Ofsted Part 1 – Page 3
The scales fall
There is no evidence that Ofsted took any notice whatsoever of the content of the two 2014 studies which flagged the precarious nature of its inspection framework. Nor did it take any action as a result of its own 2015 study highlighting ‘the absence of strong evidence in the research literature on the validity of inspection’. Ofsted simply carried on as before.
But in 2017, scales must have fallen from eyes when Ofsted hosted its first ‘international research seminar’ with the focus being on lesson observation. It was only then, evidently, that Ofsted came to understand that which the teaching profession had always understood about the nature of learning (and the limitations of observation). Among the early main findings was this:
‘Interestingly, none of the models explicitly attempted to measure learning. It was generally agreed among the experts that learning is not something that can be directly observed, while the quality of teaching can. [….] It was generally agreed among the international experts that learning is invisible and happens over a long period of time.’
So – just what was going through the minds of Ofsted inspectors for all of those years, when they were making key judgments about teachers and schools based on the observation of the invisible? And what does this say about the validity of the Ofsted inspection framework?
It is widely recognised that validity is not an inherent property of a test or assessment, but relates to the interpretations made and the specific purposes for which they are used. On this basis, an assessment which relies significantly on the observation of that which cannot be observed and which is used to make judgments about the quality of the work of teachers and schools – judgments that may have far-reaching consequences for all participants – cannot possibly be said to have validity.
Does this matter? Well, if one is to be professionally judged, it would seem to be a reasonable expectation that the basis of the judgment should be a valid one, not a spurious construct which confers on those doing the inspecting a set of powers that are imaginary. This is just a step away from Ofsted claiming that its inspectors give out advice telepathically, but which only ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ teachers can pick up….
It matters, without question, to schools, teachers, support staff and governors, because the fundamental tenor of the inspection framework is threatening. There is no middle ground within inspection reports; they either commend, or they castigate. Two categories of Ofsted judgment say, ‘you’re doing well’; and two categories of judgment say, ‘if you don’t improve, your school, its leadership and its governing body are all under direct threat of closure or removal’.
Does Ofsted support schools to improve?
The simple answer to this question seems to be a straightforward ‘No’.
One of Ofsted’s most recent interventions, arising from the circumstances of the pandemic and lengthy school shutdowns, demonstrates quite clearly that when Ofsted refers to ‘supporting schools’, it will do so in ways that are not directly helpful to those schools, other than pointing out when they haven’t done something well, after the fact.
In January 2021, Ofsted announced its intention to carry out ‘monitoring inspections’ that were intended to support schools that had most recently received inspection judgments of ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’.
‘Monitoring inspections are about giving assurance to parents and being supportive of a school as it improves.’
This sounds like a distinct and welcome change of tenor, until one reads the accompanying operational note explaining what this support consists of. References to ‘support’ and ‘being supportive’ within this document suggest that Ofsted’s conceptualisation of these terms excludes any suggestion that ‘help’ might be provided.
‘Inspectors will work with leaders during the inspection, providing the right level of challenge, at the right time, to support the school’s work’:
‘….inspectors can support the school to reflect on what they are teaching pupils currently, including through remote education. Pointing out weak intent or ill-focused actions will help leaders…’
‘They will support schools to prioritise the right actions.’ (All my underlining)
‘Providing the right level of challenge’ to schools already in very challenging circumstances doesn’t sound like an obvious manifestation of ‘support’. Neither does being ‘supported to reflect’ on what schools always reflect on – what they are teaching – seem directly helpful. Pointing out weak intent or ill-focused actions may well be useful – but why wait for a school (that the organisation is nominally supporting) to tread these paths? Why not point them in the right direction, proactively? That would constitute support, in my book.
While it’s easy to look at the past through rose-tinted lenses, there was a time before the inception of Ofsted when the role of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of schools was a fundamentally supportive one – inspectors working actively and positively to help the school improve the quality of everything that they endeavoured to do. They gave practical advice, in abundance, about how to become better schools.
