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What is a sensible alternative to the current Ofsted inspection system?
Imagine a world where inspection was more of an MOT-process, allowing organisations to meet a minimum threshold, have strenghts and areas for development identified, and then be given the time to fix them …
If you are reading this, I will assume you already know who Ofsted are; responsible for inspecting and grading educational institutions across England – a fundamental aspect of its role is maintaining standards.
What would you propose as an alternative?
I’ve spent the last 15 years writing about OFSTED on this blog.
An inadequate outcome was the final straw in my 25-year classroom career. The process damaged my mental health and destroyed the careers of many good teachers around me. Since then, there are now 135+ articles documenting available research on the pitfalls of grading schools and its unreliability.
I am putting my thoughts all into one place because I’ve lost count of how many people have asked: What would you propose as an alternative? If you’re willing to read an evolving proposal, here it is.
Taking a broader look at the role of inspection
I won’t waste time describing their responsibilities and future priorities. However, I will briefly outline their macro-commitments as much as possible. I’ll start by providing an overview of Ofsted as documented in their annual reports.
It’s crucial to understand Ofsted regulates many different types of settings:
- Childcare, early years and nurseries
- Children’s social care services e.g. looked after children, care homes, fostering and adoption.
- Home education and online provision
- Maintained schools, academies and colleges, including illegal schools
- Apprenticeship providers
- Prison education
- Local authority provision
- Initial teacher training and teacher development.
It’s also worth noting that Estyn (the process used in Wales) and SIAMS (Church of England schools) have both abolished grading in the last 12 months …
We’ve had this conversation before …
In 2018, I was part of the NAHT’s Accountability Commission which outlined an alternative for the sector. You can see I’ve been before here before, and thousands of others.
Canada, Finland & Singapore do not have school inspections published externally (and these countries have been known to perform better than England in PISA tests – cited as places to visit by the Department for Education).
We must also assume that parents in these countries ‘want to know how schools are performing’. This is often banded as a critical reason why Ofsted keep with the grades.
Estyn now states that schools are either compliant or not compliant, with any areas of focus being discussed supportively. Keeping the grading, especially ‘inadequate’ ensures school leaders are publicly humiliated and influence tragic events like Ruth Perry.
The result? “Too many winners in the system who simply don’t give enough of a s**t about the losers” …
… as my good friend Tom Sherrington writes. Someone who has also suffered at the hands of a graded inspection. There are thousands of us ‘spat out’ of the system during an unprecedented recruitment crisis.
Calling for Ofsted to be abolished is unrealistic. It makes people working in the profession look stupid!
Ofsted was formed in 1992 – and let’s not forget that school inspection has been happening for 150 years in 1839 under the auspices of the Committee of Council on Education. However, it wasn’t until the Elementary Education Act of 1870 that regular school inspections were established by law.
The Education Act of 1944 introduced a new system of school inspection which focused on the quality of teaching and learning – fancy that! This system continued until the mid-1990s when a new inspection system was introduced: Ofsted. Historically, you can argue that we needed an inspection process to help regulate the new idea of sending children to schools rather than factories.
However, not all high-performing countries currently have an inspection system, so a key question must be: Why is one essential for England?
Since 1992, we know Ofsted has already gone through many incarnations and will continue to do so. One key problem is how gradings are politicised, its independence from government, and how it is begenning to steer pedagogy …
The argument for and against Ofsted grading
I aim to present the beginnings of an academic argument supporting the need for Ofsted to continue grading schools and colleges in England. I know thousands of others have articulated this before, with Frank Coffield as a ‘stand out’ example for me.
My views are immediately limited because I don’t yet have an alternative to how reform could be adopted in all the other settings listed at the beginning of this post.
However, rest assured; I will gather a group to document the pros and cons of grading in various settings. I know the following will need refined, so please take this as a first draft of me putting all the arguments together into one place, before I gather a group of people to help refine the details. I already have 5 helpers. If you are interested, you need to be interested in contributing to the full debate, reading research and taking this blog forward into an academic manifesto; preferably before a new HMCI is appointed and before the next general election.
So, for now, here are some ideas for and against grading schools, with a range of (to be edited) URLs, with an initial set of alternatives in the lowest section of this post.
- Grading schools, Ofsted provides a benchmark for parents to measure the performance of individual schools.
- The process helps identify improvement areas and ensures that schools are accountable for performance.
- Parents can use Ofsted grades to make informed decisions when selecting schools and colleges.
- The grading system provides a transparent and objective measure of the quality of education.
- Grading (some would say) promotes healthy competition towards excellence.
- The grading process helps identify improvement and target future strategies and training.
