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Opinion: 'Ofsted is strangling the sector, not helping it'

Inspection is vital but the inspectorate in its current form is not: real growth doesn't come from simplistic judgements but from peer review, says education expert Alan Tuckett

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Inspection is vital but the inspectorate in its current form is not: real growth doesn't come from simplistic judgements but from peer review, says education expert Alan Tuckett

When I was a principal working in the Inner London Education Authority in the 1980s, a visit from the inspectors was cause for celebration.

For me, an inspection meant free consultancy, a chance to get feedback on creative developments and to strengthen our support; for my colleagues, it was a chance to help tweak the institution’s development by using Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI) as an intermediary between experience in the classroom and the cloth ears of the leadership.

The inspectors did, of course, review institutions formally but their work was firmly developmental. The reports they wrote were geared as much towards what others in the field could learn as to judgements about provision. HMI’s work ensured that a key part of the discussion of institutions was focused on ­improving the curriculum in particular, and on strategies for strengthening the educational system in general.

As Professor Richard Pring, honorary research fellow in the University of Oxford’s Department of Education, has said, HMI performed a second critical function. Before it was abolished in 1992, no civil servant met ministers to discuss policy initiatives without a representative of the chief inspector being present to uphold the professional interests of the field. We lost that ­professional support when the independent HMI was replaced by the Further Education Funding Council’s inspectorate and, eventually, by Ofsted.

Today the depth of inspectorate engagement with institutions, and with the teaching and organising staff within them, is ­striking. These days, however, Ofsted’s central public task is to make and report judgements. Of course it continues to look carefully at classroom practice. But despite fruitful feedback, the four-point scale of “outstanding”, “good”, “requires improve­ment” or “unsatisfactory” dominates. Classifying institutional performance has replaced the collegial dialogue of the past.

It is impossible to avoid seeing inspection as a compliance mechanism – it is noteworthy that the “satisfactory” judgement was replaced in 2012 by “requires improvement”. Now when an inspector calls, the smack of firm government hangs in the air.

Don’t get me wrong. I am in favour of high-quality education, of exposing institutions and the individuals who teach in them to best current practice, of supporting weak performers to ­improve. Being inspired by good practice reinforces the agency and motivation of teachers, organisers and governors. Inspectors carry a wealth of experience, and among them are some of the finest educators of this or any generation. But how much of that is shared with the teachers they meet?  

Measurement comes up short

The contemporary obsession with measurement and the simplification of complex issues into the four-point scale has been bought at the expense of trust, and has shifted responsibility for judgements of quality from professionals to the state.

This would be bad enough even if we knew it worked, yet Ofsted has abandoned graded lesson observations in the face of evidence that these don’t accurately evaluate good teaching. As Einstein observed: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

In June this year, 180 further education staff met at the University of Wolverhampton to explore effective strategies for observing classroom practice. The discussion ranged from learning journeys to mutual peer review by colleagues in different disciplines, from filmed classes to imaginative involvement of students.

Most remarkable was their level of energy, their ownership of the challenges of providing high-quality learning experiences, and their frustration at how an over-regulated and policed ­system inhibited their ability to do so effectively. I couldn’t help thinking that inspectors are our natural allies for this kind of ­developmental work, and that this should be their focus.

Alison Wolf’s Heading for the precipice highlights the extraordinary differential between student support in further and higher education (roughly £2,000 and £9,000 per head, respectively), but there is an equally striking difference between how the two sectors evaluate quality. In higher education, judgements are undertaken by peer group academics and scholarly journals use peer review as evidence of rigour. Trust in academics’ professional judgement is at the core of the system. The state affords no such trust to FE staff.

By-product of snobbery?

If we are to recover FE’s place in the sun, and the opportunity to learn for the 2 million adults lost in the past decade, we must understand why the higher education sector is given its head in this way and FE is not.

In part it is a by-product of snobbery that values academic over vocational study. In part, too, it is because politicians and policymakers have little experience of the key role played by colleges and adult centres in the economic and social well­being of communities. Nationalising colleges gave them more money in the short term but detached accountability from their local roots.

Then there is the Treasury. When, in 1996, The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development became convinced that human capital was the key to Western prosperity, investment in lifelong learning boomed. But then ministers ­unleashed a stream of ever-more-active policy interventions, ranging from bizarre and wasteful experiments such as Train to Gain to the narrow instrumentalism that shapes policy now.

Worst of all is the ongoing obsession with measurable short-term cost benefits that add nothing to national productivity, let alone wellbeing, and weaken trust in the good judgement of lecturers and their institutions to do what is right. And we are all the worse for it.

Alan Tuckett is professor of education at the University of Wolverhampton

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