A personal ‘think-piece’ by our Chief Executive. This may not represent the views of the Teacher Development Trust.

The office for standards in education, aka Ofsted, is England’s independent schools inspectorate and regulator. England is not alone in having such a body. Many countries which score well in international comparisons also have their own inspection services, including Singapore, Canada and New Zealand, although Finland is a notable and often-quoted exception, and Australia also does not have such a service.

Recent research from the London School of Economics and Political Science suggests that Ofsted’s judgements correlate reasonably well to other indicators of school quality and that schools who receive an ‘inadequate’ rating tend to be spurred to improve. However, this research does note that effects ‘tend to be short-lived’ and other research from the University of Keele has found an adverse effect on examination results in the year after an Ofsted inspection.

A recent Parliamentary Education Select Committee report in to Ofsted noted a number of comments suggesting that the process of inspection causes a great deal of stress, that there is a view from the profession that the quality of inspectors is highly variable (although the committee found no clear difference between HMIs and associate inspectors here), and that there is a great deal of confusion as to Ofsted’s role from the outside and from within –  is it there purely to inspect or is it also there to take a role in school improvement? This last tension is clearly apparent in two clear and apparently contradictory statements given in Ofsted’s Strategic Plan for 2011-2015:

“Ofsted inspects and regulates to achieve excellence in education and skills for learners of all ages”

“All of Ofsted’s work is designed to improve outcomes for children and learners, and to support our vision of raising standards and improving lives while providing value for money”

There is considerable reluctance within Ofsted itself to take on a responsibility for school improvement, although some inspectors and school leaders do want to see inspection carried out with a view to supporting school improvement. Indeed, the select committee recommended that:

 “[Ofsted] should not aim to be an improvement agency, although inspection should of course hold up a mirror to an institution’s failings and recommend areas for improvement without dictating how that improvement should come about. Similarly, it should continue Ofsted’s work disseminating best practice, not just through inspections but through its website and publications as well.”

This approach chimes well with the research about using evidence to improve the quality of teaching and learning in that teachers need to take responsibility for their own improvement and drive it through collaborative enquiry with expert input.

However, part of that process is that teachers should be peer-assessing and taking responsibility for encouraging each other to improve, and it seems therefore logical that the same principle should operate at the school level. Again, the select committee suggested this approach themselves:

“The Education Inspectorate should see as part of its mission a role to support the development of robust self and peer evaluation through appropriate partnerships. The expectation would be that over time the role of the Education Inspectorate would reduce, as a mature model of self-improvement based on trust becomes embedded.

This is absolutely in line with robust findings on how to use evidence to improve delivery in all public services. However, there are three major stumbling blocks when it comes to the credibility of the evidence being delivered by inspectors.

  1. For inspection evidence to be successfully absorbed and acted-upon, teachers need to feel that it is aligned with their values.
  2. Teachers will generally rate evidence from their colleagues as more credible than that from outside sources, and will rate evidence from similar practitioners in similar contexts over that from people from different backgrounds.
  3. The most credible evidence comes from sources with whom a relationship of trust has been built up, and where evidence has been collected in partnership with teachers over some time through a process of negotiation and collaboration.

Clearly, this contrasts sharply with the short-sharp-shock approach where unknown inspectors who are generally non-practising teachers (and in a few well-publicised cases never were teachers) appear, deliver judgements and leave. Oral feedback is brief and superficial with little time to delve in to the underlying theory, and written feedback is fairly bland and technical.

The is a second set of problems when it then comes to the improvement approach itself:

  1. Successful practice-change tends to come about when teachers have chosen their own pupil-learning focus rather than having it imposed.
  2. Improvements in learning are significantly more likely to occur when the teachers remain in contact with the external expert over a sustained time in order to calibrate judgements, develop understanding of the underlying theories, and receive both support and challenge to keep the process moving forward while avoiding common pitfalls.
  3. The learning and improvement process is enhanced by frequent self-evaluation, timely formative personal feedback and targeted advice (from both the expert and from peers).

Again, this contrasts with the process used by Ofsted as inspectors’ focus may be entirely different to the current focus on improvement by the teacher or school, the inspector maintains a deliberate distance after delivering a judgement, and inspections and consequent feedback given to teachers and schools occurs very infrequently and is broadly summative in nature.

