How do you mend Ofsted?

12th February 2010 at 00:00
What should be done to improve Ofsted? The TES asked key education figures for their recommendations

Teachers seem angrier with the schools watchdog than they have been for a decade. Complaints grow that inspectors rely too heavily on raw test data to judge schools rather than what they witness in classrooms. So what should be done to improve Ofsted? The TES asked key education figures for their recommendations.

"Ofsted might as well be abolished"

Professor Chris Woodhead, first chief inspector at Ofsted

What matters most in any school? The quality of teaching. What is the point of a system of school inspection that prefers the analysis of data to the observation of classroom practice? There is no point.

Does this mean that Ofsted should be abolished? In its present form, yes. There is near universal agreement that the data-driven, tick-box bureaucracy into which the organisation has sunk adds nothing to either parental understanding of the quality of education provided by their children's school or the ability of senior management in schools to raise standards of teaching and learning.

Forget education, education, education. What matters now is compliance, compliance and yet more compliance.

It does not, of course, have to be like this. The clock could be turned back. If the Conservatives win the next election, it will be turned back. Inspectors might again spend time in classrooms watching teachers teach.

They might engage those teachers in professional discussion. They might bin the policies and the paperwork and ask themselves the only important question: would I want my son or daughter to be taught by these teachers?

That is the question that mattered most to me when I was chief inspector. It is the only question that should matter now. I had, and have, no interest in whether a school has effective procedures in place for the evaluation of its own performance. I continue to think that inspection and self-evaluation are two different activities that should be kept separate. If inspectors can ever make a contribution to school improvement it is through the judgments they make on the strengths and the weaknesses of the teaching they observe. Their job is to observe and record, to praise and to celebrate, and, when necessary, to question and challenge.

So let's root inspections in what matters. Let's engage the professionals. Let's give parents what they want: information about how well their children are being taught.

The problem is that it takes two to tango. The inspectors have to be up to the job and the teaching profession has to accept the principle of accountability and the challenge of professional dialogue.

I am clear about the changes that need to be made to Ofsted as it now is. I do not, however, think that the above conditions are likely to be met.

There is no point in an inspection system that employs inspectors who trail their own ideological baggage, who embrace without thinking the latest ministerial edict, who lack the necessary intelligence and sensitivity, who want, simply, to tick the boxes.

Conversely, we can have the best inspectors in the world. If schools retreat into defensiveness and complacency, nothing is likely to change.

I worry, too, about the fact that the chief inspector of schools needs to be independent of government. Governments do not like independence.

Will Michael Gove, if he is to be our next schools secretary, welcome reports that expose the failure of his policies?

I fear not. And I am, therefore, pessimistic about the future of inspection. The present system delivers nothing.

In principle, the improvements that need to be made are clear; in practice, the likelihood of real change is negligible. It pains me to say it, but Ofsted might as well be abolished.

"The brand strikes fear into the hearts of many"

Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT

The Ofsted brand is very well recognised by teachers, parents and the public alike; but it is a brand that seems to strike fear in the hearts of many. In its various guises, the Ofsted school inspection framework has led to an approach that is punitive, fixated on failure and is interpreted in practice by inspectors in a way that staff in school find increasingly difficult to predict with any confidence.

The inspection system operates in a way that puts schools on a permanent war footing. Ofsted's inspection of schools has included bizarre periodic shifts in its definitions of categories of school performance, where "satisfactory" is now unsatisfactory and where, as a consequence, any attempt to use information from inspections to draw credible and reliable conclusions about trends in school performance over time has been rendered almost impossible.

Fear of being judged by Ofsted as failing has promoted a culture in schools where doing things to please inspectors competes with professional judgments about the learning needs of pupils as the prime motivation for action. And because of the legal framework within which it operates, Ofsted cannot be held meaningfully accountable for this or other negative consequences of its work.

No one today denies that schools should be held accountable for the work they do with pupils.

Parents, quite rightly, want to know that their children are getting the start to life they deserve.

Wider society, which pays for schools through its taxes, has a right to know that public money is being spent in a way that ensures that young people can make a successful transition to adult life.

The NASUWT is clear that an effective system of school inspection should be supportive of the work of teachers, headteachers and all staff in schools.

It should help to raise standards and make an active contribution to ensuring that pupils receive a broad, balanced and engaging learning experience.

Inspection should be development-focused, celebrate success and, where appropriate, be constructive in its engagement with schools in need of guidance and support to overcome the difficulties they may face.

