Civitas report into Ofsted – Playing the Game
The Civitas report into OFSTED – titled Playing the Game – is a welcome addition to the current debate on the future of OFSTED. Together with significant contributors in the media, the Policy Exchange report Watching the Watchmen, and not least some of the more prolific teacher-bloggers, OFSTED are being challenged to up their game, and 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 this feeling.
This report is not as wide-ranging as the Policy Exchange one. It has a more narrow focus, that being to address the judgements of teaching and their influence on common practices in schools. It complements the Policy Exchange report, rather than going over the same ground. It does reach different recommendations, however.
The Civitas report therefore continues this pressure and is welcome. In particular, the report spends the majority of its time tracing the historic and current trends on inspectors’ preferred teaching styles, and the pernicious effect of this on schools – an effect that I – and I suspect that Robert Peal (author of the report) believe is stark contrast to genuine school improvement.
I recently read Peal’s Progressively Worse, also published by Civitas. In fact, the speech given by Sir Michael Wilshaw at the Festival of Education this year seemed to reflect sequentially many of the chapters of Peal’s book. This report benefits from Peal’s engaging and accessible style, and his technique in writing about history that make his writing easy to read. It also means, as an aside, I highly recommend his book.
The report cites evidence that in 2013 (specifically between 10th September and 15th October 2013) OFSTED was still beholden to an ideology, and more specifically this could be traced as an explicitly progressive one. The report goes on to show that in 2014 (specifically between 7th January and 6th March 2014), following widely reported intervention from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Sir Michael Wilshaw, inspectors still had a preferred style, and that this style was still progressive. For want of a better word, this preference was now however implicit. Peal has done a good job of gathering evidence to support this view. The latter (implicit preferred style) is harder to ascertain than the former because, for example, inspectors have been banned from using certain phrases in the OFSTED reports, or because Wilshaw and Michael Cladingbowl have issued what is tantamount to threats to inspectors using a preferred language of progressivism in judging teaching and schools. OFSTED have suggested that they want to hear from schools if inspectors still promote a preferred style of teaching or don’t follow the framework.
This Civitas report makes the case that OFSTED continues to be influenced by a preferred teaching style, and goes to some lengths to expose the extent to which this influences practice in schools. There are references to Performance Management practices aping OFSTED inspections, correct references to invalid and unreliable observations of lessons that ape OFSTED practices, the guessing of preferences of OFSTED inspectors in relation to professional development, and indeed that this means that, as said in the report “Continual Professional Development is primarily directed towards OFSTED hoop jumping rather than genuine school improvement”.
The strongest part of the report is the section that details how OFSTED came to the situation it is in. The brief historical narrative, particularly damning of Christine Gilbert’s time leading OFSTED, is illuminating and it is worth reminding ourselves, as the report does, that Chris Woodhead (Her Majesties Chief Inspector of Schools from 1994-2000) was “unable to overcome the preference for child-centred teaching methods held by many inspectors” and later “my single biggest doubt about OFSTED stems from the fact that some inspectors are unable or unwilling to jettison their progressive educational views”.
At the Festival of Education this year, I asked Sir Michael Wilshaw if he had faced similar difficulties to Woodhead. His response was that some inspectors used to hold those views, but they had been rooted out. As he said that, a large number of people turned to look at me, sceptical, as Joe Kirby testifies in this post. I am pleased that this report points out that this “rooting out” is largely window-dressing and lacks substance.
In fact, the report goes to some lengths to show how the OFSTED ‘preferred style’ of teaching has become so prevalent. Peal illustrates how “the inspectorate’s mission has crept too far beyond this brief into new territories” and hence “OFSTED has become the main arbiter of what constitutes ‘good practice’ within English schools.
There is nothing in this report I disagree with. Nonetheless, there are several things that I think would improve the report, and significantly extend its impact. Some of the highlights are below, and I include some suggestions as well:
As the report shows, there has been a dramatic reduction in the cases of progressive preferred ideology in the text of more recent reports. Nonetheless, as expressed in many of the responses to the Civitas call for evidence, inspectors maintain those prejudices. The change has been surface, hidden from the words in the OFSTED inspection reports. This means that inspectors can judge teaching in the same way they always have, but add the words “over time” to the end of their judgements, or just express their progressive ideologies verbally while sticking to the new OFSTED rubric in the reports (and avoiding banned words).
This is a more difficult case to make. Peal is suggesting these preferences still exist and that these preferences heavily weight the way that schools operate as a result of verbal feedback from inspectors, and yet we can’t find this in (as many) reports.
However, Peal correctly identifies that some reports published in January were taken down, amended, and put back onto the OFSTED website. To be clear, the language in the original reports showed a preference for progressive ideology. This presumably influenced the inspections and hence the gradings. OFSTED, by removing the reports and redacting them, have accepted this is invalid. Nonetheless, the gradings and the reports were republished, with the offending phrases removed.
