement.net)
- Why is Ofsted lashing out against primary schools? | John Harris (theguardian.com)