Systems of inspection need to be transparent, ensure that inspections are undertaken consistently and should be subject to accountability processes at least as rigorous as those to which schools are themselves subject.

Where might alternative approaches to inspecting schools be found?

For the NASUWT, the way forward involves consideration of the fact that many other education systems elsewhere manage to inspect schools in a way that inspires high levels of public trust and confidence in the education system.

Politicians of all political persuasions seem increasingly keen to look at aspects of practice in other countries that they might adopt as policy here.

To date, none of them seem to have considered seriously what might be learnt by looking elsewhere for alternative approaches to inspection. Perhaps it is time they did.

"It's spending Rolls-Royce money on an old banger"

Professor Tim Brighouse, who challenged Ofsted over a draft report when he was Birmingham's chief education officer

An urgent, major overhaul of Ofsted is much needed. Judged against two yardsticks - excellence and efficiency - the inspectorate is presently failing on both counts.

It used to be different. Consider how widely respected the HMI (Her Majesty's Inspectors) were. Ofsted is neither respected nor trusted. That arises from a combination of confusion of inspection purpose and quality.

HMI were expected to report fearlessly on what they saw while - in their words - "doing good as we go". They restricted their number to 300 to 400 because they didn't believe that, at any one time, there were many more than that number of people in the system who could perform the role. Any new inspector had a year's induction.

In contrast, Ofsted's role, purposes and methods have constantly chopped, changed and expanded. Its original strapline of "Improvement through inspection" was, unsurprisingly, dropped by Chris Woodhead. It has subsequently expanded its remit to include other inspectorates and, in some matters, have become enforcers of regulations of sometimes low-level health and safety and safeguarding detail which could arguably be carried out by other agencies at less cost.

As Ofsted's remit has expanded, so has its reliance on commissioned private contractors whose inconsistencies have undermined quality assurance and destroyed a reputation for excellence that was once synonymous with HMI.

The most significant change in the last 10 years has been Ofsted's move from the line that they wouldn't take any notice of test and exam data to the polar opposite. It is now so mesmerised that inspections often consist of schools and inspectors locking horns about the interpretation of data.

We now spend five times more per pupil on external exams and inspection than any other developed country. When you take the cost of GCSE, equivalent exams and tests with Ofsted, the yearly bill is pound;1 billion.

There are some proposals I think could help rectify that.

Schools should be judged on an annual publication produced by their local authority. This would contain: three-year rolling averages of externally audited data on attainment (raw, added value, contextual added value, progress with pupils who have low prior attainment); truancy and student attitudinal surveys; and pupil participation rates in wider "achievement activities".

A lean HMI should be established to inspect local authorities and partnerships of schools on a 10-year cycle. Most of their time would be spent on national surveys of existing practice.

Ministers should be required to add to education legislation and white papers a section containing HMI advice and research evidence. All reports relating to data and facts should come from the National Audit Office.

This would be combined with a system in which all national tests, as well as GCSEs, diplomas and their equivalents, would be marked by schools internally (but not by the teacher who taught the pupils). A sample should then be moderated externally online.

To check on national standards, there would be random sampling of pupils' results at ages seven, nine, 11 and 13 against a bank of tests.

All this also presupposes the break-up of Ofsted. At present it resembles a Rolls-Royce in specification and cost, but performs like an old banger, belching smoke and being environmentally unfriendly.

Professor Brighouse chairs the New Vision group, which is holding a public meeting at the Institute of Education on March 31 where this and other ideas affecting the future of education policy will be discussed.

"Stop acting like men from Mars"

Dr John Dunford is author of `Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools since 1944: Standard bearers or turbulent priests?' and is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Schools improve schools; inspections rarely do so. Schools spend public money; inspections are part of the way in which schools are held to account for the effectiveness and efficiency with which that money is spent. Bringing school improvement and accountability into a single system is a trick that, after 16 years of Ofsted's existence, has not yet been pulled off.

We need a quality assurance process that combines internal self-review and external inspection into a coherent whole. The 2009 framework is an improvement on its predecessors in that respect, but it will take more radical changes for that ideal to be achieved. When inspectors arrive at a school, their knowledge of the school is encompassed primarily on sheets of data, which provide the assumptions at the outset. Ninety-five per cent of Ofsted verdicts confirm what the data says, raising questions about the usefulness of the inspection process. Even the context of the school is framed for them in figures. Instead of this men from Mars approach, inspections should be led by a member of a team of HMIs based in each area who would know the local schools and the context in which they work.

