A Step Change for Ofsted? Stepping Out, not Stepping Up!

Posted on October 4, 2015


I hadn’t intended to write this post, but was rather provoked into doing so by this tweet from Sean Harford, with whom I was having a chat about the future of Ofsted.


To be fair, he was challenging me because I had just made it clear that I would never become an Ofsted inspector. But, since he’s inadvertently given me some work to do on what was going to be a lazy Saturday afternoon, I thought I’d use his words against him in the title of this post. No offence, Sean. You’ve always been the acceptable face of Ofsted (which is said in as complimentary a manner as I can muster for such a sentence).

My issue with the notion of “stepping up” is that, for Sean and others at Ofsted and the DfE, this means Headteachers and others becoming OIs (Ofsted Inspectors). As I pointed out in my Twitter response, I rather think that “stepping up” is like skinning a cat: one can do it in a number of ways. For example, taking jobs at challenging schools as both a teacher and a school leader (which I’ve done throughout my career), taking on the role of Headteacher in the most accountability-crazed era in educational history, leading on the creation of a Teaching School Alliance and – most recently – securing our status as an Academy Sponsor in spite of all the doubts we have about the national agenda surrounding such a move. I’d like to think that I personally have “stepped up” and that the schools I have played a role in leading have done so too.

But, taking Sean at his word, I’d like to suggest that there are a huge number of problems with Ofsted making a pitch to serving Headteachers and other senior leaders that “peer-led” inspection processes are the best way to “step up”. In doing so, I’d like to suggest that such “stepping up” is likely to be, at best, a papering over the cracks of the almost-existential threats that are currently facing Ofsted. And then, being the helpful soul I am, I’d like to “step up” and propose an alternative way forward for the inspectorate, but one which involves school staff “stepping out” of the inspection process rather than “stepping up” to it.

The Problems with “Stepping Up”

Where do I even start with this one?  Let’s commence with practical considerations.  Ofsted has a huge remit and only (according to its website) 1500 members of staff and 1500 Ofsted Inspectors, most of whom will be serving teachers in time.  This a time of increasing turbulence in exam results, a recruitment crisis looming on the horizon (for both teachers and Headteachers), the annual salami-slicing of school budgets and salami-stacking of school costs, ramped-up hysteria about safeguarding on a range of issues, the continued implosion of a coherent middle tier, and increasingly aggressive rhetoric about ‘coasting’ and ‘requires improvement’ (aka not now satisfactory) schools by the government.  Each one of these factors is likely to ensure that more and more schools appear on the Ofsted radar and are deemed in need of some form of special measures.  At the same time, each is more and more likely to demand the attention of school leaders, increasing numbers of whom will be taking on leadership across Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs), within their own schools or families of schools.

An example to illustrate.  A Headteacher is facing a fourth annual 1.5% fall in revenue this year (a figure masking a real fall of 7% that is protected at 1.5% by a Minimum Funding Guarantee that is only guaranteed for one more financial year) and more than 3% of costs as a result of the government’s decision to increase employer contributions to pensions and national insurance.  She is statutorily obliged to set a balanced budget, even if the school carries reserves from the good times.  Staffing costs run at 80% of the total income of the school and so are the only real way to achieve the efficiencies needed to avoid a deficit.  What is she to do?  There are only a handful of answers, all of which impact on her capacity to contribute to the “peer-led” process Sean wants her to “step up” to.  She can use all the slack in her staff and have more of them teaching out of specialism.  She can cut ‘back office’ functions, meaning classroom assistants, student welfare teams, attendance officers, or others who play a key role in helping address issues that increase the risk of underachievement, particularly for those the government are demanding we close the gaps for.  She can increase teacher contact time (probably the biggest bang for her buck will come here), slash her leadership team (probably the biggest cheer for her buck here) or she can increase class sizes (definitely the biggest boo for her buck).  If she can continue contributing this year to a “peer-led” process as an OI then fair play to her.  But of course, there’s the small matter of another cut in school funding next year.  And the year after.  And probably the year after.

But let’s say that the practical issues can be overcome, probably because our Headteacher is, luckily, placed in a school with an expanding roll and, more strategically, placed as the Executive Headteacher of a MAT, able to ‘top slice’ from the budgets of other schools for the services rendered (interesting that sponsor academies are strongly advised to topslice by the same ministers who advocated schools to become academies in 2010 to avoid the nefarious topslicing of budgets by local authorities).  There are some ethical issues that have already raised their head about Headteachers of these highly successful schools and trusts, often praised to the rafters by the Department for Education and sometimes even employed by former ministers to be Heads of Free Schools or chains, having too cosy a relationship with the powers that be.  I am not suggesting for a minute the voracity of such claims, nor am I suggesting for a minute that Ofsted are anything but neutral in their dealings with schools but, in a system that appears to be rapidly polarising between the successful ‘haves’ and the unsuccessful ‘have nots’, it is becoming apparent that the successful are able to have a greater influence on the emergent middle tier (for example, through the Headteacher Boards advising Regional Schools Commissioners and organisations such as the Teaching Schools Council.  If this trajectory continues, it will be hard to envisage a future for a “peer-led” approach to Ofsted inspections in which many schools genuinely feel equals with those sitting in judgment of them.  Mere speculation, perhaps, but one that I feel gnawing away at me more and more each year.

