Opinion: 'The new "coasting" schools measure is a threat to Ofsted's existence'

James Croft

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So, if the Education and Adoption Bill’s definition of what constitutes a “coasting” school, and related proposals for what the government is going to do about them, are anything to go by, it would appear that the Department for Education has given up on Ofsted reform.

Under previous legislation, the secretary of state had already acquired powers to intervene without need for a pretext from Ofsted, but to date found it more expedient to do so only when schools were officially judged “inadequate”.

Henceforth, the quality of schools will be determined with reference to attainment data and progress measures (which may not correspond to official Ofsted verdicts). Intervention shall be at the discretion of regional school commissioners (RSCs) – on the advice of their headteacher boards – based on the credibility of schools’ improvement plans.

This circumvention of the inspection process is a real challenge to the regulator. In the offices of the RSCs, the government has effectively set up a quasi-inspectorate to rule on the quality of education schools are providing and, in cases where data and progress measures suggest they are not meeting expectations, their capacity to improve.

Unlike Ofsted, which acquired its institutional authority (and remit) by ministerial fiat, and ever since has struggled to understand the need for it to justify its judgements, the validity of the initial “coasting” judgement is based, clearly and unapologetically, on objective data and instruments (albeit ones in need of further refinement).

Making decisions as to which schools are in need of further scrutiny in this way makes Ofsted’s inspection cycles look positively antiquated. At the same time it signals an end to rulings based on lesson observation, an approach that is overly (and probably unmanageably) subject to the vagaries of individual inspector bias, and in any case irrelevant if pupils are making expected progress.

Also unlike Ofsted, the role of expert peer assessment of the situation and input into plans for improvement, and ultimately in deciding what should be done when governors and heads are recalcitrant, is likewise explicit.

Provided the process is transparent (a big ask, admittedly), properly resourced (less so), and board recommendations evidence-informed (a deal-breaker), this quasi-inspectorate has potential – if not without cost.

To really ensure the last of these, outstanding head or not, all board members should be required (just as all inspectors should have been long ago) to take a “research 101” course to give them understanding of what constitutes evidence and distinguish it from prevailing theories of best practice.

Unfortunately for the inspectorate, it’s probably lost its opportunity – the likelihood now is that the DfE will appropriate to itself responsibility for quality assuring the standard of educational provision in schools across the board. This leaves the regulator with the rather more difficult task of ensuring the effectiveness of its safeguarding function.

It’s difficult to see it recovering from having had the effectiveness of its signalling to schools so blatantly undermined. Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector would have to act swiftly to align the organisation’s processes with those of the RSCs – the reality is it could be redundant before it has time to make another change to its framework.

For heavier interventions involving partnership, federation, or sponsored academy conversion of the kind that RSCs are expected to make, it’s all the more important that policymakers get clearer about what the evidence base can and cannot tell us.

The evidence is clear that for the most seriously failing institutions, intervention that is tantamount to takeover is necessary. Where provision is inadequate (but not critically awful), there is solid evidence also that receipt of a negative Ofsted judgement is generally enough to prompt decisive and appropriate action that secures improvement, regardless of whether a formal intervention follows.

The promise of sponsored academy conversion is that it offers both greater resources and discretion to sponsors to devise and implement improvement strategies, but in our system we rely too heavily, in a general climate of poor research literacy, on the judgement of too few decision-makers in choosing sponsors.

It remains to be seen whether the quality evident among early sponsors has been sustained. The track record of more recently brokered arrangements is very mixed. There is good evidence internationally to suggest that greater autonomy in the governance and management of local schools has beneficial effects. But restrictive entry requirements that preclude established international providers on the basis of their ownership and governance, and politically compromised central brokering leaves the government’s autonomy reforms vulnerable to being slowly discredited.

There are other, more transparent, more competitive, and more parent-accountable ways of enabling transfers for the purpose of improving local provision. As things stand though, and especially since this most recent extension of the RSCs’ remit, we are at the mercy of central government determination of what matters in education, irrespective of what evidence indicates is the best course of action for increasing pupil achievement or other outcomes.

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James Croft

Director at the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education 

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