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“Scrapping Ofsted would leave us with a fragmented system”
Dr Melanie Ehren, reader in educational accountability and improvement, UCL Institute of Education
Many teachers and headteachers feel that Ofsted does more harm than good: “overhauling Ofsted” and “abolishing the watchdog” have become popular catch phrases. A quick glance at some headlines over the years explains some of the concerns: inaccuracy and inconsistency of Ofsted gradings; and inspectors who are poorly qualified and disrespectful in their communication with schools, or have a formulaic view of teaching and leadership. Ofsted is seen as one of the (or perhaps the major) causes of stagnating improvement as the fear of “being Ofsted-ed” has produced a risk-averse school system. It is no wonder that many would argue to abolish Ofsted altogether: it has clearly become a poisoned brand.
Why then should we not scrap Ofsted? Research across Europe shows the many positive effects of school inspections, in this country and others. School inspections can unlock valuable knowledge about the performance of individual schools, pointing towards great practice in high quality teaching and learning.
They can also highlight areas that need to be improved, both in individual schools and on a system-level. Recent Ofsted reports on geographical inequalities within the country, or failing academy chains have done just that: they have highlighted where we need to do better and how our government needs to be smarter.
Scrapping Ofsted would leave us with a system that is fragmented in the information available about school quality, placing an even larger emphasis on external examinations and performance league tables. Other countries that have such test-based accountability, such as the US, have seen an over-reliance on data and tests, extensive teaching to test, narrow curricula focused on tested subjects and root-based learning.
School inspection, on the other hand, informs us about the quality of schools on a range of indicators so we can compare, track and contrast their performance over time. Alternative systems of quality assurance, such as school self-evaluation or peer review, would not provide that national and comparative overview.
“Ofsted does not help schools improve: a self-evaluation system would be more effective”
John MacBeath, professor emeritus, faculty of education, the University of Cambridge
The litmus test: does Ofsted empower teachers to become better professionals or does it disempower? It’s been widely reported that Ofsted is a major cause of stress among teachers. There’s a telling quote from Michael Wilshaw: “If anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you will know you are doing something right.”
The reward for getting the top grade in an Ofsted inspection is that you won’t be inspected again for another few years. That says it all – it is clearly not an experience that schools look forward to, nor want again.
In a number of countries in which we’ve conducted research, such as New Zealand and Hong Kong, there’s a form of external review or quality assurance which works from a different premise. Rather than “we’re coming to inspect you and here are our criteria which you have to meet”, the review team will ask staff and pupils what they consider a good school to be, how they evaluate their own school, the criteria they use and their sources of evidence. If a school is considered to be struggling, it will be given extra support to improve, not labeled as “requires improvement”.
In the early 1980s in Scotland I was commissioned to help design an approach to self-evaluation. We met with teachers, parents, advisers and children aged five-18, and asked: what would make a good school for you? How would we know it was a good school? The consistency of answers from all groups provided a robust set of criteria.
As professionals, teachers have a pretty good idea of what makes a good classroom and what makes good learning. Unfortunately with Ofsted, teachers are too often disenfranchised because the things that are important to them aren’t included in the inspection criteria. Ofsted focuses primarily on maths and English, and what is most easily measurable. They marginalise other creative aspects of school life, such as art, drama, sport or a range of student-led initiatives.
To Ofsted’s credit, it has – over the decades – changed, and changed again. Often these changes are ones many of us have long advocated, such as differential reviews in which some schools are given greater support than others.
Although I’m critical of Ofsted, the nub of the problem lies with the nature of what Ofsted has to inspect. Michael Gove’s curriculum reform, for example, ignored the advice from his own experts – he knew from his own schooldays what a curriculum should look like and how it should be tested.
While there are many outstanding Ofsted inspectors, they are hamstrung in terms of what and how they have to inspect, living with the legacy of a process and protocols which are widely seen by teachers as neither fair nor effective.
It is therefore time to value the expertise and good of our Ofsted inspectors and make sure they work towards the benefit of our schools. Having said that, we also need to acknowledge that there is a problem; we need to get our inspection service right. A big step forward would be a more positive tone of voice from our watchdog when talking about the performance of our teachers, headteachers and school governors. The appointment of a new chief inspector in December will hopefully provide the momentum to change the narrative and ensure a more constructive inspection force.