A further ethical issue, and one discussed with Sean this morning, is that of bias.  It is one that I believe is much more likely to affect school-based practitioners in the role of inspector than the professional inspectorate of the HMI.  Subconsciously, or even unconsciously, school leaders (for we know that the vast majority of OIs will be on leadership teams) cannot look at something they see within another school without thinking “I wouldn’t have done it like this” or “this looks exactly like the way we do it at my school” and be accordingly influenced in their judgments.  No amount of training can eliminate this mindset, and so schools being inspected by OIs will always be swept along by the tide of comparative thinking, some of them being washed against the rocks in the process.

Finally, in terms of the problems with a systemic “stepping up”, I see a whole raft of theoretical issues many of which have dogged the inspection process during the outsourced era we have supposedly just left.  It was a marvellous step by Ofsted in removing the Additional Inspector label and removing such a key process from the hands of for-profit organisations, but the methodology remains almost exactly the same with the main changes being made to what, when and who is inspected, not how they are inspected.  OIs, even if they are mostly school practitioners, are still an outsourced inspectorate.  Having them will do nothing to improve consistency because, as the ‘Watching the Watchmen’ document pointed out, inconsistency is impossible to eliminate from a system that is informed by official statistics but largely executed by those notoriously unreliable methods of observation and interview.  Similarly, a “peer-led” system does nothing to enhance the validity of an inspection process because the fact that a team will be led by a fellow professional does nothing to eliminate the threats of the process itself to the school undergoing it.  The accreditation, and presumably on-going quality assurance mechanisms, for OIs mean that they are effectively no longer school leaders anyway and are, arguably, more likely to display the desired traits of an inspector than the professional inspectors themselves.

Ofsted & the Need for a Step Change

In short, the removal of SERCO, Tribal and co from the inspectorate was the perfect time for Ofsted to effect a step change in the quality of the inspection process.  A “peer-led” process of school leaders “stepping up” may have seemed like the answer, but in reality the questions are the same as they ever were.  The actors may have changed, but the script, the props, the backdrop and the stage directions remain essentially the same.  Meanwhile, the theatre is crumbling and something more paradigm-shifting needs to be done.  If there is no better illustration of this fact, it is that the inspection schedule has changed at least biannually since SMW took over and yet the profession’s perception of the organisation is still at rock bottom.  Even the release of the ‘Clarification for Schools’ document, about which I wrote so glowingly a year ago, has not shifted the mentality of school leaders either in their perception of Ofsted or in their ability to hold off an ‘Ofsted wants’ approach within their own schools.

Stephen Tierney, whose blogpost was the stimulus for the twitter conversation I had with Sean, asked the question whether the Ofsted brand was irreparably damaged and in need of a re-branding.  Sean, rightly so, responded that for parents Ofsted is still a significant factor in school selection, and I would feel confident in a bet that 90% of teachers reading this have, when applying for jobs, checked out the latest Ofsted report to help inform their application letter (or even to inform the decision of whether to apply or not).  There has been, however, much chatter about an existential crisis facing the organisation and it is as susceptible to government budget cuts and poorly-informed policy-making as we in schools are.  Added to that the ongoing, discordant mood music about Sir Michael Wilshaw’s relationships with ministers, and it would be a fair assumption that the Ofsted of 2020 may well look a lot different to that of 2015.

Certainly, there seems to be a lot of ‘apple of the eye’ talk about Regional Schools Commissioners and a pretty obvious intention to expand their brief and numbers significantly.  What seems a lot less obvious to me is how these increased powers will intersect with or even overlap with those of Ofsted.  If I were a minister at the DfE determined to keep my hands firmly on the levers of accountability, it would be hard to resist the temptation not to informally (or even formally) transfer the powers from an independent agency to one that is essentially housed within Sanctuary Buildings.  What’s more, in terms of a “peer-led” system, the RSCs have their Headteacher Boards and have come from roles in schools and across trusts, so the rhetoric is already in place to justify any such power transfer.

Stepping Out: A Suggestion for Ofsted

Perhaps I ought to reiterate here that, for all its faults, I have no desire to see the death of Ofsted.  If anything I would much prefer to see an extension of its powers to include the independent scrutiny of government policy (just imagine a minister being told that their White Paper was rated inadequate because of its likely impact on achievement).  With regard to schools, though, I would want to see a complete change in methodology and a slimmed down focus on two key areas of accountability: achievement and safeguarding.  What I would not like to see is more and more “stepping up”, but more and more “stepping out”.  What’s more, I believe that there is an existing model out there, a model that is already used for a key accountability for schools, that would certainly meet the needs of this slimmed down approach, certainly with regard to evaluating achievement.

