Ofsted's "integrity and independence" has been called into question by teacher training leaders who believe inspections are aiming to discredit provision "wherever possible" under the watchdog's new regime.
The Universities' Council for the Education of Teachers (UCET) has said it is "increasingly concerned" about how judgements are being made under Ofsted's new framework for inspecting initial teacher training (ITT) providers, suggesting that the corresponding reports are "poorly written" and "reflect a lack of knowledge" about the sector.
The news comes as analysis by Tes shows that Ofsted has found failings at nearly half of ITT providers inspected under its new regime – in sharp contrast to outcomes under its previous framework, where all provision was rated "good" or better.
Exclusive: Ofsted accused of 'adversarial' ITT 'agenda'
Today's comments build on UCET's prior concerns that Ofsted is taking a "much more adversarial approach" to teacher training inspections and "pushing a particular agenda", as the government considers a proposal to put all ITT providers through a "rigorous" reaccreditation process.
Teacher training providers' concerns over Ofsted reports
The controversial plans for teacher training reform, set out in July by the expert group behind the government's ITT review, have stirred unrest across the sector – with providers warning that the recommendations present "a catastrophic risk to the teacher supply chain".
Of the 20 reports based on the new Ofsted framework that have so far been released, nine (45 per cent) found some provision to be "inadequate" or "requires improvement".
Among the providers with the most substantial shifts in judgement were:
- Consilium SCITT: from "outstanding" to "inadequate".
- Compton SCITT: from "outstanding" to "requires improvement".
- University of Gloucestershire: from "outstanding" to "requires improvement", for primary and secondary provision.
- Cumbria Teacher Training: from "good" to "inadequate".
- The Solent SCITT: from "good" to "inadequate".
Meanwhile, freedom of information (FOI) responses seen by Tes show that Ofsted has refused to provide evidence to support critical claims about the sector made in its recent research report, based on 75 non-graded visits during the pandemic.
The watchdog claimed that too few teacher trainers had a "sufficiently ambitious" curriculum, and too many were "overly reliant" on experience gained through placements.
Asked by UCET to provide "details of the specific pieces of evidence collected by Ofsted during the 75 research visits on training teachers during Covid-19" which can be "equated" with these conclusions, the watchdog said "it is not possible to share specific pieces of evidence without breaching anonymity".
James Noble-Rogers, UCET executive director, said: "We are not convinced by the grounds for Ofsted refusing to provide the information to our second FOI request [dated 3 August 2021]. There are no confidentiality issues because we have not asked Ofsted to link the evidence to any named providers."
He added: "We are increasingly concerned about how the current round of Ofsted inspections are being handled, and the way in which they appear to be aimed at discrediting ITE [initial teacher education] provision wherever possible rather than arrive at a balanced and informed judgment of quality.
"The reports published are often poorly written and reflect a lack of knowledge about ITE and the regulatory framework that it operates within.
"The integrity and independence of the Ofsted ITE inspection process is being questioned. We will be monitoring the situation very closely."
'Poorly written and highly critical'
The Teach Best campaign, which was set up by UCET following the launch of the government's controversial ITT review, has previously suggested that the "evidence base" for Ofsted's judgements under the new framework has been "flimsy in the extreme, repetitive, poorly written, hyper-critical, demoralising and humiliating".
Asked for specific examples of where Ofsted's reports were poorly written or reflected a lack of knowledge about the sector, Terry Russell, a former Ofsted inspector who made the allegations in a blog for Teach Best, pointed to the watchdog's feedback for the Alban Federation, The Solent SCITT, Compton SCITT and Consilium SCITT.
In particular, he criticised the watchdog's description of the age ranges covered by some of the providers.
In its report for the Alban Federation, Ofsted wrote: "The partnership provides training in the 5 to 11 primary age range and secondary age range, including sixth form."
But Mr Russell said: "This is an unusual way to describe an age phase, as it is normally 11 to 16 with post-16 enhancement where possible, or 11 to 18."
For Compton SCITT, Mr Russell said Ofsted did not list a specific age range.
"There is no specific age range stated, outside of 'there are 16 primary-phase trainees and 24 secondary-phase trainees'," he said.
"Criterion C2.2 [of the ITT criteria] states the following age ranges: ages 3 to 11 (primary), ages 7 to 14 (middle), ages 11 to 19 (secondary).
"Primary and secondary age phases are always within the boundary stated in C2.2 and the curricula are designed around this subset.
"I cannot see from the report what each subset is and hence would not be able to make a judgement, as a reader, of the quality of the curricula."
And in the Consilium SCITT report, Mr Russell said "there is a suggestion that Criterion C2.2 is not met across age ranges 3-11, 11-19", but "there has never been a requirement to meet the teachers' standards across these entire age ranges".
Along with Julie Price Grimshaw, also a former Ofsted inspector, Mr Russell wrote in his blog for Teach Best: "It is easy to see why providers are telling us that they felt that their inspection outcomes were 'a foregone conclusion', with inspectors seemingly deliberately seeking out negative examples of supposed evidence for damning judgements.
"For example, one report emphasises negative comments on the provision apparently made by trainees. Another report refers to positive comments made by trainees – but then suggests that the trainees are wrong to be positive because they don't have anything with which to compare the programme. How would they?"
Mr Russell clarified that, at The Solent SCITT, when inspectors investigated training, they said that "trainees have no benchmark so their satisfaction with training is misplaced".
"I am unclear how it is possible that trainees could have a 'benchmark' if this was the only ITT programme they had attended," he said.
A spokesperson for Ofsted said: "Our framework raises the bar by putting a greater focus on the quality of the ITE curriculum and moving beyond data on outcomes.
"It's too early in the inspection cycle to say whether these initial judgements are representative of the sector as a whole – this is a small sample and we have prioritised new providers and those not inspected for the longest time.
"We recognise that some partnerships may not have been able to deliver new curriculum plans fully due to the pandemic. However, in order to be judged "good", providers must demonstrate that they have designed an ambitious ITE curriculum with the core content framework embedded."
The watchdog also stressed that its ITT inspection framework was not pre-emptively designed to align with the market review.
Ofsted said that it consulted on the framework in early 2020, before publishing the final version that summer. By contrast, the inspectorate said the market review was independently commissioned, and recently opened to public consultation.