Ofsted's reforms: Missing the point

Written by: Dr Andrew Clapham | Published:
Dr Andrew Clapham, Nottingham Institute of Education, Nottingham Trent University

Ofsted has set out plans to rebalance school inspection, but is still failing to address the most crucial problem, says Dr Andrew Clapham

Ofsted has announced a “rebalanced” approach to school inspection in England. Inspectors intend to move away from a focus on exam results. Echoing what teachers, school leaders and unions have been asking for, Ofsted has acknowledged that its current approach to inspection has significant and detrimental implications for schools.

Under new proposals, open for consultation, chief inspector Amanda Spielman has outlined how examination performance will cease to be the overriding indicator of school performance. She describes how there has been too much “gaming” of the system by schools.

Academics and practitioners alike have highlighted that in such a high-stakes inspection system, schools will “do what is necessary” to survive (Perryman 2009; Clapham 2015).

The proposal suggests that schools in “tough” areas could be rated outstanding if they can demonstrate they have “great” teachers and curriculum.
Rather than using the hard numbers of exam results and test data, inspectors will explore how those results have been achieved. They will want to know if high performing examination data is the result of broad and rich learning or gaming and cramming.

As Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for education, told the BBC’s Judith Burns, the new proposals would reveal if examination success was a result of a narrowed curriculum and “some naff qualifications”.

A new category of “quality of education”, which will refer to results in tandem with pedagogy and curriculum, will be introduced. There will also be greater focus on pupils’ behaviour (for a full break down of the consultation proposals, see Ofsted ‘calls time’ on teaching to the test and off-rolling pupils, SecEd, January 2019).

Ms Spielman summed up the new approach as centred in “substance and integrity”. For her, the substance is that all children should be “set up” to achieve and succeed highly. The integrity is that teachers should be allowed to be experts in their subject “not just as data gatherers and process managers”.

So, what does this all mean? On the surface it appears that Ofsted has made a significant move toward changing its inspection processes. After all, focusing on curriculum and teaching as well as examination results appears to be exactly what those in schools have been asking for.

Unfortunately, this appears to be a case of “moving the deckchairs” rather than a root and branch reorientation of inspection. The new proposals are still missing the point.

This is illustrated in the opening sentence of Judith Burn’s piece for the BBC. She writes that “a school in a tough area which has great teachers and a great curriculum could be rated outstanding from September, even if pupils’ results are mediocre, says Ofsted”.

It is the word mediocre that is pivotal here and illustrates that Ofsted is still struggling with the realities facing schools.

A student gaining an E in a test or examination might signal a monumental achievement. I have taught in challenging schools and have first-hand experience of many such cases.

For these young people and their teachers an E grade is anything but mediocre. Still using a pejorative phrase such as mediocre suggests that these proposals simply do not go far enough.

Until Ofsted acknowledges in its inspection framework that what categorises great schools and great teaching is context-specific, the teaching profession will treat announcements such as this with caution and scepticism.

What to do then? To eradicate an inspectorate-driven curriculum we might consider one simple change – eradicate the inspectorate itself and give teachers the responsibility and autonomy to do their jobs.

But the power of the inspectorate in England is wrapped up in larger considerations. Much has been made by politicians and policy-makers about the underperformance of English students in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

As I have outlined in my previous research, such has been this concern that there have been concentrated efforts to “policy borrow” approaches from those countries that have excelled at PISA – specifically Shanghai and Singapore.

There are, however, countries far closer to home who also do well in PISA, so why not borrow from them? To answer this, let us look at Finland. As teachers tell us, although Finland’s education system is not without its challenges, Finnish students rank highly in PISA tests.

Central to the Finnish system is that teachers and teaching are respected and trusted. This trust is powerfully illustrated through a lack of league tables, no formal testing for six-year-olds and teachers using assessment if and when appropriate to support learning. And no inspectorate.

Perhaps borrowing education policy from a country that rejects testing and inspections would be a step too far for UK governments, so ideologically wedded to these two approaches is evidencing school performance.

In my 17 years teaching in inner city schools in England, I saw first-hand how the focus changed from pupil-centred learning to Ofsted-centred learning. If an inspectorate exists with the power to take punitive measures against “failing” schools, then schools will focus upon an Ofsted-centred curriculum.

There is of course a need for regulation of a tiny majority of schools, which are not just underperforming but are potentially doing harm to their students. However, this is a tiny minority.
If Ms Spielman is truly interested in the work our schools do, then further reflection regarding the inspectorate’s purposes and processes is necessary. Time will tell if Ms Spielman is the reflecting type.

  • Dr Andrew Clapham is from the Nottingham Institute of Education at Nottingham Trent University.

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