Posted by: mrlock | November 22, 2013

How I think we should be held to account

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.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Reblogged this on Scenes From The Battleground.


  3. Hello Stuart

    Thank you for sharing your wider thoughts here on school inspection.
    It is a while since I was involved in inspections. At that time a team had the luxury of 4.5 days to fully evaluate the work of a school.
    Inspections are much shorter now and much less expensive.
    This is right for our times, but it does mean that a school needs to do the equivalent of inspect itself and then share its evidence with inspectors.

    Where schools know themselves well, inspection will be more about endorsing the school’s own judgements of itself. Outstanding schools probably do this anyway; i.e. they take control of their inspection and make sure that inspectors see the evidence of this during their visit.
    I have commented on a previous blog that I can think of no other £7-10M organisation that would dream of leaving evaluation of how well it was doing to an outside body. School leaders who think this are unlikely to be judged as Outstanding. A two-day inspection won’t ever to be able to do the thorough job of evaluating a school that school leaders should have already done.

    As to lesson observation, I have written about this in my blog at where I also provide a lesson observation form that we developed with some practicing inspectors (and for which I have received much positive feedback).
    As I say in the blog, teachers can have this form beside them when they are teaching and over time will understand exactly what an observer will try their best to see in a 20 minute observation. They are likely to be more calm about it because they will be familiar with the criteria and the process. They will understand that they should use the opportunity to illustrate some of the characteristics of their teaching and the effect that it is having on pupil progress. It isn’t about a teacher’s performance. They can share their thoughts on how the group is doing, pointing to different groups of learners and sharing evidence of their progress.

    Inspectors have never expected to see detailed lesson plans, but if a chance to speak to then inspector doesn’t arise, then a short note about the objectives of the lesson and a few details of the composition of the class really does help. Without this information, it is really difficult to place what is seen in a context.

    I don’t think Ofsted needs to be radically reformed. The many changes we have seen to the evaluation schedule have in my estimation improved the process. For example, judging schools by the progress of their pupils is a radical improvement on simply using raw results.

    Ofsted inspection isn’t perfect but its not bad.



    • Thank you Mike, and for the tweets that sparked this piece.

      It’s interesting that in this comment you remark on some of the things leaders do that are not just focus on great teaching – primarily to satisfy OFSTED. I can’t say I agree that these are productive in comparison with focussing on great teaching.

      I appreciate your perspective on how the inspection framework is interpreted. I can’t say I disagree with what you write. Having said that, I don’t think the anecdotes we hear of inspections match the kind of consistent approach you describe.

      We’ve been through many different versions of observation at my school, and exactly the problem is that we’re trying to ape the inspection process RATHER THAN focus on quality teaching (and they should be the same). The problems in the interpretation of the criteria, in my view problems that have arisen because of a historical trajectory, have resulted in schools second guessing – no matter which form they use (and thanks for yours).

      Thanks again for the comment.


      • This is an interesting and thoughtful blog that raises a number if issues. I agree with much of what Mike has written. Schools need to be reflective and be able to evaluate their own work accurately. If they do, senior leaders should be able to work with the inspection team and be able to a certain extent direct activities. Schools that do well are schools that know themselves and their pupils well and plan to meet their needs. Contrary to much of what is written in anti Ofsted blogs, what Ofsted ‘want to see’ is children learning the best they can and schools doing all they can to ensure this happens. It is a fact that some are better at doing this than others and those that do not do well by their students need challenging to put things right quickly. The children only have one chance.

        I disagree that the criteria are not clear. They are. If inspectors choose to ignore them and do something different, as in David’s account, then they should not be inspecting. I have never worked in a team where the Lead expects the team to do anything not in the Handbook. I am not denying they exist, but I have never met or worked for one.

        Then there are the reports that seem to endorse a particular teaching style. So is suggesting that developing more independence in students’ learning an endorsement of trendy, progressive methods? Not necessarily. There are many ways to teach effectively. So sometimes students will need didactic teacher led lessons, on other occasions they may need a different strategy. I have seen group work used effectively in some classes and very ineffectively in others. An inability in young people to think for themselves or work with any degree of independence is something employers and universities complain about alike.

        The areas for improvement are always, in my experience, discussed and agreed with the Head Teacher and Senior Leaders at the end of the inspection. I have never seen them foisted on a school and draft AFIs are always sent to the HT for amendment and approval before they go into a report. Sometimes there is little discussion about them, sometimes more, but it is important that they are agreed upon and written collaboratively as they are meant to be useful for the school and help it to move forward.