- A system-level quality assurance process for maintaining standards and for driving improvement.
- Grading safeguards those receiving an education.
- The current grading system simplifies the complex work of a school into a single, reductionist word.
- This approach fails to capture the nuanced aspects of educational institutions and their diverse student bodies.
- Ofsted recognises that all schools are unique, yet their one size fits all methodology fits all.
- Shifting attention away from grades would provide more qualitative assessments.
- Grading schools limits teaching to set curriculum e.g. EBacc
- A poor inspection grade leads to headteacher attrition e.g. football manager syndrome.
- Grading forces schools to prioritise their reputation over the actual quality of education they provide
- The grading perpetuates bias and inequality. We know disadvantaged schools are more likely to be penalised.
- The grading system fuels the housing market; providing local newspapers opportunities to vilify leaders.
- Stuck or coasting schools, graded poorly, fall into a cycle of disadvantage.
- Schools with lower grades struggle to attract quality teachers and resources, compounding their issues.
- The subjectivity of the inspection process is not bulletproof. e.g. unconscious bias or inconsistent evaluations.
- The reliability/validity of Ofsted’s grading system is not an accurate indicator of the quality of education.
- Studies suggest that parental involvement, peer influences, and local community support play a significant role in student outcomes, yet these factors are not fully accounted for in Ofsted’s evaluations.
- The inspection framework is short-term. Many schools are not inspected for 10+ years, putting pupils at risk.
Research: What do we know already?
I will eventually edit this list below and keep anything that is research-informed, not necessarily an opinion. I will also remove any links that are not directly related to grading.
- Inspection outcomes are unreliable
- Graded judgements on schools do not accurately reflect the quality of education
- Ofsted grades are a weak predictor of pupil success
- Ofsted’s research for conducting deep dives is ill-founded
- HMI inspectors are biased
- Machine learning – artificial intelligence – is used to predict which schools to inspect
- Ofsted policies its own complaints process
- Teachers do not accept inspector feedback
- Stuck schools are often deprived, with Ofsted gradings regurgitating the cycle.
- Being labelled as a ‘stuck school’ reduces your resources, making success harder.
- There are prevailing beliefs about how best to improve failing schools
- Ofsted doesn’t know if it improves school standards
- Ofsted initially failed to act on sexual harassment reports in schools
- HMCI rarely visits schools, especially those outside of academisation
- Disadvantaged schools are judged more harshly by Ofsted; text-mining 17,000 reports
- The Ofsted framework is quasi-academic research to justify its formula
- Parents do not generally read past the first page of Ofsted reports
- Inspectors heavily edit their completed notes to suit the overall outcome
- Education research is ‘contestable and contested’ (says Ofsted), but their curriculum reviews are too
- In schools where ‘standard English‘ is not upheld, inspectors view schools unfavourably
- Ofsted’s leadership team lacks diversity, accepts bonuses and cannot demonstrate value for money
- Inspectors write misleading comments on reports about what they believe pupils know
- Ofsted reinspect schools because they make mistakes
- No education system can be great if schools are ranked and filed.
- Why a good Ofsted report can be bad for GSCE results
- Observation research suggests learning is not something that can be directly observed
I intend to thrash this out in greater detail, supported by research, then broadened to other areas of the sector, but for now:
- Increase Ofsted funding, paid by the taxpayer
- Increase the number of inspectors available to support schools
- Bring in qualified counsellors and psychologists into the inspection process
- Facilitate school leaders from ‘any type of school’ to inspect
- Complete a desktop ‘safeguarding check’ on all schools, annually
- Abandon gradings and move towards a qualitative report system
- Conduct thematic inspections focused on specific areas: SEND, behaviour, stage, subject etc
- Standards are defined and reported as compliant / not yet compliant
- Where areas of improvement are identified, enable an ‘MOT period‘ for improving
- Create a system where schools must collaborate; expertise must be shared
- Distribute geographically teaching hubs, ITT universities and organisations to support and train staff
- Continue to tackle illegal schools and finally,
- Move away from progress measures to a range of academic results, higher education destinations, part and full-time employment, including apprenticeships and vocational pathways, mental health, wellbeing and non-cognitive attributes, rather than a narrow and binary system we currently use.
This is the beginning of an alternative manifesto for Ofsted inspection of schools. If Ofsted is not prepared to change this way, it may be time for a change of inspection body.
This is far from perfect, but I intend to gather a group of educationalists interested in thrashing out some details to provide alternatives for all stakeholders. The difficulty is knowing not everyone will be satisfied, including myself, to propose an alternative that is guided by research and free from bias.
Plus, you never know; this might become a working manifesto for a political party.