Michael Gove has been advised by a former key adviser to radically reform Ofsted and scrap the inspectorate’s remit to judge the quality of teaching in schools.
Sam Freedman, a former policy adviser who is now head of research at Teach First, argued at a Department for Education policy seminar last week, attended by Mr Gove, that Ofsted’s teaching judgements are unreliable. In the vast majority of cases they simply mirror a school’s attainment figures, meaning they are not worth continuing with, Mr Freedman said.
“When you look at the data, the teaching grade is the same as the attainment 97 per cent of the time,” Mr Freedman, who stressed he was not speaking on behalf of Teach First, told TES.
“So for that 3 per cent where there is a difference, is it worth the upheaval it causes within schools, the misery it causes for individual teachers when they get their teaching graded as a 3 or 4? I don’t think so.”
The change would remove what many would regard as Ofsted’s central judgement in school inspections. But the watchdog has been coming under increasing fire in recent years for alleged inconsistencies and accusations of bias towards particular ways of teaching.
A report by the right-leaning think tank Policy Exchange in March recommended scrapping lesson observations by Ofsted inspectors. But it said the teaching judgement should remain, based on inspectors “scrutinising and challenging the head’s own assessment of their staff”.
Mr Freedman (pictured above) has gone even further by suggesting the complete removal of the teaching judgement.
Asked on Twitter whether he thought parents would want to read Ofsted school reports that did not discuss teaching, he said: “If they think that's a good reason for reading one now, they'd be mistaken.”
But Mr Freedman was challenged on the same forum by HMI David Brown. He said there were a small proportion of cases where teaching judgements did differ from other data.
“I would suggest when they are different it is important,” Mr Brown wrote, adding that it was likely to be an indication of a rapidly improving or declining school.
Ofsted insists the teaching judgement should stay.
But, like Policy Exchange, Mr Freedman is dismissive of its current methods. “The problem with lesson observation is that it relies on making a connection between what you are seeing and a belief that pupils have learned,” he told TES.
“You can’t see how much knowledge pupils have gained over the course of that lesson, so you end up drawing a conclusion from your belief about what good teaching looks like. If you’re progressive and it’s a really creative, imaginative lesson, then you will think that’s good teaching.
“If you’re more traditionalist and you will think if they [teachers] stand up, spend a lot of time talking and get a lot of information across, then that is good teaching. But it’s actually incredibly hard to assess.
“This is no more than a bit of process, but actually it causes huge anxiety for teachers.”
He said that currently, the chances of an Ofsted teaching judgement being reliable were “infinitesimal”. Professor Robert Coe from Durham University has expressed similar concerns and called on the inspectorate to provide evidence that its methods are valid.
Mr Freedman does not think that his plan would save the inspectorate much money, as he believes that inspectors should continue to look round schools.
“In order to look at behaviour and safety and management and leadership, you would still have to go into classrooms,” he said. “But you wouldn’t be going into a classroom and giving a grade for the teaching you saw in that lesson.”
Asked why inspectors would be any more reliable at judging other aspects of the school then they were with teaching, he said: “Behaviour is something you can see in a way you can’t see with learning – if the kids are sitting quietly doing what they are supposed to be doing, then the behaviour’s fine.
“Likewise with safety, that is more about policy and making sure your gates are locked and all that kind of stuff, which does need to be checked.
“The issue of management I think you can check. Because you can talk to staff, you can talk to the leaders themselves and the governors. You can get a sense by talking to the governors whether they know the school’s data, which is crucial component of governance.”
An Ofsted spokesman said: “Ofsted has been considering how inspectors should evaluate the quality of teaching as part of its work on the future of school inspection, led by national director for schools, Michael Cladingbowl.
“However, we are clear that teaching is at the heart of what schools are all about and parents rightly expect us to report on this clearly.”
The DfE has yet to respond to a request for comment.