An open letter to the new chief inspector: 'Let’s make Ofsted a force for good’

Leading academic Frank Coffield (pictured) writes to the inspectorate's new boss, Amanda Spielman, suggesting how she can transform the organisation into a trusted catalyst of improvement

Frank Coffield

News article image

Dear Amanda,

Congratulations on becoming chief inspector. I wish you every success, but I’m afraid this may elude you unless you ditch the current Gradgrind approach to inspection and adopt something more educational.

Presently, inspection fails in its primary objective because it promotes fear rather than improvement – tutors learn little more than how to concoct the most favourable outcome possible. Instead of engaging in genuine dialogue with inspectors, managers feel forced to manipulate data in attempts to second-guess Ofsted’s ever-changing demands. They become alienated from a process that is more akin to an incubus than a stimulus to change.

Your undesirable legacy consists of a framework for inspection (16 pages) and a handbook (73 pages). These set out in excruciating detail the instruments of torture. May I offer you a way out of this quandary?

I’d like to propose an alternative based on no more than seven topics with a handful of attendant questions, most of which have never been asked by Ofsted. Shorter, yes, but also more incisive and exacting, and something that will lead to growth for students, staff and inspectors.

  • The number one priority for colleges is teaching, learning and assessment, treated as one interactive system and not as three separate processes. The blowback from the current heavy-handed assessment has staff teaching to the test and students regurgitating material they then forget. Instead, let’s find out: do all students leave college as lifelong learners who understand how to become better at learning and who can assess their own strengths, weaknesses and enthusiasms? Do they appreciate that assessment is one of their best hopes for growth? Are they aware that being shown what they need to know next is more important than the grades they receive? Can they assess their own work? What do they learn from working alongside and assessing fellow students?
  • One of the most consistent findings of research is that investing in staff development or professional learning, as I prefer to call it, enhances outcomes for students. So, what percentage of the budget is spent on professional learning and what control do tutors have over it? Do they have the time, space and support to engage productively? Can they admit to gaps in knowledge and weaknesses in teaching and have them addressed? Do they use evidence to assess the impact of their teaching on learning? Is the culture of the college as conducive to the learning of tutors as it is to the learning of students? Do senior managers participate fully in training days? Do workloads enable staff to have a full personal life that allows them to grow as people?
  • How are colleges supposed to promote “British values” such as democracy if they are run undemocratically? Do students experience democratic ways of working and are they engaged in the social and political life of their communities? Does the curriculum prepare them to meet the main dangers to our collective wellbeing? Where would the institution be placed according to Michael Fielding’s six levels of deepening participation of students in their education, and on the corresponding ladder for staff?
  • Is the college a learning community that releases the creativity of teaching and support staff? Do the tutors work in different creative teams that thrive on innovation? Do they collaborate in networks with other such communities/chains that are held accountable for their joint activities? Is learning the central organising principle of the college? Is principled dissent positively encouraged and used as a means of self-examination? Is the college the thriving, learning hub of its community?
  • How do the college’s resources compare locally, regionally and nationally? Are the budget, staffing, buildings, technology and infrastructure adequate to the task? How many supply/agency, untrained or newly qualified staff are there? And how many expert tutors with recent relevant vocational experience? How many managers don’t teach?
  • Tutors should be given the chance to explain the total context of their institution, drawing on its history, locale, intake, labour markets, main challenges and pressures, professional cultures, competitors, governors and parents. What’s the structure of local opportunities? What’s the quality of careers guidance?
  • All these strands can be brought together by an overarching concern for improvement. The focus of inspection changes from arithmetical targets to improvements in quality, which is not something “assured” by management, but a desire of tutors to get better at teaching just for the sake of doing a more professional job.

No one with a statistical imagination can take seriously the accuracy claimed by observers who reduce the complexities within classrooms or workshops to a number between one and four; or the myriad tasks undertaken by an FE college to a single adjective. Such overweening pretension to exactitude should be discarded.

Finally, please don’t continue with your baleful inheritance from Sir Chris Woodhead and Sir Michael Wilshaw, who periodically insulted and provoked teachers. Instead, you could become the first chief inspector to engage with teachers and build on their goodwill, for they want exactly what you want: students who come to love and understand what they’re learning.

Yours sincerely,

Frank Coffield

Emeritus professor of education at the UCL Institute of Education

This is an edited version of an article in the 20 January edition of TES. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.

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Frank Coffield

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