Should Ofsted be abolished?

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There is a growing view among teachers and leaders that school inspections are unfair, stressful and adversarial. Lucie Mitchell examines what the future holds for Ofsted and asks whether there is a better way?

The debate around what lies ahead for Ofsted has intensified recently. Many schools have already lost faith in the school inspection system as it stands, with teachers and unions stating that it is punitive, data-driven and unsupportive, while placing undue pressure on teacher and school leader workload and stress.

According to a recent survey of more than 800 teachers, by the Teacher Support Network, 93 per cent claimed school inspections contributed to stress, 88 per cent said they caused anxiety, while nine in 10 believed they had either a negative or neutral impact on student results.

Julian Stanley, chief executive of the charity, said that there is a “generalised fear” of Ofsted, which is partly to do with the way in which it has been positioned. He continued: “If it is causing this level of stress and anxiety, then something can’t be right. It is a designed process that is externally imposed upon people, and many people feel they are providing data, and spending a lot of time preparing for this, but there is not much coming back from these inspections that is designed to help improve your own practice.”

Numerous other pieces of research have raised similar issues. Another survey, this time by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), found that Ofsted is the single biggest cause of teachers’ excessive workload.

“This is largely due to the fact that an Ofsted judgement can make or break a school,” explained Jill Stokoe, education policy advisor at ATL.

“The current model of inspection is punitive rather than collaborative,” she told SecEd. “We have got concerns about the quality of the inspectors themselves, in terms of how they work and whether they are appropriate for the subject or the age range they are inspecting.

“We are also concerned about the methodologies that are used in inspections. We feel that some of the judgements are out of context and we have got issues about the quality of judgements made by different teams in individual inspections. Inspectors are enforcing political priorities.”

Ms Stokoe added: “We’ve also got issues about the narrow concentration on exam data. Schools have told us that they feel that when the inspectors come in, almost 80 per cent of the inspection has already been done because they have looked at the data, so have made their mind up before they get there.”

Many teachers agree that there is an excessive focus on data, with no allowances made to how individual schools operate. 

Kevin Wilson, headteacher at All Saints Catholic School in Dagenham, remarked that the current model of inspection is “obsessed” with data.

“There is no context given to the mechanistic approach to the whole process – it is all data, data and data – and really school is about people, not data. 

“The principle notion that an external agency should come and offer a more positive, supportive mechanism – rather than a negative, critical one – is key to me.”

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said that Ofsted is an adversarial model of inspection which pits inspectors and schools against each other.

He continued: “This often compels school leaders to defend against inspection as opposed to learning from it. The quality of inspection is too variable, meaning schools are left second-guessing what the team will look for. This creates over-compliance, stifles innovation and increases workload.”

So what does the future hold for Ofsted? Certainly, there is always going to be a need and demand – from both politicians and parents – to be able to examine the progress of a school and its students, using objective measures, but is there a better way than Ofsted for that model to be employed? Or should it be abolished completely?

The Green Party certainly thinks so. In its election campaign, it called for Ofsted to be replaced with an independent “National Council of Education Excellence”, which would see regional officers working closely with local authorities. It also plans to introduce a system of “local accountability using continuous, collaborative assessment of schools”.

However, while there is a general consensus that a more local, collaborative approach is the way forward, many do not see the need to scrap the watchdog entirely.

“We are not saying that Ofsted should be abolished, but that the systems should be restructured so that there are local inspection arrangements, and that these local arrangements would be quality-assured by a national agency, staffed by HMIs,” explained Ms Stokoe.

Earlier this year, the ATL proposed a radical overhaul of the school inspection system (Call for overhaul of ‘ineffective’ Ofsted, SecEd 407, March 5, 2015), following widespread criticism of Ofsted processes. 

The union put forward a series of principles for a new system, including a more supportive, advisory and empowering inspection, rather than adversarial, dictatorial and punitive, as well as ensuring self-assessment and professional dialogue is central to the process, while data is used to guide and not decide. ATL would also like to see the removal of a single overall grade for each school, and this being replaced with several tiered grades. “Giving one grade to a school doesn’t take into account all the aspects of the school’s and teachers’ performance,” added Ms Stokoe.

The NAHT has also suggested a number of reforms to make the system fairer and more accountable.

