Monday, 8 August 2011

Ofsted part 1: A journey into questioning the status quo.

Time for an interruption for something anglocentric I’m afraid.  I will come back to the yin and yang theme after that and in the meantime please do continue to comment on any old posts.

Like the vast majority of those in English Education, my assumption that there had to be a coherent explanation as to why reason why Ofsted is as it is was deeply ingrained.

I’ve seen such horrors, but I assumed that it was only me – that my experiences were not representative.  I’ve seen the gifted teachers destroyed by ‘unsatisfactory’ ratings.  I watched strong pedagogies disappear because they weren’t ‘Ofsted-proof’.  I've seen great school put into special measures by teams who’ve turned up with scores of ‘fail points’ those schools had to disprove in order to avoid the status and have been deemed to be ‘failing’ despite disproving very nearly all of them.  I’d read the statistics about the correlation between Ofsted gradings and exam outcomes.

Yet still, when I accepted a position as Head of Maths at a school in special measures, I expected the frequent dialogue with inspectors to be a constructive experience.  The reason for this was that our HMI was the top inspector for maths in England.  My personal experiences of such characters had been so positive that I was convinced the interaction would be appropriately challenging and constructive.  With excellent academic and teaching credentials, a credible history of achievements in mathematics education at national and international levels, a clear plan as to how we would harness the substantial technological resources we had to transform results and a strong network of friends and contacts across mathematics education I thought it would be a constructive experience.  I am well known for relishing every challenge and seeing it as being an opportunity to achieve deeper insight.

The reality was…. indescribably awful.  

Yet still I was convinced I must just have been unlucky. I started to listen to others as I attended conferences.   From a distance Ofsted had done a wonderful job at their schools.  Close up the picture was very different.  But I could only get ‘close up’ because teachers trusted me.  They could see I’d been there.  They didn’t feel at all at ease expressing their experiences and had no fluency in doing so.  Most were embarrassed by their experiences.  Few felt that there was any point in talking about it as nothing would change and they would be labelled trouble makers.  

In essence it seemed that the quality of the reports and gradings were often very low.  The constant numerical grading of everything created a pseudo-objectivity to the reports, but it often seemed that those numbers (or at least the average/corollary grading of them) was determined prior to the arrival of inspectors and the reports were cut and paste standard comments which linked those grades with few modifications.  This seemed to be much more the case in schools with challenging cohorts which did not choose to follow strategies where by all staff were ‘singing from the same hymnsheet’ all the time in order to allow teachers to have a degree of professional responsibility and freedom in allowing them to teach to best of their abilities and to adapt rapidly to evolving circumstances.

It seemed to me that the process of grading the quality of provision was counterproductive because it created a false sense of objectivity, it created abstract definitions of what a high quality education was which meant that much great teaching went unrecognised and, most importantly, it seemed to militate against dialogue between schools and weaker inspectors who could hide behind their own negative judgements of the staff who disagreed with their opinions.  The feedback loops were virtually non existent for most staff and the assumption that weak results indicated that ‘weak teachers should be punished’ could only be countered by very strong, eloquent and established heads.    

It seemed to me then that what was needed instead was that Ofsted should be responsible for clearly defining ‘unacceptable’ practice in collaboration with all stakeholders and that it should demand (as part of the process of avoidance of ‘unacceptable practice’) that schools provide detailed qualitative descriptions regarding their current practices and their processes and plans for improvement and that these should be scrutinised, audited and mentored by inspectors.  

Yet still I assumed that Ofsted must have a justification for continuing to use these numerical grades for the quality of provision.  So I started to suggest in both face-to-face and in discussion forums that they shouldn’t in order to try and reveal what this justification was. Coherent answers or justifications for what Ofsted was doing did not arrive*.  Instead I found that international education regulators and other UK regulators considered the grading of the quality of provision above a high floor standard to be poor practice and effectively to be illegal under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act (2006) which enshrined the Hampton Principles for regulation for the reasons I suggested.  To define what is high quality provision militates against innovation, diversity and regulators properly tuning in to and seeking to understand what is actually going on.  Improvement is more effectively achieved through detailed scrutiny and mentoring of provision and improvement processes.
(more to follow).


  1. There's much of what you said that I couldn't follow. It sounds like Ofsted (in Britain?) is the equivalent of NCLB in the U.S.?

    I am fascinated, and would like to understand better. It's scary...

  2. Thanks for reading Sue - I thought it was rather a long post and I really appreciate you sticking with it.

    Ofsted is the OFfice for STandards in EDucation. Schools in the UK are regularly inspected and subject to detailed reports. You can find lots of such reports on their website.

    What's the NCLB?

  3. No Child Left Behind was introduced by Bush, and mandated all the icky standardized testing. Many schools are now considered 'failing'. There's a blog I follow by a teacher in a 'failing' school that the families love. NCLB is still in force, and Obama has added Race to the Top, which is in some ways worse (anti-tenure, and something else).