(Image via http://www.keepcalm-o-matic.co.uk/p/keep-calm-its-only-ofsted-17/)
Over four months ago I wrote an article beginning with the question: ‘What does Ofsted want?’ I stated that this question is perhaps the most powerful question in English education and has the most impact upon our practice in the classroom. The leverage that OFSTED has over our school system is huge and the single greatest (indirect) mechanism the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has to determine change within schools. Whilst people debate the efficacy of individual lesson observations, the larger question about whether OFSTED, in its current form, is fit for purpose remains largely unsaid.
Most recently OFSTED has looked to improve their media communications and have looked to talk to the masses. No bad thing. They have looked to communicate better through social media to reach elements of the profession that the Department for Education can often fail to reach. The SoS Michael Gove, HMCI, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Mike Cladingbowl, OFSTED’s Head of School, met with the @Headsroundtable to discuss accountability – see here – and Mike Cladingbowl then met this week with Twitter and blogging luminaries, Tom Sherrington, David Didau, Tom Bennett, Ross McGill and @clerktogoverner – see here – and take the time to read the equivalent posts by @learningspy and @teachertoolkit. Although only a couple of high profile events in social media terms, they indicate a reaching out to the profession, or at least a recognition that their communications need to improve.
Mike Cladingbowl was keen to emphasise the move away from individual lesson grades as part of the inspection process in both meetings. All very positive in theory, but little has seemingly changed in reality. In response to Tom Bennett’s Twitter questioning about lessons being graded there were many respondents who confirmed this is still the case – some as recent as last week (!) – see here. The fearful response from school leaders, who don’t wish their school to be tainted by the mark of ‘requiring improvement’ or worse, will not be assured by this reality. The whispers and fears about OFSTED will only continue – with this attempt to bring clarity revealing inconsistency only continuing to provoke the fears of school leaders.
OFSTED clearly need to address the communication within their organisation on a national scale. OFSTED work with SERCO, Tribal Group and the CfBT Education Trust (which also runs academies and Free Schools – is this a potentially worrying conflict of interest?) in conducting inspections. Sub-contracting can be notorious for embedding systematic inconsistencies. Is this the problem for OFSTED? The scale of this national undertaking is significant, but, clearly, OFSTED’s own governance and communication system is requiring improvement. Surely, there is a national retraining programme required of inspectors, with a high media profile, to ensure a greater consistency of standards. It is no small irony that our inspectorate requires independent quality assurance of their inspections.
A question I would ask would go a step beyond grading lesson observations. Is the whole process of judging teaching in schools based on a fistful of snapshots flawed? Should we not get rid of lesson observations and instead focus on the quality of school leadership, behaviour and achievement. If achievement is good then the teaching is working. If the leadership is good then the curriculum is being developed appropriately and teachers are developing under the continuous professional development system of the school. Behaviour can be observed by dropping into lessons informally; interviewing students; reviewing parent view; following an individual student, and so on.
As long as we retain the judgement for teaching then we will retain the worst of the uncertainties about ‘what do OFSTED want‘. Whilst this is still in question school leaders will still fearfully take to reading OFSTED reports, ‘exemplar’ materials and chasing OFSTED consultants who peddle the ‘outstanding lesson’ myths. This whole process of judging teaching in the OFSTED mode is deeply ingrained and needs a very public revision, ideally led by a more coherently redesigned process of inspection.
I understand why such national regulation exists for schools, especially when there is no other recourse to deal with failing schools, but it must be more consistent than at present. OFSTED quite clearly requires some improvement of its own.
See my article on the OFSTED Stockholm Syndrome here.