Ofsted: a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation

Our friends at Ofsted have recently published their revised plans for how they go about inspecting schools. And what an uninspiring read it is. Uninspiring, that is, if you hold the view that Ofsted has lost its way and is in need of a major shake-up, not just a tweak of focus here and there.

The tone of the document (which is out for consultation and can be found here) is less than radical. There is little – scratch that, no evidence of anything approaching a fundamental re-evaluation of what they do and why.

Instead, what we have is lots of self-congratulatory stuff about how Ofsted, through its inspections, has helped to ‘share good practice’ and ‘encourage improvement’ (not on my watch they haven’t!). And then a host of relatively minor changes which have been forced upon them by the Education Bill – such as an end to the duties to inspect community cohesion and well-being.

The proposal is cleverly written to recognise the political mood – presenting the case that inspections will be streamlined with any flabbiness removed from the process. But, it’s hard to see how this will be the case – next to nothing has been removed from the scope of inspections.

Achievement, behaviour, safety, leadership, management, teaching – it’s all there. As is a focus on spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. And, although the out-of-fashion term ‘personalised learning’ is absent, the inspection will still look at whether education enables a child to ‘achieve her or his potential’.

It’s very hard to see how this cuts down the inspection process, particularly as Ofsted will apparently now give ‘greater priority’ to ‘detailed observation of teaching and learning’ – this suggestions more than a mere drop in and scan through the books. The conflict remains too between historical data and where a school is ‘at’ when the inspector calls: despite the glib references to the importance of teaching, the inspections still seem to be focussed on the importance of SATs results.

Other changes are worth noting too – including the focus on reading and numeracy in primary schools and literacy in secondary schools. It’s not clear why these have been picked other than, y’know, reading is, like, important innit. What we do know is that these unexplained shifts by Ofsted affect what schools do in a fairly crude and unsophisticated way. You can hear the screech of brakes and jangled gear-change as the inspectors narrow their sights ever-further.

There is more for those who doubt Ofsted are under-taking little more than a superficial exercise in pretending to ‘focus’ their inspections, while leaving plenty in their armoury if they don’t like the cut of a schools jib. Get this: they will be coming to inspect ‘how gaps are narrowing between different groups of pupils’. Which groups are, of course, for them to know and us to find out. It could be FSM v non-FSM, or girls v boys, or white v BME, or EAL v non-EAL. Who knows? But sure as eggs is eggs, Ofsted will have something to string you up by.

Aside from the ‘spot the difference’ approach to the detail of inspections, what is missing is any consideration of the culture of inspections and the recognition that the inspection experience of some schools has been something along the lines of: drop-in, damn and depart. This, in my view, damages rather than enhances school improvement.

To counter this, Ofsted does need fundamental change. Some are proposing splitting the whole organisation in two – more cruel critics might recommend breaking it up further (a million very tiny pieces springs to mind).

What they have produced here is a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation; it provides little to suggest Ofsted is changing from within. It is curious that Michael Gove has been so cautious in this area (contrast for a moment with what Eric Pickles has done, smashing the local authority watchdog – the Audit Commission – to smithereens) when, for many in the education sector, it is the place where radical upheaval is urgently required.

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5 Comments

Filed under Michael Gove, Ofsted, Policy, Schools

5 responses to “Ofsted: a tick-box exercise from a tick-box organisation

  1. ronniegordon

    Ofsted remains a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. It has to say it has raised standards – otherwise what is the point of it? If it has been a success this doesn’t fit with the Tory narrative that our education system is broken. It’s stuffed isn’t it?

  2. Regarding community cohesion – I found the Ofsted proposals to be quite positive in some respects. Firstly though, let’s be clear that it is not quite true to say as you do that, “an end to the (duty) to inspect community cohesion.” The community sohesion duty still remains a legal duty for schools – it is only the requirement that Ofsted inspects how schools promote community cohesion that is changing. The duty itself has not been repealed and is indeed also a requirement for academies. The Equality Act 2010 is also a legal duty for schools and as part of the general duty for public bodies (which includes schools), schools must promote good relations between people from different backgrounds.

    To my reading of the proposals document, it seems that there has been a debate within Ofsted on how some of the core aspects of community cohesion can still be judged. For example it states:

    ‘”In addition, as proposed in the Bill, inspectors must consider the spiritual, moral, social and cultural development of pupils; and the extent to which the education provided by the school enables all pupils to achieve, in particular disabled pupils and pupils who have special educational needs.”

    Also:

    It is therefore important that schools reduce differences in attainment between groups in the school, including those between looked after children, pupils from different social and ethnic groups and between boys and girls. The new inspection framework will pay particular attention to such gaps in attainment and inspectors will look at what is being done to close them.”

    And:

    “We propose to judge pupils’ behaviour and safety by giving particular attention to: their conduct in lessons and around the school; their attendance and punctuality at school and in lessons; their behaviour and attitudes towards others, and respect for other young people and adults, including the way pupils treat one another; how well they are protected from bullying; and the views of pupils, parents and carers.”

    And:

    “We propose to judge the overall effectiveness of the school by giving particular attention to the judgements about: the achievement of all pupils; behaviour and safety; the quality of teaching; and leadership and management; with consideration of how well the school promotes pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.”

    I feel there is a welcome attempt to sustain some scrutiny of schools’ accountability in respect of cohesion. In any case promoting community cohesion is not fundamentally about statute and inspection anyway. Good schools will continue to do it because they are committed to promoting positive relationships, develop respect for diversity and prepare pupils for later life.

    • Thanks for your comment. You say what I have written is ‘not quite true’ – in what way? The proposal is to end the duty to inspect community cohesion, isn’t it? This is what it says on page 7:

      ‘The 2011 Education Bill proposes changes to the statutory reporting areas for school inspection….namely, the duties to inspect well-being and community cohesion’

      I’m not disputing that there are still duties on schools to have regard to community cohesion and, of course, this is exactly what good schools do – nor do I doubt that the quotes you include mean that Ofsted will look at issues related to, and impacting on, community cohesion. But that’s a separate point; the proposal is for the explicit duty to go. I’m not clear what you are suggesting is untrue.

  3. You are absolutely right and my apologies – I should have read your original post more carefully as you are indeed clear that it is the duty to inspect community cohesion that will go, not the duty itself.

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