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'Ofsted’s evidence is based on a flawed inspection framework unduly reliant on questionable data'

Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

I’d like to believe many of the points made in "The battle against mediocrity" – the stunningly dismissive title of Sir Michael Wilshaw’s commentary to his Annual Report.

I’d like to believe that “the landscape has improved”, that “nearly eight in ten schools in England are good or better”, that “the best academies and multi-academy trusts use their new freedoms well, that a good lesson is one where children “make progress” and that “the quality of leadership is improving”. I’d like to, I want to, but can I be sure?

I agree with his closing remark that “I want educational opportunities open to the most fortunate children to be available to all”. Who wouldn't, except perhaps for those many of us dubbed by the chief inspector “mediocre” in our practice and poverty-stricken in our expectations?

The validity of Sir Michael's comments should derive not from the prestige of his office, nor from his previous experience as head of an apparently successful academy, but from the quality of the evidence on which they are based. That evidence is based on a flawed inspection framework, which is unduly reliant on questionable performance data, which ignores large parts of the curriculum, which de-emphasises the non-measurable, which unrealistically expects its users to be able to judge progress in twenty-minute slots and which relies on schools not so much teaching-to-the-test as teaching-to-the inspection.

With some justice, the chief inspector claims that an educational lottery turns children into “lucky” or “unlucky” pupils depending on where they go to school. It has been so, it remains so and to a lesser extent it will inevitably remain so, despite his messianic claims. Neither teachers nor inspectors can compensate for society, though they must and should try.

But there is also an inspection lottery; this turns teachers into “lucky” or “unlucky” recipients of inspection depending on the quality of the team visiting their school. Inspectors are fallible human beings who too often are tempted in the heat of an inspection to equate “performance” with “standards” and “data” with “quality”. They too vary in quality, in much the same way as the schools that they inspect.

It is surprising but gratifying that at long last the chief inspector is at least making positive comments about English schools. It is a pity that this is marred by his arrogant assumption that Ofsted in general (and he in particular?) are largely responsible for the improvement.

But questions do need to be raised. Part of his case is that, of the schools inspected in the last twelve months, a significant proportion have improved their rating compared with their last inspection. However, such a comparison is invalid, since the inspection criteria have been changed, as have the membership of the inspection teams visiting any particular school. Like is not being compared (positively in this case) with like.

However, perhaps it is encouraging that 80 per cent of schools are now judged good or outstanding? But that raises other issues. Inspectors directly employed by Ofsted (HMIs) are increasingly not as involved in the direct inspection of schools as once they were; that is being left much more to additional inspectors (often employed by a contractor) who may be less rigorous in their judgements; they certainly receive less rigorous training. Schools are ever-more aware of the high stakes involved in inspection and are becoming increasingly expert in "gaming" the process. Then there is the political imperative on Ofsted to paint a much more positive picture of school performance with an election not far off and with Ofsted's and Sir Michael's own future to be determined.

In conclusion, Sir Michael makes much of “mediocrity”. Can he be quite so confident that the battle he proudly claims to be winning against mediocrity is being successfully fought within his own organisation, staffed as it is by those inevitably tainted by association with the putative “mediocre”, pre-Wilshaw regime?

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