The first time I ever heard about Ofsted was when I was a student at school. We asked one of our teachers what he thought about the organisation, and he told us a joke that was then doing the rounds.
What’s the difference between a plastic surgeon and Ofsted? Well, a plastic surgeon tucks features.
It took a moment for the penny to drop, when it did we all fell about laughing.
Ofsted: why do we need it?
After my first teaching job in a school that went through several Ofsted and mocksteds in the space of a few years, I had no reason to revise my opinion. In fact, in my book Seven Myths about Education, I was heavily critical of Ofsted and the way it imposed arbitrary, unevidenced and bureaucratic requirements on schools.
However, when I was researching that book, there was one article I read that offered a more positive view of Ofsted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was from someone outside England; slightly more surprisingly, it was published in the American Educator, which is the journal of the main American teaching union, the American Federation of Teachers.
Its argument was as follows: if we don’t have some form of inspection-based accountability, then we end up relying totally on test scores.
A few years ago, I would have disagreed and argued that test scores were far preferable to inspections. After all, tests are an unbiased and objective measure of what children can actually do, as opposed to a school inspection, which is based on human judgements that we know from the research literature have all kinds of flaws and biases.
A break on accountability
However, the recent history of the UK, and to a greater extent the US, has shown the flaws of test-only accountability. In 2001, the US passed the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandated test-based accountability in all state-funded schools. It’s been a disaster, and a recent book by Daniel Koretz, an assessment professor at Harvard University, details the distortions and unintended consequences it’s created.
Koretz is well aware of the research showing the flaws of human judgement, but he concludes that some element of human judgement is necessary to counterbalance the incentives of test-based accountability.
The problem with the current US system, he writes, is that “no one above the teacher has any incentive to worry about how teachers raise scores”. And Koretz also notes that many educational systems around the world have some kind of inspection system that provides this incentive.
The right direction?
Which brings us back to Ofsted. At its foundation, its original aim was precisely that: as a counterbalance to the accountability provided by league tables. We definitely need data on exam results, but we also need some way of checking how those results were achieved. That may have been lost somewhat in the interim, but the current chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has said consistently that that’s how she sees the role of school inspections, and Ofsted’s reforms over the past few years seem to be establishing it on a more evidence-based foundation.
Ultimately, how schools achieve results is just as important as the results themselves. Gaming and teaching to the test are already problems in the UK, but it may well be the existence of Ofsted saving us from the even bigger mess the US finds itself in.
Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking and the author of Making Good Progress? and Seven Myths About Education. She tweets @daisychristo