Meet the Fockers: Ofsted talks to the bloggers

19th February 2014 at 16:06


One does not simply walk into Ofsted. 

Ofsted doesn't catch many breaks in social media [pantomime "awwww" from the gallery]. Like any accountability body, it's a lightning rod for schadenfreude and excrement (see my previous blogs Die, Ofsted, and Die AgainHow Can You Sleep at Night? and my personal favourite, I Sh*t on Your Preliminary Report). This should surprise no one. It's strange that no one sitting pretty on an Outstanding grading ever posted word one about how great the inspection process is. I suppose it's like not getting a parking ticket, or not getting a kick in the charlies. But even by their siege standards, they've been running a gauntlet of crummy press lately.


Now normally that would bother them like being mugged by a Care Bear. Ofsted is a combine harvester; what does it care if the wheat grumbles as it gets threshed? Lately, the groaning of the condemned has been joined by another sound: the relentless gnashing of social media, nipping and gnawing at the heels of the troubled Colossus. Still not a big deal, but noisier. What is a big deal are the public grumblings of Sir Michael Wilshaw, expressing his frustration against think tanks and enemies within the DfE whom he believes to be briefing against Ofsted, who single out its perceived inability to marry pronouncements from the chair with action on the ground. Bloggers like Old Andrew have done an especially fine job of running down any discrepancies between Wilshaw's announced recipe for non-prescription in the classroom and the infantry inspectors' intuitive tendencies to prefer and promote their own dogma.


This might be the reason that I and four other bloggers (David Didau, Tom Sherrington, Shena Lewington, and Ross McGill) were invited to meet yesterday with Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted's National Director of Schools. An English teacher, head teacher and working with School Improvement Partners, he's obviously done his time in the trenches. Ofsted, he explained, was attempting to establish links between itself and the teaching communities through non-traditional routes, ie, online platforms and social media, to help communicate their message and in the process, clear up any confusion about what Ofsted is and isn't looking for.


(I mentioned that at least some of the confusion didn't reside just in the minds of the end-users, so to speak, but in the mixed messages conveyed by Wilshaw and his vassals, described above. Mike acknowledged this.


We all had our own agendas: Shena's was governance; Ross, the impact Ofsted has on schools; David Didau wanted to discuss lesson observations, and gathered pace and momentum as the meeting progressed. David's gone from strength to strength as far as I'm concerned, both in focus and rhetoric, and is now one of the most effective bloggers in UK education. You can read their perspectives on their own blogs. 


Ofsted says: Inspectors are unequivocally not supposed to grade observed lessons, nor is a team allowed to produce a teaching grade by aggravating grades (which it shouldn't be collecting anyway) from all lessons observed. Now this really is something worth emphasising: inspectors shouldn't give your lesson a grade if they see you. And why should they, if all they see is 20 minutes – barely a heartbeat in the lifespan of a learner's relationship with their classes.


IMO this also blows a hole in the idea that schools should be grading lessons at all. How many schools do you know that have produced lesson observation criteria, which teachers then slavishly observe like a divine liturgy? Most of them, I'll bet. But Ofsted doesn't even have an individual lesson observation criteria. They're supposed to be a holistic judgement based on all observations and evidence. Like levels, which were never supposed to be a spot assessment of homework pieces, or timed exams, they have been seized upon by anxious schools, dissected and reverse engineered into a form that never existed before. But can you blame schools? The stakes are so damned high.


Ofsted says: They want to look into inspections that are more differentiated, more nuanced. I suggested that the grade be removed as an overall judgement, and should be replaced by a series of markers and metrics that might require more patience to interpret, but would be more honest. 



Of course, this was entirely my jam. I brought up this: one-day behaviour inspections can be triggered by many things, one of which is evidence that a school is excluding more than statistically average, or for certain groups. And a school can also be deemed to be behaviourally inadequate (triggering an full inspection) for this reason. My point is that because exclusion rates are something that schools can directly affect – by simply not excluding – then it's the first and easiest way a jumpy SLT can Ofsted-proof their institution. Problem is, this means that pupils who need to be excluded, aren't, and this has a horrendous knock-on effect all the way back the behaviour line, making even detentions more difficult, undermining teachers and creating a siege mentality as schools attempt to contain bad behaviour rather than deal with it. Ironically, the more consistently and professionally you exclude, the less you have to do; it's the sanction that aims at its own extinction. 


Ofsted says: We'll look into that. 


I also brought up my firm belief that, as well as interviewing behaviour stakeholders like the poorly behaved, staff, etc, inspectors must – and I mean without fail – ask the opinions of the quiet, well-behaved kids who don't tell anyone to stick their lessons up their @ss; they should also, with even greater urgency, speak to the supply teachers, the new teachers, the NQTs – who may compose, after all, 20 per cent of the teaching workforce and will feel the behaviour problems of the school in the raw. Ignore them, and you ignore the inhabitants of the 'second school' – the school that older, higher status staff don't experience. 


Ofsted says: We agree. If there are any NQTs, they should be seen by the inspector (bearing in mind that these no-notice behaviour inspections will typically be held by one inspector). Mike mentioned several times the 'boiling a frog' analogy whereby schools often don't notice how bad behaviour has become because they've become so used to it, slowly. I have no idea how anyone first discovered that a frog would bathe meekly in a pan of water from tepid to scalding, if only you heated it softly enough. What on earth did they think they were doing at the time, apart from supplying the world of management with a handy metaphor?


Other things covered were:

They'll be looking closely at inspectors who also act as consultants in the same area for which they inspect. I got the impression that this was something that Mike was clearly against. 


They want to engage more effectively with teachers, perhaps through separate Twitter accounts, or some kind of "Ask Ofsted" mechanism. Whoever staffs that poisoned chalice better be braced for a tsunami of oddly-spelled insults in 140 characters, but it could certainly act as a poultice to the anxieties of many teachers, clarifying and correcting the myths and zombie voodoo that surrounds the inspection process. 


It was a good meeting. It was good to be asked. It was good that they wanted to ask teachers and other professionals what we thought, rather than it being an entirely one-way process. I'd like to see more teachers asked in for meetings like this, I'd like to see it done more regularly and, as I said before we left, I'd like to see this kind of consultation done with the profession before we find out about updated guidance on Christmas Eve, rather than after. Who knows what could be achieved?


It was certainly a healthy start to something. Where the ball falls on the wheel is a matter for the future, but maybe if we have a little more of this kind of discussion and a little less Blitzkrieg, we might start to get somewhere. 


Judgement: Requires Improvement, with features of Good. Due to previous history of Unsatisfactory, this team recommends a follow-up visit to establish the trajectory of the new leadership team.