The starting point should be the school's self-evaluation, with less emphasis placed on what the head has written on the self-evaluation form and more on the processes behind it. The inspection should then be a validation of the self-evaluation or, if necessary, a challenge to its conclusions. HMI training and experience should enable the school to see itself as it really is, not as a piece of data that is too often open to misinterpretation. Inspection should be - and with the best inspectors, already is - a process done with the school, not to the school. It then becomes part of the normal cycle of school improvement.

Raw results represent young people's life chances, so of course they are important, but the inspection grade now depends on them too much. Getting all pupils to achieve good examination results is much harder for some schools than others, and the grade should recognise this in making an overall judgment on the quality of education in the school.

To help with school improvement, there needs to be a better link between inspection and support so that schools can overcome their weaknesses. The accountability framework is clear; the support framework is more confusing than The Da Vinci Code. We look to the brokering element of the new school improvement partner role to bring greater coherence to school support and a stronger link to quality assurance.

Ofsted has an important role in reporting, as HMI has done historically, "without fear or favour" on the performance of the system as a whole. Their survey reports are useful in this respect. But often the problems in education are not of schools' making, but a result of misguided policymaking in Whitehall. Many of these policies are introduced without any real evidence that they will work. It is Ofsted's job to tell people whether they do.

"Why treat heads like the enemy?"

Kenny Frederick is head of George Green's School in London, which was issued with a notice to improve by Ofsted in 2008 but rated satisfactory last year.

Accountability for how our pupils do is a good thing - it forces all of us in schools to up our game, and to focus on ensuring every child does the best they can, regardless of their background and circumstances. But there has to be a better way of going about it.

Having suffered the indignity of seeing my school receive a notice to improve, and then be upgraded to satisfactory, I would like to offer some suggestions.

My main call would be for consistency. Stop changing the goalposts, Ofsted: decide on the criteria and stick to them. And don't start claiming that judgments aren't limited by test results when often they blatantly are.

The credibility of the inspection system is seriously undermined when different teams interpret the framework and guidance in totally different and conflicting ways. So don't let individual inspectors make it up as they go along or use subjective judgments.

Ofsted needs to be inspected by an independent organisation - not left to review itself. It is all very well having the Independent Complaints Adjudication Service, but what is the point of an appeals system, however transparent, once the judgment is in the public domain anyway? Does Ofsted genuinely have no idea of the huge trauma, loss of confidence, financial repercussions, and so on, of an excessively negative judgment?

My other recommendations would include:

  • Stop trying to catch people out with very short-notice visits - it's just plain rude.
  • Give inspectors more time to get to know the school properly. We spend a lot of time producing a self-evaluation form, only to find that inspectors have merely skimmed it (if that).
  • Review the currently inadequate training of Ofsted inspectors. Who is monitoring it and where is the quality control?
  • If hard evidence is so important, then why on some judgments is it trumped by parental perceptions? This needs to be addressed, particularly now that parents can trigger inspections.
  • Don't even try to judge community cohesion. The starting points are beyond most inspectors' experience or expertise and there is no useful way of measuring success.
    • Finally, don't imagine for a second that a school will automatically be better off after an inspection. Please stop treating heads and schools as if they are the enemy. Treat us with respect and it just might be returned.

      What they say.

      • Stop pre-judging schools on results data. (All)
      • Restore a system where inspections are led by teams of HMIs. (TB, JD)
      • Stop judging schools on matters which should either be judged by other agencies or where it is impossible to measure a school's impact. (CW, TB, KF)
      • Emulate the more supportive inspection systems found in other countries. (CK)
      • Ensure inspectors are better trained. (TB, KF)
      • Stop shifting the goalposts that schools face. (CK, KF)
      • Ensure Ofsted is properly independent, and independently reviewed. (CW, KF)
        • TES forums


          Inspectors could deliver a couple of exemplar lessons in areas where they feel a school is weak. They could even take over teachers' timetables to bring the pupils up to speed while they are being trained. Inspectors who fail my new job spec would be sacked.


          Inspectors should spend less time poring over bits of paper and more interacting with children and teachers. If schools complain several times about an inspection team it should be investigated. I feel very strongly about this having had cause to submit a formal complaint about an inspection conducted at a school where I taught.


          I would split the country into two. In one half things would carry on as now and in the other there would be no Ofsted. After a year or two standards could be assessed, money spent compared and we would really know what effect Ofsted has.


          We already have a group of genuinely helpful inspectors; they are called HMI.


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