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‘Teachers don’t want Ofsted to be popular, they just want it to be valid, fair and reliable. It's not’

Mary Bousted, general secretary, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, writes:

Sir Michael Wilshaw should not be worried that Ofsted is unlikely to win any popularity contests. Teachers and school leaders set a low bar for the agency. They merely want the school accountability system to be valid, fair and reliable. Yet, Ofsted is none of these things.

It is not those who criticise Ofsted who should, as Sir Michael advises, ‘look in the mirror’. Ofsted should be examining itself minutely, acknowledging its weaknesses and proposing major, fundamental revision of the way it operates. Sadly, with a chief inspector who appears to be more interested in chasing headlines than running his agency, such reflection and reformation is unthinkable.

Thanks to major international research, OECD has a strong framework for effective school inspection and accountability that has a number of common components. They reflect the complexity of teachers’ professional understanding and practice, support teaching quality and the development of schools as professional learning institutions and are founded on a shared understanding of effective practice in teaching. Good inspection systems recognise that effective teaching and learning strategies can be highly contested and open to interpretation and new developments. And, crucially, effective inspection systems are, the OECD argues, conducted by well-trained inspectors whose practice is monitored by robust quality-assurance procedures and whose judgements are subject to robust evaluation.

Ofsted, in its current form, fulfils none of the OECD’s criteria. Data-driven and time-poor, schools report that, in too many cases, the inspector’s judgement has been made before they arrive at the school gate. Far from supporting teachers’ professional development, the pressure that Ofsted puts on school leaders (whose jobs are only as secure as their last Ofsted grade) means that teachers are required to work punishing, unsustainable hours filling in paperwork so that, when the inspector calls, there is nothing that has not been documented. And when Ofsted practice changes (as with the move from lesson observation to marking as a source of evidence on teaching quality), the workload is merely transferred from one form of in school supervision to another. The ATL President, Mark Baker, describes the corrosive effect of Ofsted on the collegiate, collaborative culture which should underpin schools: "Ofsted diverts the skills and energies of our senior leaders away from the really important work of inspiring and motivating their communities, compelled, as they are, to perpetually inspect themselves.  Ofsted has, in effect, established a branch in every school and college."

But it is the issue of the lack of internal quality control that is Ofsted’s biggest problem. School leaders and teachers simply cannot place their trust in the quality of the team that turns up at their school gate. Examples of poor practice come to light with wearying regularity. Sir Michael claims that Ofsted has robust quality control procedures – but Ofsted is its own judge and jury in this fundamental respect, with no external and independent system of appeal against its judgements. School leaders and teachers are not denying reality when they increasingly protest against the accuracy of the grades awarded to their schools – they are reflecting a growing disquiet against the inconsistency of Ofsted’s judgement. Jonathan Simons, head of education at right-leaning think-tank Policy Exchange, argues that he could accept the variation in the grades awarded by different inspectors if Ofsted were able to, "provide the data that shows all of its inspectors are well trained and all of their judgements are valid". In the absence of this information Simons "has no confidence that all individual inspectors are making the right judgements". This conclusion is shared by the overwhelming majority of the teaching profession.

Ofsted responds unevenly to the growing criticism of its operation. Sir Michael assures us that he is rooting out poor inspectors. And Ofsted is changing its inspection framework (indeed, there have been two changes to the framework per year since Sir Michael was appointed chief HMI). 

This defence shines a light on Ofsted’s fundamental weakness. Ofsted cannot control the quality of its inspectors even when it brings their contracts in-house, because there are too many of them, and because there will never be enough money to implement the quality-control frameworks to ensure real consistency of judgment. Constant changes to the inspection framework are not a sign that Ofsted is keeping up with educational change, rather it reveals an agency that is struggling, and failing, to find a methodology which is fit for purpose.

But the most telling insight into Ofsted’s problems come from Sir Michael’s statement: "I appreciate how hard it is to see colleagues who give so much to the school judged coolly by strangers who inspect for a couple of days and find them less than perfect." No, Sir Michael, school leaders and teachers do not expect to be found perfect. The profession thrives on constructive criticism, is eager to do better, wants to tackle under-performance, wants to learn from the good practice of other professionals and will accept an accountability system that is rigorous and holds the profession to account. What the profession will not accept is the unreliable inconsistency of Ofsted and the blight it puts on their working lives and the corrosive effect on their reputation as the result of a poor inspection.

It is for these reasons that ATL has been working on a new accountability system that would incorporate the OECD framework for effective school evaluation. The ATL framework will be launched in February 2015 at the third in our series of policy debates and widely circulated.


Equity, Excellence and Inclusiveness in Education – Policy Lessons From Around the World, Andreas Schleicher, OECD, 2014

Teachers for the 21st Century – Using Evaluation to Improve Teaching, OECD, 2013

Related stories:

Ofsted bites back: ‘Take a long, hard look in the mirror’

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