The example is the auditing process by which schools (particularly academies) have their accounting processes evaluated by an external expert.  At the end of each financial year, August 31st for schools, the accounts are reconciled against the budget set for the year and then scrutinised by professional auditors appointed by the school but who have strict professional standards against which their work (and indeed their ability to seek work) are highly regulated. They validate the accounting done by the school, identify inconsistencies or errors and demand that mistakes or poor processes are rectified before presenting their findings to governors and the DfE via the Educational Funding Agency (EFA). If the accounts are too problematic to be rectified a whole series of ‘special measures’ will ensue.

Auditors can also have another, internal role. Schools can hire them to carry out ‘extended assurance’ work during the course of the financial year. This happens on an almost half-termly basis with the areas of focus being suggested by the auditors based upon aspects of the extensive ‘Academies Financial Handbook’, other aspects of best accounting control processes and the needs of the school emerging from the main annual audit.

My suggestion to Ofsted is that we replicate the system and replace the inspection process with an annual ‘Achievement and Safeguarding Audit’ (ASA). The timescales work, as they would align with the end-of-August, beginning-of-September financial audit and, of course, internal school improvement planning processes.  The only fly in the ointment would be the time it takes for the DfE to generate RAISEonline data, but even here I can see a way in which the validated RAISE of the previous year (or even previous three years) can be used by auditors and schools to justify their evaluation of likely progress indicators.

Some would argue, quite rightly, that an Achievement and Safeguarding Audit could not capture the holistic nature of the work of schools.  I would contend that we have seen far too many instances where schools with poor achievement outcomes have seen inspection teams find ‘evidence’ that allows them to align decisions about teaching, leadership and behaviour with a preferred judgment on achievement, or ignore evidence that challenges this alignment. And where where there is a mixed bag of grades awarded for the different core elements of an Ofsted inspection, it is clear that the overall judgment almost always aligns with that given for achievement, which can’t be a sign of a healthy inspection process.  The same is, more recently, proving to be the same with regards to safeguarding, as shown (perhaps) by the high profile downgrading of Cramlington Learning Village from outstanding to inadequate.

Instead, I would suggest that an Achievement and Safeguarding Audit, carried out in schools by an HMI team or by subcontracted professionals with very high levels of training and a professional accreditation that can be removed when they fall below expected standards, does not even attempt to look at teaching, leadership and behaviour, but does form hypotheses on these areas based upon the achievement data they are scrutinising.  In some senses, this takes us back to the much-maligned but actually very honest approach of the Pre-Inspection Briefing (PIB) of the 2005-2010 inspection protocols.  These hypotheses can then be used in ways I will suggest a little later.

How would the Achievement and Safeguarding Audit work, then?  First of all, I wouldn’t have it as “peer-led”.  It would be an external process that deploys experts in their field – the analysis of achievement data – not school leaders.  It would involve HMIs focusing their role (at least during the audit months) on a single aspect of the existing framework, and so allow for more in-depth training.  Alternatively, and perhaps more sustainably, it might involve the appointment of external organisations accredited to a high standard (a different function for Ofsted perhaps) that would be contracted directly by the schools in order to carry out the audit.

There would be only three categories in which to place schools: successful, cause for concern and unsuccessful.  Schools whose Achievement and Safeguarding Audit was successful would require no further support, although best practice would recommend ongoing extended assurance work in order for them to remain confident about internal processes (including those around teaching, leadership and behaviour).  Schools whose ASA flagged a cause for concern – those with no significant problems with overall achievement, but where auditors have hypothesised some potential issues with other aspects of provision – would be required to undertake extended assurance visits, the findings of which would be submitted to Ofsted (the equivalent, I suppose, of monitoring visits) to ensure that the causes for concern we’re being addressed.  Schools deemed to be unsuccessful in their ASA would be referred onto the Regional Schools Commissioner for intensive support via their local authority, Teaching School Alliances or other mechanisms for school improvement.

Most notably in this, Ofsted would remove themselves from the occasion at this point so that those “stepping up” from within the profession could adopt the mantle of coaches/mentors within a self-improving system, rather than that of an inspector. The work of Ofsted outside the auditing process would be in extending their excellent survey visits to provide developmental materials that might feed into extended assurance protocols and, as mentioned earlier, extending their regulatory functions to scrutinise the impact of ministerial decisions.  I would not recommend an unsuccessful school being immediately lined up for a full Ofsted inspection: the remit of an ASA would not be as a pre-inspection process but as THE inspection process.  Ofsted is a regulatory authority concerned with identifying where standards in education are good or fall short and ought not to be involved in any way about judging the qualities of provision within a school. That has been the problem with past and current methodologies, the tension between professional expertise in the holistic processes of schooling and a detached eye on standards, and the two will not be comfortable bedfellows even with the large-scale recruitment of school leaders willing to “step up”.

Far better then that we “step out” of all processes related to judging the work of any school other than our own and, instead, focus our system leadership energies on working proactively and, where necessary, reactively with schools whose Achievement and Safeguarding Audit has, over time (for a good ASA process will be static and therefore have a longitudinal strength that is sadly lacking from the existing inspection framework) been problematic.  This would, I believe, be a true “step up” for all of us.

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