How would I like schools to be held to account?
I thought I’d write this today after a conversation on twitter. I’m aware it’s very secondary centred. By “very” I mean “completely”.
Tristram Hunt has said that OFSTED is essential. He counterposed the existence of OFSTED with low standards. This disappoints me as I am becoming persuaded that this particular form of accountability is substandard at best, and actively damaging at worst.
I retweeted a blog that criticised Hunt for this today and had a few responses, one of which suggested “being anti-OFSTED is not a credible position for a school leader”. Since I consider myself to be anti-OFSTED, I hold what at least one person considers to be a position that lacks credibility. So I want to explore why I’m anti-OFSTED and consider what level and form of accountability I would welcome.
One of the main reasons for having got to the state where I consider myself opposed to the existence of OFSTED is the history of the institution. Since the times of Chris Woodhead, it has become increasingly demanding of schools (something I agree with in principle, and I should point out that most revisions to the OFSTED framework recently have been ones I have tended to agree with) but OFSTED’s areas of inspection have included the quality of teaching. So it has been increasingly demanding on teaching. This sounds obvious, why wouldn’t a schools inspection regime inspect the quality of teaching?
Except the quality of teaching hasn’t historically been judged by the effect of teaching (on learning), but with reference to sets of standards that need to be observed within lessons. I include in this the need to “show progress” in lessons as this has meant “illustrate performance in 20 minutes”. Most teachers teach their classes for a year, building on previous knowledge and practice in order that students may develop new knowledge or skills. They don’t teach for progress every 20 minutes. The outcome of good teaching is good progress, usually measured by external examination results. Not a performance every 20 minutes. And that in my view is the best set of criteria for teaching and learning that inspectors have judged – the worst have been ‘engagement’, ‘group work’ and many other aspects of performance which have hence been interpreted very differently over time.
I posit that the reason the criteria have been interpreted differently over time (according to which inspector a school receives or which year we are in) is because the debate over progressive v liberal education has not been resolved, and because OFSTED has become a monolith in the last two decades – it has grown in a context that hasn’t resolved that debate.
One of the reasons for the different interpretations of the criteria on teaching is that for the last decade (until the latest revision) the national curriculum has been unashamedly skills based. I was a part of a QCA working group that looked at how the assessment regime might explicitly assess the Personal Learning and Thinking Skills rather than what I then considered to be the narrow content of subjects. We failed to find anything acceptable. I now can’t believe we tried! OFSTED developed in this climate, and hence many inspectors were appointed, or developed, in a climate that values the development of vague skills at school as the primary aim.
Daisy Christodoulou in her book The Seven Myths about Education, and Andrew Old on his blog have done a better job than I have the patience for in cataloguing where OFSTED challenge a liberal knowledge based curriculum. In illustrating that the myths she challenges exist, Daisy correctly identifies that OFSTED is a major influence in the orthodoxy of educational practice. Because so many inspectors have inspected lessons believing that less teacher talk, group activities, “independent learning”, or other features of progressive education are features of outstanding lessons, they are not likely to ditch these beliefs because Michael Wilshaw has suggested there is no preferred teaching style. The old dogmas die hard.
In addition, many inspectors (and sadly my school has bought enough of them over the years) act as consultants explaining how to pass (or pass better) OFSTED inspections. Implicit in this is that the shared criteria for inspection is interpreted in certain ways that one can only discover by being an insider. David Didau writes of one such instance where an inspector said exactly that, despite what is written in the inspection handbook.
David writes of a time when he was delivering INSET in the same building as an OFSTED inspector:
“I discovered that this inspector was telling people the following:
- Detailed lesson plans were required for all observed lessons
- Progress needed to clearly demonstrated in 20 minutes
- Teacher talk must be minimised
- Students must be learning independently for significant proportions of every lesson.
To say I was flabbergasted is putting it mildly. But, rather than accept that this was all true, I decided to speak to the inspector over lunch. I had every expectation that his views would be much more nuanced than had been reported and that we would be able to find common ground. I was wrong. The inspector really did seem to think that these thing were true and really had been training teachers that they should be doing them. Needless to say, I made my views clear and was able to support the points I made with reference to the Handbook. I’d like to report that all ended amicably and the inspector thanked me for my perspicacity. This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not the case. This was the point at which our discussion ended:
“Yes, that what it says, but it’s not what we actually look for, and it’s not how we judge schools. If schools want to guarantee a good outcome they need to follow my advice.” Or words to that effect.”
The OFSTED regime also causes Local Authorities to pressurise schools and hence causes Heads and Leadership Teams to pressurise teachers. It’s so high stakes that it feels as a leader that you have done a good job if you shift your school up one OFSTED grade to another (or kept it at it’s current OFSTED grade). To do that, just getting better results or better progress seems not to be enough – you have to play the OFSTED game – the one we’re told doesn’t exist by inspectors when inspecting, and then told exists when they want to sell us their services at hundreds of pounds a day – and our jobs and livelihoods depend on it.
Someone else who I respect on twitter remarked that “Good school leaders don’t play games with pupils’ lives to make the school look good. They concentrate on great teaching”. Of course this isn’t arguable. However this ignores that OFSTED and the regime around it promotes contradictory and often unhelpful advice, (combined with the pressure exerted that threatens colleagues’ jobs) – and that leaders are supposed to listen to and consider OFSTED and their advice. The implication of the tweet I quote is also that you EITHER go for a better OFSTED grade OR concentrate on great teaching. That’s the problem. If a leader can get a better OFSTED grading by playing games with students’ lives (eg by ensuring there is ineffective but impressive looking performance or group work in every lesson), OFSTED is the problem. It is counterposed to the interests of young people, and since it exists to hold schools to account, it is actively counterposing the needs of the school with the needs of young people.
