'Ofsted has done more damage to education in the UK than anything else'

By Tom Rogers on 23 September 2017

If Ofsted won't change its callous, data-driven judgement process, we need to curb its powers, says one history teacher

"We can make sure that inspection itself – which we know is a source of workload and anxiety – places the minimum workload on teachers," said chief inspector Amanda Spielman last week.

What does she mean by "inspection itself"?

Back in the 1990s, the inspection was about choreographing a great show. It was a five- or seven-day window where a school had to present the very best version of itself. It was the educational equivalent of a first date: the standing in front of the mirror checking hair, breath and wrinkles before rehearsing lines over and again to get it all right on the big day.

If Spielman is talking about that, she’s right. But she’s not. She’s talking about today.

It is no longer the "inspection itself" that is causing an unmitigated workload crisis, unprecedented recruitment and retention challenges and a feeling among teachers who’ve barely started teaching that they simply aren’t good enough. It's the obsession with grades and "progress" that’s adding to the pressure that 75 per cent of teachers say causes them anxiety and depression. It’s how schools and teachers are being judged that’s causing the issue, not visits from the inspectorate.

Before, schools would breathe a heavy sigh of relief as the inspectors walked away and look forward to at least a few years (five in some cases) to just "get on with their jobs". But now they are fired up to "increase progress" every day of every week – an unsustainable and unhealthy state of affairs.

Results, or "outcomes", are now the be-all and end-all of school gradings.

Up to November 2016,  there were just eight secondary schools out of 588 inspected that achieved a "good" rating where outcomes were "requires improvement".

Clearly, even in significantly tough areas, Ofsted is choosing to focus on the "data" aspect of its framework above absolutely everything else. Perhaps, if it saw all areas in its own framework as "equal" or even "more equal", then this figure would be higher than eight.  Leadership and management can be good, pastoral provision can be good, assessment processes can be solid, but your overall judgement won’t be "good" if your results aren’t up to scratch.

Schools in affluent areas 'get better Ofsted judgements'

"So, that’s good news isn’t it?" I hear you say. Let's just judge schools and teachers on the results they get. But it's not really.

There are a number of issues here. The first of which is that the ongoing changes to Sats and GCSE exams, as well as switching to a 1-9 grading system, make calculations on the progress of individual students much more volatile and shallow.

Second, it’s a fact that schools in more affluent areas have a better chance at getting a better Ofsted judgement.

Here, students benefit extensively from cultural capital, from good parenting and, in some cases, the ability to pay for extra activities and tutors to ensure they do well academically. It's no surprise they make more progress. This isn’t fair.

Third, there is no evidence to suggest that you can judge teacher performance by the exam performance of students. Ofsted equates the attitudes of children to learning with the performance of school staff, forgetting that teenagers can make their own choices.

Ofsted isn’t interested in whether a student is involved in gang warfare outside of school or whether their parents are divorcing. It says: "These are the results, why haven’t YOU, the teacher, got them to make the necessary progress?"

This is a callous process that attempts to force teachers to take sole responsibility for their students and for their parents.

Spielman and her national director, Sean Harford, have intimated that the decisions made by leadership teams are damaging because they add to the workload crisis. But it's Ofsted that has done more damage to education in the UK than anything else.

There are a number of ways to solve this.

First, Ofsted should scrap its four-tier grading system and replace it with "good" or "working towards good". More importantly, each aspect of the inspection framework should be given equal credence and teacher wellbeing should be featured. "Outcomes" should not trump everything else.

More schools should be rated "good" for what they achieve in their communities. More schools should be rated "good" because of the pastoral care they provide. More schools should be rated “good” because of the relentless work done by their staff to improve.

Would it be too revolutionary to ask parents in the locality what they wish their own school to be judged on? What do they see as important for their own children? I believe that, in many school communities, test results and progress scores would not be the number one goal for many parents. Yes, I'm sure they would always feature in the top five, but would they always come top? I doubt it.

Knowing their child is supported, knowing their child has an experienced and well-qualified teacher in front of them in each lesson, knowing the school is in a safe environment with excellent behaviour would surely rank high.

A quick look at recent Ofsted inspection reports reveals that many schools have good or outstanding behaviour but have a "requires improvement" judgement overall. If the priority for parents were behaviour, would those schools be "good"?

If none of this is possible, then Ofsted should be shrunk to be a body with powers only to inspect on health and safety and child protection. This would be a radical move but a healthy one.

Its remit has grown too big and it is costing too much – and not just in monetary terms.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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