If anything shows that OFSTED don’t mind inspectors having preferred teaching styles (as long as they aren’t mentioned in an OFSTED report) this rewriting of history is it. OFSTED are making it up.
This is further reinforced by the SERCO directive. SERCO are one of the contractors who carry out OFSTED inspections and provide OFSTED inspectors and training. Their directive, detailed in the report, simply lists phrases their inspectors should avoid. Note the guidance doesn’t suggest changing the criteria on which teaching is judged, but just the language used. SERCO in fact offered suggestions for alternatives. This indicates that there is sophistry going on in the writing and redrafting of reports.
If whole phrases have been removed, or in other cases highlighted in this report, copied from school to school verbatim, this must mean those schools, wrongly treated (perhaps even sometimes positively) require reinspection to be in any sense valid. Key areas that decided a judgement have been explicitly and obviously called invalid by OFSTED themselves. This Civitas report is correct to call for reinspection when inspectors have clearly got it wrong.
These inspection reports are surely invalid. And if these reports are invalid, any inspection carried out by inspectors who clearly have preferred styles but constrain their language is invalid. Since this appears to be a very large proportion of inspections, this means a very large proportion of OFSTED inspections are invalid. This is logically the case unless Wilshaw is right in his Festival of Education answer to my question and inspectors favouring progressive methods really have been purged from the organisation.
Training of inspectors
One of the things I think the report misses (and may be addressed by the bringing of all inspectors ‘in house’) is the training of inspectors. For example, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Michael Cladingbowl often write to inspectors to ask that they adjust practice, but this is unlikely to have widespread effect as it relies on all inspectors reading and processing these instructions on a fairly regular basis. The continual training of inspectors is a gap in practice that has allowed progressive preferences to flourish with inspectors.
In addition, on the (regular) occasions that the OFSTED framework changes, inspectors are not informed about these, or if they are it is by letter. An understanding of the implications for how inspections take place given the changes, and how judgements are made given the changes, is not disseminated in any other way to my knowledge.
For that reason, I think the structures of OFSTED, and the dissemination to inspectors who actually visit schools, is weak. As a result, I think the impact of Wilshaw, Cladingbowl and others is lessened and inspectors cling to the way things have always been done. Old habits die hard.
The grading of lessons
This part of the report makes it clear that:
- Grading individual lessons or individual teachers on a scale of 1-4 is invalid, as shown by, for example, Professor Robert Coe – included in this excellent piece
- Inspectors are still grading lessons (sometimes covering themselves by adding ‘over time’)
- Wilshaw has not reigned in the ‘troops’ yet
If that’s the case, radical action must be needed to reverse the direction of travel. The training of inspectors can’t be adequate.
As it is, the report proposes that lessons are no longer graded, and teaching is no longer graded as part of an inspection. The reason behind this is that 97% of OFSTED inspections have matching Achievement and Teaching and Learning grades. I agree with this proposal.
The linking of pay to performance management
One of the most significant effects of OFSTED in recent months has been the explicit need to see that pay scales are subject to performance. Ie that schools are imposing performance related pay. The report makes the case, correctly, that the existence of OFSTED has a significant impact on teachers day to day through CPD and performance management. The fact that OFSTED inspectors have explicitly praised schools (in reports) or marked schools down (in reports) with reference to whether pay is related to performance management strengthens this case significantly. OFSTED have imposed this on schools and this hence makes the twin levers of CPD and performance management all the more pervasive and influential.
I saw Katharine Birbalsingh speak at a Policy Exchange conference recently on the way in which this influence means that her school (a free school opening in Wembley Park this September) is not truly free because of this influence (though Birbalsingh and the Governors of Michaela Community School appear set to ignore this pressure, and good on them) and I concur. I can’t imagine many schools choosing to not show inspectors how “pay is linked to performance” because of the potential influence on their inspection outcomes.
I think the report would have benefitted from an extended evidence base
The focus on exclusively secondary schools in the report is regrettable. Anecdotally, I believe the inspections of primary schools continue to feature more explicit promotion of progressive teaching styles than the secondary ones. In this case, the primary ones would have reinforced and extended the argument made in the report. If nothing else, I would like to see Civitas commission a complementary report focussed on primary schools.
I would like a think tank to write an equivalent report that is not so secondary centred. A primary version of this report would be powerful (and I think Ric Farrow would be an excellent author of such a report).
The other thing is that the immediate impression of the evidence base is that it could be extended in this report. While 130 inspection reports is relatively large, given the frequency of some of the comments and the recent downward trend in the frequency of some of the indicators Peal has chosen to represent a tendency towards progressivism in inspectors, an expanded evidence base would be useful to continue to make the case. This may have allowed more of the evidence to be quantified, strengthening Peal’s case and allowing an even more analytic and thorough destruction of current OFSTED inspection practices.