Should educators not be able to trust that the accountability regime is about enhancing students’ lives and life chances?
Surely a good accountability regime would be one that encouraged us to not play games with students’ lives and focus on making their future lives better because they are better educated? And hence it shouldn’t have us second guessing or being sold stuff to pass OFSTED inspections if they don’t result in students being better educated.
The same person said in another tweet that “OFSTED criteria are there for schools to use to judge themselves. How can fair and clear criteria cause low standards?”
Others have illustrated that the criteria is far from clear (including the inspector linked to on David’s blog above). I think if it was consistent and not open to interpretation one might call it fair. I don’t think the way it is used is fair.
I don’t know if OFSTED can be reformed. I know Michael Wilshaw has tried hard, but as Andrew illustrates, it seems to be in vain. I hence don’t think I or we should be held accountable by what I consider to be at least partly a lottery.
So how should we be held to account?
I think my school should be inspected. I think all schools should be inspected regularly. This should be to ensure we meet minimum stringent standards on aspects such as safeguarding in a wide sense and equal opportunities. I don’t think this needs a 4 point Outstanding/ Good/ RI/ Inadequate rating. It’s pass or fail. We are already audited for financial probity, correctly.
There is a debate raging over lesson observations. Most people on the blogosphere seem to be concluding that it is difficult or impossible to judge the quality of teaching in a lesson, and even those that are in favour of observations tend to agree that it’s difficult to judge definitively. Professor Robert Coe of Durham University has this presentation that I’d love to have heard him talk to (see slide 18 in particular) and that he says he will write about soon. Lesson observations are the main thing OFSTED do when they come into schools to inspect. It’s the thing that takes most of their time. And as Coe suggests, it’s a bit of a lottery. I think it’s even more of a lottery than Coe suggests because it can depend where on the liberal v progressive education debate the inspector explicitly or implicitly stands. On the lesson observations debate, I suspect there’s some value to lesson observations because in my career I’ve had anecdotal feedback that they are valued and have helped improve colleagues practice (not a colleague, but see one blog here for example), but I’m uneasy about the widespread use of grades and judgements.
I think we should be held to account on our results. I’m comfortable with it being something like our RAISE document with a bit more detail (I’d like something to be considered regarding context, though I recognise that CVA was partly responsible for low expectations in deprived areas), and should results be poor (at whatever level) I think the management of the school should be called to further account via interview. I also think this will be better than the past with the new “Best 8” measure that seems to consider academic progress the most important aspects of students’ education.
I can’t find a recent OFSTED report where Achievement and Quality of Teaching have different grades so I don’t understand why they need to visit lessons to judge the Quality of Teaching. The results are the outcome of teaching. Though I used to be horrified that inspections might be led by data alone, it makes a lot more sense to me now that I’ve considered and experienced the horrific experience that inspections of teaching are. So that is it for accountability in my view. A school should pretty much know what its grade is going to be from the external records of progress of the students in what matters.
And if it’s failing, get people in there with no notice to sort it out.
I’m undecided on other aspects, including whether it’s a more local inspection regime, whether it involves other school leaders, or needs to involve visits to the school (I think interviewing parents and students is desirable, scrutinising governing body minutes similarly).
So I think the accountability regime should:
(a) Not be called OFSTED nor just be renamed but essentially be the same. No continuity with the old regime.
(b) Not visit lessons to judge teaching (though it may be occasionally necessary for other reasons, particularly if there are concerns)
(c) Be less high stakes (except for where schools are failing to meet minimum standards)
(d) Cost less than £166,000,000 per year
(e) Not allow inspectors to work as consultants
I reserve the right to add to this.
Perhaps then we’d spend more time leading our schools to great results via great teaching and a great ethos, and hence allow students to grow into adults with prosperous and happy fulfilled lives.
Until then, I guarantee that we’ll mention OFSTED in every Leadership Group meeting (even if the word is banned, people still know why we’re doing some of the things we’re doing) and continue to insist on “best foot forward”, I’ll continue to visit Mary Myatt’s excellent blog and I will try to predict and work on how I can improve our school’s OFSTED grading while having a firm focus on actually improving the school for the students. I will practice observations with the staff, and grade them, and pass the gradings to the inspector, because I don’t feel confident enough that inspectors will not mark us down if we can’t produce that evidence. And I’ll continue to use national curriculum levels to prove internal progress (even though levels are widely discredited) – and I know the main reason is OFSTED. It’s too high stakes to just throw out. I will resist many of the things we’re pressured to do via OFSTED that I know are wrong, and I will continue to attempt to keep the fear factor at the gates (something I’ve been terrible at in the fairly distant past), but I’m powerless to resist the institution completely and I know I’m heavily influenced by OFSTED – because a better OFSTED grading contributes to our reputation and benefits our students.
But having considered the criticism earlier in the day, I can confirm I’m anti-OFSTED – credible or not.
post-script: in linking to his blog, most of the way through writing this, I realised Andrew has made many of the points I was making. I’ve read his blog before so I’ve no doubt I was subconsciously influenced when writing.