There’s only one F in Ofsted

Posted on May 19, 2013

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Imagine if the teaching profession en masse were given a magic lamp with their very own genie in it, and that every teacher were given a vote on a collective three wishes. There would, I think, be two certainties and one highly contested third wish. The certainties would be that something pretty awful would befall our stunningly belligerent Secretary of State (imagine something like the fates of Saint Sebastian and Rasputin with turbo boosters on and you’ll get the idea) and that Ofsted would mysteriously disappear never to be seen again.

It’s this last point I want to dwell on in this post: what would we do if Ofsted were to disappear overnight? How would that leave us as a profession and would we really not miss them at all? My instinct is that we need them more than we think we do, at least for now, and that the well-intended alternatives might prove to be worse for the profession in some ways. As such it’s a post that will definitely fit into my Toby Young ‘Lose Friends and Alienate People’ oeuvre. But what the hell. Let’s see what I can make of it.

Scenario 1: No Replacement for Ofsted
Before I begin this scenario, let’s reassure ourselves that it’s not gonna happen under any government at any time in the next century or so. In some senses it’s not their fault. Modern politics, controlled by the 24-hour news agenda as by anything else, is addicted to proving progress and avoiding blame. The ‘parental choice’ genie is very much out of the bottle too and although it is as mythical a concept as any all-powerful lamp-dweller, that doesn’t stop it having resonance with all of the interested parties, particularly the political ones. And so given these givens public accountability is here to stay and will be inextricably linked to academic outcomes for some time yet. This isn’t a counsel of despair, just a statement of a fact that won’t change until we have a non-union profession-wide body to create some alternatives for us (more of that later).

But what if there was nothing to replace Ofsted? How would that work? Well, first of all there’d be one heck of a lot of school leaders and consultants going cold turkey. Just imagine the external CPD provider trying to tout places on its “Outstanding in 20 Minutes” courses in that kind of world. Whole families of once-upon-a-teachers would find themselves minus their golden eggs and staring forlornly into the cupboards in search of a bone. Empires would crumble and the word ‘progress’ would need to be removed from dictionaries up and down the land.

How would SLTs up and down the country know which policies to implement if they were unable to supplement their INSET day presentations with phrase like “Ofsted will be expecting” or “under the new framework this will be crucial” or “now, we aren’t doing this for Ofsted but…”? How would we know which former false prophets and idols to jettison once they had ceased to have meaning in terms of the Ofsted Handbook. If we aren’t careful in such a dystopian vision we might still be left trying to achieve community cohesion or contemplating ideas that every child matters. Thank goodness that’s not the case.

And what about teachers themselves? Where would the validation of their brilliance come from if not from the legion of Ofsted-lite systems that schools adopt? How would we know if we were Good teachers or not if we weren’t appropriately labelled? How would teachers know if they Require Improvement without being told so? Heavens, in such a scenario even Outstanding Teachers might think that they too would require improvement!! We’d be forced to contemplate a complete separation of teacher and lesson judgment (or rather part-lesson judgment) that might be as catastrophic for us and our lessons as the separation of conjoined twins all too often proves to be.

No. I think I have shown beyond all doubt that an Ofsted-free world is a disaster waiting to happen. If our Pedagenie is going to make Ofsted vanish then we need to ask him to provide us with some kind of accountability stabilisers to stop us from falling off our accelerated learning cycle. Conveniently there have been two post-Ofsted scenarios conjured up for us by NAHT and DEMOS. Let’s take a magic carpet ride with them and see where they take us.

Scenario 2: The Headteacher-led Model
This weekend the NAHT proposed an alternative to the current Ofsted regime that weighs oh-so-heavily on Heads. Introducing the concept the head of the union commented that “Schools dance to Ofsted’s tune but don’t really learn from the experience”. Thankfully the NAHT has learnt that nothing is to be gained by allowing Ofsted to dominate our thinking, forcing us to define ourselves in opposition to them: That’s why they came up with the name INSTEAD to show that we are very much a proactive profession, reacting to no-one.

INSTEAD appears to be built on the premise of peer review where the peers of Heads will review each others’ teaching staff. To make it an altogether more human experience for their peers, visiting… “INSTEAD Heads will offer feedback and stay in touch with the Head after their inspection” thus assuring that the level of challenge to teachers remains high, and risking no accusations that peer-to-peer review will be a cosy experience for teachers.

Few details about the specifics of the INSTEAD proposals have been released yet, but to ensure that they are robust in the face of possible criticism NAHT may want to make sure even more of their members have been Ofsted trained at least and former lead inspectors where necessary (before our cheeky genie carries out our second wish of course). But, in a revolutionary new approach to the old Ofsted way of doing things INSTEAD Heads “will look beyond a school’s results”, perhaps observing lessons, conducting learner and parent surveys, interviewing key middle and senior leaders and even walking down corridors taking in the ethos of the school.