Clearly accountability systems, including Ofsted, play an important role in overcoming the natural inertia in organisational change, they can hold up a clear, independent light to alow organisations to make better judgements, they can offer recognition of success, and they can provide rich data to inform public spending and policy decisions. However when you add to this mix the extrinsic motivational issues whereby Ofsted judgements can lead to shaming of staff and schools, reduction in resources through decreasing pupil numbers which threaten school viability and survival, threat to job security of teachers, school leaders and governors then you will quite naturally end up swamping a lot of intrinsic motivation to improve that was driven by altruism, love of learning, curiosity, etc.

A possible reason for the very isolated stance of Ofsted is that this does add to the credibility of any findings from the public’s perspective, that it’s judgements are seen as more independent, and that it therefore has clearer incentives to provide accurate and non-biased information to parliament about school effectiveness and the value for money being delivered.

However, due to a lack of credibility and trust within the profession, inspection evidence causes a huge amount of resentment and can be very divisive. Judgements are not trusted and make it harder for schools and teachers to change practice, not easier. Due to fleeting and superficial engagement with underlying theories when disseminating findings, some schools (although not all) will inevitably seek to avoid shame and threat by going for the most superficial approaches to ‘pleasing’ Ofsted.

As there is no automatic process to bring about effective change as a result of Ofsted findings, then it is likely that in many cases teaching practice will not substantially change, so Ofsted will see a greater number of ‘performances’ rather than the everyday classroom reality.

Ofsted does try to counter this negativity with a large amount of research and good practice guidance, some of which is excellent. However, schools will naturally vary in their enthusiasm & capacity to engage with the best-practice publications, so many misconceptions will remain. Not only that, but there is a large body of evidence that shows that distributing written material is the least effective way of bringing about change in practice, whereas interactive approaches where the researchers work directly alongside schools are significantly superior.

Many school leaders and other organisations also try to counter any negative influence by engaging with schools to bring about meaningful improvements in learning. There is no question that particularly resourceful teachers and leaders are able to do this but this is in spite of, and not due to, the current process for school inspection and lack of follow-up engagement.

The suggestion then is that Ofsted is flawed in design, and that in their attempt to promote independence then policy makers have unwittingly weakened its ability to deliver meaningful, sustained and substantial improvement.

There are a number of ways to improve the current status quo. Probably the worst of these would be to create a huge upheaval by massively changing the Ofsted framework again as this would mean that school leaders’ ability to focus on teaching and learning in their school is once again diluted by a need to understand new structures and regulations.

However, in terms of incremental improvements there are a few possibilities that could be gradually phased in.

  1. Significantly increase the number of practising teachers taking part in inspections. Ofsted and it’s Regional Inspection Service Providers (such as Tribal, CfBT and Serco) have made some headway with this but the select committee was absolutely right to suggest that “we suggest that such secondments could be built into job descriptions for practitioners, and would encourage Government, centrally and locally, to consider how that might work. Consideration should continue to be given to other ways to ensure that practitioners are encouraged to become inspectors.”
  2. Schools should be able to ‘buy-in’ the services of practising, accredited inspectors to give them feedback on their efforts to improve. This should occur not only in whole-day visits, but also via telephone, by submitting video clips, and through brief ‘pop-ins’ for just an afternoon. They should also be able to commission inspectors to provide quality-assurance of peer-observations (both within the school and in consortium with other schools).
  3. In order to build capacity, Ofsted should encourage every school chain, alliance or consortium to have two or three trained inspectors to act as a conduit of good practice – from Ofsted to the schools and to identify good practice to send back up the chain.
  4. Ofsted should invite a local head along to every inspection in order to write an impartial report on the fairness of the inspection process. This report would be made available alongside the main report.
  5. The definition of ‘good’ teaching should remain fairly tight and subject to ongoing debate, review and refinement. The definition of ‘outstanding’ should be relaxed to include a variety of contrasting exemplars that all go beyond good in different ways, without being prescriptive as to what ‘outstanding’ must look like. This would hopefully end a culture of ‘only one way to be outstanding’ and allow more creative approaches to teaching to flourish while always exceeding an agreed ‘good’ standard.

What other ideas do you have to improve the current system? Do you agree this this analysis? Comments would be most welcome.