Talking standards: part six of a conversation between educationalists Sir Tim Brighouse and David Cameron

6th August 2015 at 13:35
picture of brighouse and cameron
In the sixth instalment of our online conversation, Scottish educationalist David Cameron (pictured left) responds to former schools commissioner for London Sir Tim Brighouse, delving further into the role that inspection plays in schools

Dear Tim,

I know that I am breaking our sequence, but there was so much in your last letter that it is taking me two replies to do it justice!

I am fascinated by the discussions that go on in England about Ofsted. You raise a number of issues, which I will return to, but there are a couple that seem to me to feature remarkably rarely in these discussions and that are major concerns.

The first is the use of the term “outstanding”. If one accepts the maxim that “by their words, ye shall know them”, what does this reveal?

For me, it implies an acceptance that inspection is normative. A school is outstanding compared to others. If it was a statement that schools were outstanding against an accepted standard, the standard would, hopefully, require constant revision as more and more schools exceeded it. That implies an acceptance that there will never be equity of provision. There will always be schools that stand out.

It is the perfect accolade in a market-driven system based on “better than” rather than “better for”. It is a bit like the devotion to international comparisons that we have discussed earlier, where we obsess about our place in a league table, rather than looking much more closely at how well our young people are served and whether or not we offer them an education that can be shown to have increased their life chances. As I said in my last letter, that will be shown through post-school data and not, simply, data about their final performance in school.

The second issue is that there is almost a punitive element attached to Ofsted inspection (if you fail, there will be consequences!). If you don’t do well enough, we will make you an academy. In a less pejorative metaphor, they have decided the prescription before they make a diagnosis.

Imagine a situation where, if you went to the doctor, you knew the medication that you would get if you were not well enough, regardless of the causes of your illness. This is not a process of diagnosis and remedy, it is the imposition of policy and is based on ideology. An inspection body that becomes party to the enforcement of policy cannot claim independence without occasioning a snort, titter or possibly a gale of laughter.

It is fundamental questions like this that determine independence, rather than occasional squabbles between Ofsted and politicians.

I have already blogged elsewhere on this issue and I would repeat some of the comments that I made then. First, on the “political” role: “We have a body far too close, politically, to the government and too judgemental about the elements likely to lead to school improvement. It takes the soundness of government policy as a given, and then focuses on teacher performance. Any meaningful evaluation system must be prepared to consider the efficacy of policy. It can affect performance.”

As well as these fundamental concerns, I have also been regaled with the concerns about variations in judgements and inconsistencies between inspection teams. I am not sure if it is appropriate to name names in this context, so I will show unparalleled restraint, but a recent cause célèbre was a school that seemed to have gone from being consistently outstanding over several inspections, the most recent being two years ago, to being in special measures.

This startling decline in a school of considerable reputation was not accompanied by any significant changes in leadership, teaching staff, catchment or any other factor that might be linked to such dramatic decline. The suggestion would be that this school was not merely coasting, but submerging with all the alacrity of a Trident under air attack.

I am in no position to argue when the school was misjudged, but I remain utterly convinced that, at some stage, it was.

Finally, there are the issues of approach and the alternatives. To quote again from my previous blog:

“Ofsted is a body that attempts to drive improvement more through threat, intimidation and exposure rather than through an approach based on supported self-evaluation and partnership. It has generated a sense of antipathy to teachers exacerbated by some shockingly misguided public statements, notably the recent salvo on ‘lazy teachers’. At times, the organisation appears to find its mouth to be an irresistible docking station for all of its feet.”

I accept that there has been movement on this, but this is such a widespread perception that it has to be tackled. And the alternatives, as you have previously suggested: “It is hard to find convincing evidence that this approach will benefit learners. If we accept that transformation comes from the inside out and not from the outside in, we need teachers to change. That change should be achieved as far as possible through professional development and support unless there is clear evidence of damage to learners.

“We need to look at what has worked and make sure that we have made a real difference rather than created disruption and transient change. There is so much evidence to support a more constructive and engaging approach than that favoured by Ofsted. Inevitably, we can look to Finland for an inspection free model. We can also look to Scotland for a model more rooted in partnership and self-evaluation.”

You are right, though, we should be learning lessons on both sides of the border and I will be interested in other responses to your model.

All the best,



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