Not far enough
There is nothing I disagree with in this report. I think it could go further still. In the conclusion, I agree with the issues made of the grading system. The report itself points out that schools chase top OFSTED grades at the expense of real improvements (when Peal talks of the benefits of being Outstanding, for example). I agree with the report’s referencing of the possibility of OFSTED being, in the oft repeated analogy that it should be more like a health inspector (pass/ fail) and less like a food critic. Such a measure is, in my view, more likely to have impact on pupil achievement and the quality of schools in a positive way, and give the OFSTED regime and inspectors pause for thought.
I think the report should include that OFSTED should scrap the 1-4 system and move to a two-grade scale of Satisfactory or not Satisfactory. This would remove much of the arbitrary nonsense that comes from judging teaching – which this report is focussed on. As this report says:
“At its heart, Ofsted should be an accountability body, necessary for ensuring that failing schools are swiftly recognised and dealt with so that public money is not wasted”
So why not leave its function at that?
The report correctly identifies a multitude of cases of inspections done contrary to what is desirable or indeed what is guided by OFSTED. OFSTED have since (correctly in my view) stopped the outsourcing of inspections from 2016 to try to tackle this. Taken in combination with some of the evidence presented by Policy Exchange, I think this report should call for:
- The scrapping of OFSTED in its current recognisable form
Or (less impactful)
- A complete moratorium on inspections until it can be shown that the OFSTED framework is fit for purpose, that inspectors will be reliable and their inspections valid (the report does propose a moratorium, but I’m not clear on exactly how far this goes and the conditions for it stopping, and this moratorium does not make the executive summary)
- Some kind of independent complaints procedure, with clear criteria for complaints (this would need more exploration in the report though)
I think the report might have considered recommending a higher level of expectation with regard to schools and other inspectors whistleblowing on those who can’t jettison their ideologies.
I think the report might have considered recommending that a robust system of dismissing inspectors who are not up to standard or display ideologies that are not in the OFSTED framework.
I agree with removing the quality of teaching judgement as it corresponds with the achievement judgement (so what’s the point?). The new judgement that amalgamates Quality of Teaching and Achievement might be called ‘impact of teaching’. However, if we changed the scales to pass/fail as above, this becomes a moot point.
I think the asides on data are excellent in the last few paragraphs – I agree that significant more accountability and training of inspectors is necessary.
The report is welcome and I hope it is listened to. Its recommendations are minimal and, as it recognises, a ‘first step’ – but I still question whether OFSTED can really be reformed.
However, I think parts of the report have been overtaken by recent events. OFSTED themselves have recognised the pressure they are under because of their counterproductive effect on schools. The situation in Birmingham is explicit evidence that inspectors often get it wrong (either with the outstanding grades or the more recent inadequate ones!) I think the report is mild in its recommendations and not hard hitting enough in its conclusions – though I see there are hints that Peal would like to say more if he had had the time.
I attended the Policy Exchange conference on What should political parties promise on education in 2015? There was remarkable agreement from left and right on the scrapping of OFSTED, with very little dissent. Of course there were differing reasons for that. While this report doesn’t agree with that emerging consensus, I think it is weaker for it and hence there is a risk it might be sidelined.
I note that the preface recommends the scrapping of OFSTED. While I agree with the thrust of that argument, and in fact have told Peal myself that I’d like this report to have gone further, I think it’s regrettable that this preface assumes some of the nonsense mainstream and OFSTED commentaries that have come out of the Trojan Horse affair this year are accurate and true. I don’t believe they are, most of the information coming from Birmingham is simply made up, and hence I think we should be careful of the conclusions we draw in these cases.
Nonetheless, this report is welcome. If OFSTED were to adopt the recommendations, this would signal the continuation of a shift away from managerial pressure in schools that can be traced to the OFSTED inspection regime.
I still doubt, however, that OFSTED can be reformed. I suspect, and my experience reinforces, that whoever is chief inspector, OFSTED will be difficult to actually grasp control of, particularly in an era where inspectors have been trained and developed with an orthodoxy of progressivism. I maintain that even if this report’s recommendations are carried out in full (and there are hints that Peal would have liked to have gone further), it is very hard to see OFSTED becoming a force for positive change in the outcomes of pupils – I maintain that Wilshaw’s rhetoric in his speeches about addressing underperformance of the poorest and maintaining high academic standards for all is unlikely to be realised while this monolith exists in its current form. This report and its recommendations are spot on, but only up to a point.
Even more radical reform is required.
You may also like to read my take on the Policy Exchange report on OFSTED
David Didau’s take on the report is here