The new INSTEAD proposals for inspections (by serving Headteachers) are designed to ensure that never again will people who have been out of the classroom for years, with little or no recent experience of teaching to inform their judgments, be allowed to dictate the school accountability process.

And so you see, there is hope of a life beyond Ofsted. The only fly in the ointment of INSTEAD is that it will remove Heads from their existing schools for days at a time. No impact assessments have been done on this decapitation strategy, but there is significant concern amongst standard scale classroom teachers that the vacuum created by such a proposal mightn’t be able to be filled, even with an annual descent of a large team of Heads to provide stability.

Scenario 3: The Multi- Perspective Inspection
Courtesy of the think-tank Demos this post-Ofsted strategy involves schools “collecting data annually from staff, students and parents about…their experience of the school” and using this “to inform in-depth conversations” that lead to “an honest account of what is strong and what is less strong”. Under this scenario school leaders and teachers will be asked to inspect themselves and will be trusted entirely in the process of doing so: a welcome change to be sure.

To ensure that this trustworthiness isn’t abused Demos suggest that “Ofsted would analyse these reports before engaging in a dialogue with schools about how the plan it has come up with might be further improved”. This could presumably involve a possibly “renamed and remodelled” Ofsted telling schools that their self-evaluation processes require improvement, but if it is in the name of trustworthiness then that is all to the good. In cases where this trustworthiness is well and truly abused the reconfigured Ofsted would even be able to “argue that the strategy being adopted might not be adequate”: an altogether different approach to labelling a school as being inadequate. Finally the entirely different Ofsted might, in times of a complete breakdown in trustworthiness, “have to blow the whistle on a school”, presumably by informing the Secretary of State so he could reassert trustworthiness once more: A far cry from Ofsted in its current incarnation.

Perhaps the most revolutionary element of this proposal is that schools will be required to talk with their staff, students and parents on an annual basis to form what might possibly be known as School Improvement Plans (or Self-Evaluation Forms for the retrospective elements). These plans could then, presumably, be used to inform action plans at department level and individual performance management objectives. To facilitate these activities schools would be required to choose an “external partner” (I’d like to propose the title School Improvement Partner – or SIP for short). The further addition of an annual, bureaucratic public accountability layer to these innovations would consequently allow schools to focus far more rigorously an robustly on improving teaching and learning.

Whilst I like many of the proposals from Demos I am concerned that too many of the systems they propose are too alien from the past accountability systems and that school leaders and staff will struggle to understand the concepts. With this in mind I have to reluctantly put aside scenario 3 as a likely option.

All of which leaves me with scenario 4.

Scenario 4: There’s Only One Effing Ofsted
In scenario 4 we have an accountability system that leaves most schools alone for most of the time, perhaps only seeing them once every four years or so (although I’d like to see it give more time to schools hauling themselves up from special measures).

It is an accountability system that is external to school leadership structures and holds weak or overly robust SLTs to account for their actions (although I’d like to see it less reliant on external exam-based data in reaching all of its judgments).

It is an accountability structure which spends most of its two day process in lessons evaluating the quality of teaching and learning of the school as a whole (although I would like to see it abandon entirely the pretence of awarding grades to individual teachers).

It is an accountability system headed by a former teacher who regularly tells anyone who listens that there is no expected way to teach (although I would like to see it also address the quality of poor inspection teams as ruthlessly as it addresses the quality of poor schools).

It is an accountability system that listens to the views of individual teachers, students and parents through surveys without allowing itself to be deflected when the outcomes of those surveys don’t square with what they see in lessons and around corridors.

There are only two substantive changes I would want to make to this accountability system. The first is that I would like to see it increasingly removed from the whimsical diktats of politicians of all stripes, perhaps accountable more to the Education Select Committee as a strand in ministerial scrutiny as much as school scrutiny. Perhaps informed by a strong, independent Royal College of Teaching that knows how to align professional autonomy with professional accountability better than those who have never been a part of our profession. The second is that I would like to see it less feared by school leaders. As part of that I would dearly like to see the removal of the ‘annual risk assessment’ that tells Heads their schools are likely to be seen this year, giving time for the fear to take hold and the perverse incentives to kick in. But the reduction of fear is (I fear) very much in the hands of school leaders themselves. We shouldn’t need permission not to be scared.

Postscript: The Third Wish
As for the contested third wish of teachers….? Well who knows? I’m rather hoping that it’ll be something relatively anodyne like never ending summer holidays or every day being a Friday. But at the end of this tongue-in-cheek, Ofsted-recommending post (and with apologies to all those I may have offended in the process), the SLT paranoia is beginning to twitch and the dark place inside me is beginning to grow darker. And anyway where has all this stormy weather come from? Why is that rumble of thunder so menacingly loud? What’s that bright flash in the sky………..?

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