        No system is perfect, of course. Some schools are led and managed much better than others and do not bend with every puff of Govian or Wilshaw wind. Good leaders know what needs to be done to improve their school, which may or may not be ‘what Ofsted want’. They get on and do it anyway, focusing on important things like teaching and learning, and are not afraid to be held accountable through the inspection process. Some even welcome it!


      • Thanks Heather.

        I would take issue with, for example, your comments about independent learning. The reason for this is that seeing students working independently is identifying that they’ve learnt something in order to be independent. It is not because they’ve learnt it independently. Praising this aspect suggests inspectors want to see it as a method of education rather than an aim – which I think is a terrible thing (and yes, is something that is in the progressive tradition).

        I would similarly comment on groupwork. That suggestion – that we want to see better groupwork – but that’s not what is actually said. What is said regards quantity. And it always appears to be groupwork, not the quantity of direct instruction. I’ve heard many school leaders talk to staff about performance, and the habits of inspecting whether a lesson has groupwork in die hard.

        I note the recent changes in the handbook regarding “imparting knowledge” and I witnessed (at the PiXL main meeting) an inspector talking to hundreds of schools and explicitly discouraging addressing this criteria via instruction suggesting “there are lots of ways to impart knowledge” – his direction seemed to me to be that he would work around the criteria in order to inspect the way he always has and he was discouraging schools from paying attention to that criteria.

        I agree that the criteria are clear in the text. I think the history of OFSTED means that they aren’t interpreted without the baggage of the past, and that is why I would scrap it as our accountability regime and start again, bottom up.

        We’ve had two of our leadership group out for 4 days in the last two weeks on training with Ofsted inspectors on the framework for inspection and the inspection handbook (and I know your blog was used in the training). If the criteria was clearly interpreted by even the majority of inspectors, surely this sort of course wouldn’t be necessary.

        I also don’t agree with your last paragraph. I think good leaders do avoid the trap of what OFSTED want. I really want to be that leader. That’s fine and easy for you and Mike to say, but it fails to recognise the very real pressure on school leader’s jobs if OFSTED report negatively (and this means not just to Inadequate – one Headteacher near me lost his job recently because of a “good” judgement), so I don’t agree that they are “not afraid to be held accountable through the inspection process”.

        I believe in accountability. I welcome accountability. I don’t welcome the lottery of the current inspection process.


      • I also think the reference to “what needs to be done to improve their school, which may or may not be ‘what Ofsted want'” is too flippant Heather. Surely, that has to be what OFSTED want.


    • Mike

      several points: As far as i’m aware, no schools (£7-10 million) organisation) feels it should be left alone to evaluate its effectiveness. So why is it that Ofsted (a £170 BILLION organisation) feels it is able to do this? Stuart makes it clear that schools should be inspected but just not by Ofsted.

      The real problem is the way The Teaching is judged and the blog you link only underlines the problems. The observation pro forma you recommend is flawed because of the unacknowledged assumptions it upholds. Some of these assumptions are:

      1) The concept of ‘progress’ in lessons is highly problematic. Learning cannot be observed. Prof Graham Nuthall, Prof Robert A Bjork, Dr Matt O’Leary and Prof Robert Coe all agree that it cannot. We can only observe (and therefore measure) performance. Coe talks about ‘poor proxies for learning’ which are ticked off on a form like yours at the cost of actual learning. I talk about this in more detail here: In short learning can only be inferred; we can ONLY be sure that learning has taken place if it is retained over time.

      2) Learning should be ‘active’ and that active learning should be in some way visibly ‘enthusiastic’. This is so very alarming. It assumes that students sitting quietly and completing challenging work will ‘require improvement’. I cannot abjure this strongly enough. This is a prime example of how Ofsted’s criteria encourages superficiality, group work for its own sake and gets in the way of real learning.

      Also, your form suffers from the same lack of clarity as Ofsted criteria. What is the difference between ‘highly effective’ and ‘effective’? What’s the difference between ‘significant’ and ‘better than average’? These descriptors are highly subjective and open to huge variation in interpretation. They reduce something massively complex to a ticklist. It’s arrogant to assume that this can be done in a meaningful way and damaging for the reasons outlined above.