“We would like to see Ofsted focus on a binary judgement of good or not yet good; Ofsted should leave the definition of excellence to others,” said Mr Hobby. “We would like to see more peer review, where schools which are already good, challenge each other to achieve more. These steps would reduce the intrusiveness and harm of Ofsted, while still retaining a vital role for external challenge.”

The idea of a peer-review led accountability system chimes with many. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the SSAT are both in favour of this approach.

ASCL proposed an overhaul of inspection in its recently published document, Leading the Way: A blueprint for a self-improving system.

General secretary Brian Lightman, writing in SecEd, explained the blueprint’s vision: “The school inspection system would be reformed, creating an inspectorate which reviews performance on the basis of outcomes, rather than involving itself in processes, while schools themselves peer-review one another to further improve standards.” (How we can become the world’s best education system..., SecEd 406, February 26, 2015)

Most recently, the SSAT has suggested that Ofsted should go completely and be replaced by a peer-review system. Its Vision 2040 paper, published last month, set out to describe what the education should look like in 25 years’ time, and Ofsted is not included.

The paper’s timeline of change outlines moving to a new shorter inspection process from September 2015, with the axing of overall grades and the introduction of “narrative reports to assist school improvement”.

Ultimately, it says that Ofsted could be “retired” by 2020 with pilot programmes being launched of “externally validated peer-to-peer quality assurance”.The expertise of the out-of-work HMIs could be redeployed to focus on “high-quality self and peer-evaluation and review”, it adds (A vision for 2040: No Ofsted and a teacher-led curriculum, SecEd 412, April 30, 2015).

Back in Dagenham, Mr Wilson doesn’t see the need to abolish Ofsted either, but says it must be taken into the context of how schools operate and the conditions in which they are operating, using inspectors who have local knowledge and understand how local schools are working.

“There has got to be far more reality in their experience, so that they can apply that to the context of the schools they are inspecting,” he added.

At the Teacher Support Network, the idea of peer-assessment crops up again: “There is a great deal of expense in running Ofsted so I wonder whether there are other ways for groups of headteachers and schools working in collaboration with one another, to actually use some of these frameworks but implement them differently,” suggested Mr Stanley.

Results from the Teacher Support Network survey revealed that over half of respondents favoured peer-assessment instead of inspections, while 53 per cent wanted more detailed feedback from inspectors.

“When there is a more peer-led approach, with groups of schools working together with headteachers, with some kind of quality assurance review, there is an opportunity to be more open and honest during the reviews – and then they are not just data-led,” Mr Stanley added.

Tony Ryan, headteacher at Chiswick School in London, wants to see the introduction of a peer-to-peer system too.

“With peer-to-peer, you could have somebody that is fully trained in running inspections and fully trained in a national system – whether it is Ofsted or otherwise – who leads a team of deputy heads or headteachers from other schools that come together in order to peer-assess each other,” he said.

“There is less threat involved in that and you get a more open discussion about how to improve the school further. The panacea would be to move to that and have a system where each school leader assists in peer-to-peer support and judgement.”

Unfortunately though, Mr Ryan doesn’t see that happening any time soon, as he feels that the government doesn’t trust the profession enough.

Chiswick School was graded “good” on its last Ofsted, and Mr Ryan would like to see the government give more thought to how schools such as his can help other schools in difficult circumstances.

“It has taken us five years to get where we are at the moment. We are in a position where I feel we have got much to offer schools that are where we were five years ago, but we can’t become a Teaching School until we become outstanding on Ofsted. That’s not tapping into a whole load of leaders that could assist.”

Mr Wilson feels that inspections are a political process, rather than an educational one, and urges policy-makers to ensure they are far more supportive and empathetic: “The Ofsted process has got to be more cognisant of the context of schools and the social factors that operate in some schools and not others.”

Ms Stokoe agrees, and is calling on government to make the process more supportive of collaboration: “It should be responsive to local needs, so that there is more freedom and flexibility for specific local inspection improvement arrangements to be developed,” she said. “It should be less politically motivated, so no threats to make schools into academies if they don’t do well; and it should have independence from any ministerial or private sector interest.”

Mr Stanley concludes that government must ensure teachers have a strong voice in the process: “There will still be accountability, but a welcoming and embracing of it, rather than a fear. Reduce the fear component and have more of a quality assurance approach to it, where people can engage and be more honest and open, and reflect on the myriad of things that make a difference to an individual’s learning.”

  • Lucie Mitchell is a freelance journalist.

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