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The secret to improving Ofsted? Get rid of grades, says Coffield

Ofsted's current inspection regime isn’t ‘fit for the future’ – but there is a solution, according to a new book by influential academic Frank Coffield

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Ofsted's current inspection regime isn’t ‘fit for the future’ – but there is a solution, according to a new book by influential academic Frank Coffield

Ofsted inspections should be radically overhauled and no overall grade awarded, to remove the fear factor associated with the watchdog, a leading academic has claimed.

Frank Coffield, emeritus professor at the University College London Institute of Education, has called for far-reaching reforms of how colleges and schools are assessed, claiming that education is “too important and too expensive to be evaluated by a model of inspection that is not fit for the future”.

In his new book, Will the Leopard Change its Spots? which is to be published next month, Professor Coffield calls for a radical new approach to release the “creativity of every student and staff member” and proposes a new system of inspection with no overall grade. 

Instead, in each of nine inspection priorities (teaching, learning and assessment; professional learning; democracy; curriculum; learning communities; resources; context; self-improvement and obstacles to a self-improving system), inspectors would choose a point on a continuum from “needs a little” support to “needs a lot” of support. A “single adjective” can “never sum up all the complexities of the extraordinary diversity” within colleges, he writes.

Ofsted criticisms

To tackle the common accusation that judgements are predetermined based on data, Professor Coffield proposes that inspectors should not be granted access to exam results until after they have produced an initial assessment. A “link inspector” would offer a point of contact before, during and after inspection, and a “college nominee would join the inspectors’ meetings to prevent misinterpretations”.

“My main criticism is that attaching a single adjective, [such as] ‘good’ or ‘inadequate’, to a large FE college with, say, 20,000 students, 1,000 staff and 30 departments, is a statistical absurdity,” Professor Coffield said. “Research has shown time and again that there is great variation within a college or a school, which cannot be captured by one adjective. So serious injustice is being done to many departments when they are all judged to be ‘inadequate’.”

Professor Coffield, who is best known for debunking the “learning styles” theory, has regularly crossed swords with Ofsted in the past. In January, he penned an open letter to Ms Spielman for Tes, calling for an overhaul of Ofsted to transform it into a “force for good”.

Across the further education sector, the relationship between colleges and Ofsted has been a strained one in recent years, characterised by disappointing inspection results and stinging criticism from former chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw. Despite efforts by his successor, Amanda Spielman, to “reset” the relationship, there appears to be little prospect of an upturn in inspection performance, with just two general FE colleges considered “outstanding” in 2016-17, and more than half rated “inadequate” or “requires improvement”.

This is an edited version of an article in the 25 August edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.

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