      • Good points. It’s not 170 billion though.


  4. […] Inspired by Stuart Lock’s post I’ve been thinking about what an Ofsted team could do in a school that might give a better picture of the school and what it is really like for the children that attend. I know time is limited in an inspection but I’m going for quality not quantity. […]


  5. Reblogged this on Primary Blogging and commented:
    Resonates with Primary colleagues too…


  6. The Hobson’s choice between doing what’s best for students and doing what Ofsted wants is even worse than you suggest. If you choose what’s best for the students you may risk special measures, which is going to empoverish the educational experience of students anyway. We faced a similar choice over November entry in maths following Gove’s rule change. We decided to enter most of them anyway, because we’d spent many months preparing them and it was best for them. But it was a risk. If they don’t show enough progress and we end up below floor targets future cohorts will suffer special measures. High stakes stuff.

    The problem of Ofsted is fundamental and systemic and goes back right to its roots. Ofsted was set up by John Major as a political tool to wrest control of education away from local authorities, which had previously held responsibility for the inspection of schools. The political role of Ofsted has not only persisted but grown. We now see Ofsted quite unashamedly pushing forward the government’s academy program.

    What I like about your post is that it starts to raise the question of alternatives. We need to abolish Ofsted but we can’t do so unless we can offer a credible alternative. As a start it would be helpful if academics could research effective systems of evaluation in other jurisdictions and publish their findings. And we need to encourage a wide ranging debate in this issue, to which this post is a valuable contribution.

    We also need to think about building a political alliance that can galvanise opposition to Ofsted and transform the aim of abolition from the seemingly impossible into the politically inevitable. Elements of such an alliance might include teacher and head teacher unions, parents, students, local politicians and academics. I would suggest a Campaign for the Immediate Abolition of Ofsted.

    Ciao Ofsted!


    • Thanks for your comment. Despite what I have written I would not support the abolition of OFSTED without an alternative. The experience at Al-Madinah is an example of why not.


      • As I said, “we can’t do so (abolish Ofsted) unless we can offer a credible alternative.” An important part of the process of looking to a future beyond Ofsted is developing that alternative.


      • Sorry, i should have been clearer that I was agreeing with you and emphasising that part explicitly.


  7. Ofsted has never thrived because the founder was a personal, moral and intellectual inadequate. Subsequent “leaders” have not been much better. Education is a very complex activity and the social class of the pupils has a very large effect, but Ofsted was set up with an vicious authoritarian edge right from the word go. Privatization was one goal, whilst maintaining low standards so that the established “public” schools retained dominance was another. Educational excellence is NOT an aim of Ofsted, never has been and never will be. Ofsted is too useful to be abolished.


  8. There are models being used internationally that could serve as a far stronger alternative to OFSTED dogma.

    My suggestion would be to adapt something like the CIS model. Begin with schools having to create an internal evaluation against criteria, which could be. A combination of statutory and self-directed. The inspection team would again be a combination of dedicated inspectors and also practising teachers from other schools who wished to participate.

    The team come in and their role is twofold; measure against basic satutory standards and also evaluate the school against its own evaluation. How strong is the learning in school? How strong is the professional development and commitment to imrovement? Etc.

    To me the whole process should emphasis improvement and development. It should be a sum native snapshot of a formative process. It should hold professionals accountable but allow them to identify the road to success. Sadly something like OFSTED was probably designed to have such a purpose but it has been turned into a blunt tool to beat the schools and staff over the head.


  9. […] @joe__kirby, @learningspy, @oldandrewuk, @headguruteacher, @tombennett71, @Cazzypot, @HeyMissSmith, @StuartLock, @Katiesarahlou, @samfr. Various suggestions include that we should disband or reform Ofsted, that […]


  10. […] @joe__kirby, @learningspy, @oldandrewuk, @headguruteacher, @tombennett71, @Cazzypot, @HeyMissSmith, @StuartLock, @Katiesarahlou, @samfr. Various suggestions include that we should disband or reform Ofsted, that […]


  11. […] it as a personal story rather than a well rounded critique of OFSTED. My views on OFSTED are here and here. You can take whatever conclusions you wish about OFSTED from […]


  12. […] politicians challenged to ensure this happens or OFSTED be forced to reform or abolished. As I have outlined before, OFSTED is currently not fit for purpose. My recent experience of inspection did nothing to quell […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: