Evidence for 'antagonistic unions’ claim is flimsy at best?

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards National secretary, UNISON

Ofsted’s accusation that ‘antagonistic unions’ are a barrier to improvement is based on evidence so flimsy it is embarrassing, says Jon Richards

What better bedtime reading than a new Ofsted “evaluation report”?

This one – with its sexy title, Fight or Flight? – “investigates why some schools that have previously delivered a low standard of education for long periods of time have managed to sustainably improve and others have not” (Ofsted, 2020).

As well as a fancy title we also love a catchy label. Remember “coasting schools”? Well this report comes up with another cracker – “stuck schools”.

Ofsted tells us all that it is has moved on from its old name, shame and blame culture. So of course this report does not look for scapegoats...

But old habits die hard – and among the villains in this report, Ofsted states that one of the barriers stuck schools face is a “resistant and embedded culture”, which includes schools that face “antagonistic union voice”.

I have questions about the evidence-base on which some claims in the document are made. Let’s start with numbers. The report says there were 490 stuck schools at the time of the research (this has since dropped to 415 – for more, see SecEd, 2020).

It is based on interviews with governors and senior or long-standing staff (no support staff of course) in 20 schools. Of these, 10 are schools that have supposedly improved, so are now “unstuck”. So the “evidence” on the stuck schools is based on 10 out of 490 schools. Even better, their evidence is “self-reported through focus groups and interviews”.

Ofsted adds: “We did not attempt to independently verify the views or facts that were given to us.” So, how did Ofsted know they were facts at all?

And how widespread across the 10 is the impact of these “antagonistic unions”? The report states: “Both teachers and leaders in at least two schools commented on the difficulties this created.”

Followed by: “Although headteachers in unstuck schools have been prepared to have difficult discussions when needed, those in stuck schools are anxious about the time and emotional energy needed to make changes at the school with the challenge the union voice would give.”

To sum up: from a very small sample of very different schools a tiny number of people have complained of being challenged – but the researchers haven’t checked if their complaints are valid or asked for alternative views. The researchers have then jumped to conclusions using minimal and unsubstantiated evidence.

I’m not denying that we challenge employers who want to make changes that could have a significant impact on staff and pupils. And yes we sometimes get it wrong – but then so do employers.

Luckily one organisation comes out of the report well. In the section titled “Impact of inspection” there is a glowing tribute to the “benefits of independent inspection”.

Read the education press and you can see regular criticism of Ofsted, but not in this report, it seems.

And if this report, filled with biased, unscientific and subjective research, is the kind of thing that Ofsted is going to produce, then no wonder they are under fire.

There are some interesting talking points in the research, I admit, but the sample size and the sweeping assumptions jumped to make it unreliable. If you believe in proper research – steer well clear.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary at UNISON.

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