Why we shouldn’t jump to Ofsted’s defence against the Govites

It must have been something of a surprise for Michael Wilshaw to come under sustained attack from his right flank. Two right wing think tanks it seems are gunning for Ofsted. It was enough to send HMCI running to the Sunday Times to tell them he was “spitting blood” and that “the stuff I read is completely unfair and unjust”. Moreover he claimed that the attacks were being launched by shadowy figures close to the Secretary of State. Suggestions that he can dish it out but can’t take criticism were soon heard on all sides. Like the particular kind of headteacher that he was, he won’t have anyone “undermining his authority”.

The key complaint of Civitas and Policy Exchange is, it seems, that Ofsted is a nest of unreconstructed child centred progressives dedicated to stopping children learning. Wilshaw’s interpretation however was that those around Gove were angry because of some high profile Ofsted criticism of free schools and academies and by his attack on Grammar Schools. Needless to say, the two Michaels have kissed and made up, on the surface at least – but one wonders if it will ever be “glad confident morning” ever again between them.

On the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, some commentators have felt moved to come to Ofsted’s defence. However whatever we may think of the Civitas and Policy Exchange critique, we should not lose sight of the real reasons why Ofsted is not fit for purpose.

Part of the problem, it has to be said, lies in the style of Michael Wilshaw. It’s clearly not in his nature to try to bring about improvement by providing support and encouragement. He would rather put the boot in believing, in the immortal words of one of Nixon’s hard men “if you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow!”

Wilshaw also sees Ofsted as the centre of the educational universe. In his view, whatever improvement there has been is down to Ofsted. In his somewhat muddled world, PISA is proof that English schools and teachers are too often mediocre. Next minute we read about unparalleled improvement in inspection grades all because Ofsted has “raised the bar”. Consistency is it seems not a concept that our Chief Inspector much troubles himself with.

There are however more technical issues that arise from the way Ofsted now inspects and reaches its judgements. Fundamentally, inspections are now too short and too limited in their scope to provide a reliable and rounded picture of a school. The now infamous 20 minute observations are a hopelessly inadequate way of judging the effectiveness of teaching. Even then, in large schools and colleges, many teachers will go unobserved. The narrow focus on English and maths means that huge swathes of a school’s work go unnoticed and unreported on. Almost no time is spent looking at the overall curriculum – a big issue now that so many schools are not required to adhere to the National Curriculum.

Until a couple of years ago, the big complaint was that inspections were driven almost exclusively by data. No doubt this was sometimes unfair and certainly often schools felt that little effort was made to understand how they operated. And Ofsted (and indeed the DfE) has always had a huge problem in judging achievement in schools with significantly disadvantaged intakes.

But making the teaching judgement the main driver of an inspection is actually proving worse. The evidence base simply isn’t there to make objective and reliable judgements. In the days of genuinely full inspections, in a secondary school a dozen inspectors would see 150 to 200 full lessons. The school would get a full statistical breakdown of judgements so the process was transparent. Now it’s the luck of the draw where inspectors go, who they see and for how long – and no one gets told how the final judgement is made. It’s not necessary to believe that Ofsted has a preferred house style to accept that this process is wide open to being driven by individual inspectors’ whims and prejudices.

The result is that it’s now entirely possible for pupils to be achieving well but for the school to be marked down because of the particular sample of teaching seen and the way one or two inspectors reacted to it. Being judged by data that is at least out in the open, does mean that subjective and partial judgements are not the sole drivers of inspection outcomes.

Underneath the mindless and uninformed rhetoric of the think tanks (“schools under bureaucratic control of local government”; “the state school system has failed miserably to serve the interests of children from disadvantaged homes”; “free schools were introduced to make sure that everyone gets a fighting chance”) there is a core of truth. It would in fact be hard for a critic of Ofsted from the left to better this, from the Chief Executive of Civitas:

“Ofsted’s approach is based on a narrow theory of human nature, which assumes that individuals are self-serving and must be motivated by external sticks and carrots. The rival view is that we are all guided by conscience and are, therefore, capable of self-motivation. In schools, ethical conduct is best achieved when teachers identify themselves with the moral obligation to do the right thing for their pupils. Moral obligations are best reinforced by a shared professional ethos and by the mutual oversight of colleagues. The objective should be continuous personal improvement, rather than public ‘naming and shaming’.”

An inspection system based on those principles would be something that would genuinely add value to the education system.

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