But Ofsted has never supported schools in any positive sense; it has simply judged them – on a highly dubious evidential basis – and then charged those schools judged not to be performing well with the target to improve, under threat of enforced closure. Certainly, it praises schools that are evidently performing well, but other than confirming to them what they already know, Ofsted doesn’t help or bring any added value to those schools, either.
Perhaps the closest that Ofsted has come to providing useful information for schools was with the publication in September 2018 of a document entitled, ‘Ofsted inspection – clarification for schools’.
This was referred to as a ‘myth-busting’ document, the first attempt by Ofsted to address a lengthy list of widely-held and often longstanding ‘misconceptions’ about the inspection process, many of which had taken cultural root. Although the content is framed as being ‘clarification for schools’, it seems quite possible that the advice was also addressed to inspectors.
In its favour, Ofsted had been endeavouring to dispel one of the ‘myths’ – that Ofsted has a preferred teaching style that it wishes to see – for several years. But schools and teachers have access to the repository of all Ofsted judgments; these inspection reports yield clear information about elements of teaching practice that Ofsted has consistently approved of, or disapproved of. There are some 40 ‘myths’ set out within this document. But if they are myths, they began life in the stories of triumph and disaster that are to be found in those archives.
‘What does Ofsted want to see?’ is a question that schools simply cannot ignore (even when the answer is ‘that which cannot be seen’). It is a question that is embedded in schools’ mindset, organisation and practice, but Ofsted seems to have been incapable of understanding why; it is because the potential consequences of not asking it are simply too grave, given that the essential tenor of the inspection framework is threatening.
The Ofsted myth-busting document illustrates what happens when an inspection framework is essentially threatening. And as long as that intrinsic ‘tone’ of inspection continues to prevail, schools will continue to behave in exactly the same ways, seeking to understand and implement ‘what Ofsted wants’. There is an inevitability about this which Ofsted seems unable to recognise or acknowledge.
Finally, it’s impossible not to notice that the Ofsted inspectorate is largely drawn from the ranks of senior teachers and headteachers who have been highly successful and effective in their professional careers. So why is no positive practical use made of their experience and expertise? Why assemble a cast that collectively carries such a fount of knowledge and expertise which is then knowingly withheld from schools, rather than being deployed to positive effect? The only plausible explanation is that it is not part of Ofsted’s role or mission to support schools to improve.
A wider role for Ofsted?
One further part of the Chief Inspector’s speech at the Festival of Education bears closer scrutiny:
‘I also want us to have a much greater engagement with the wider research community. My hope is that, by sharing and analysing more of what we find, we can play a larger role in informing education policy. Not a role that is based on personal prejudices or hobby horses, but on proper evidence from the ground.’
Ofsted’s work, it is apparent, has not been built on proper evidence from the ground. Personal prejudices, mounted on hobby horses, have been allowed to run freely through the pastures of the inspection system for nearly 30 years (and elsewhere within the education system, most obviously evinced by the national curriculum and the national strategies).
As a result, Ofsted has certainly not built up a stock of credibility within schools, and whatever it does have is undermined by the effect of its judgments in furthering the politically (and educationally) divisive policy of forced academisation. It may not be its own, but Ofsted appears to have embraced this ideological agenda with enthusiasm. There is no evidence that the process of academisation leads to better educational outcomes, but if Ofsted were genuinely interested in a research-based approach – and in the improvement of all schools – this issue would be one of the foremost subjects for research.
The Care Quality Commission, Ofsted’s parallel body within the health and social care sector, does not have ‘a wider role in determining health policy’. Why on earth would we appoint Ofsted to such a role within education, particularly given its track record?
 Watching the Watchmen: The future of school inspections in England ( Harriet Waldegrave and Jonathan Simons (2014) Policy Exchange https://policyexchange.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/watching-the-watchmen.pdf
 ‘Playing the Game. The enduring influence of the preferred Ofsted teaching style’ Robert Peal (2014) Civitas http://www.civitas.org.uk/content/files/PlayingtheGame-1.pdf
 Do two inspectors inspecting the same school make consistent decisions? Ofsted (2015) https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/596708/Reliability_study_-_final.pdf
 ‘Six models of lesson observation: an international perspective’ Ofsted 2017