Wilshaw tells the DfE some tough truths – but the Ofsted model is still a broken one

In September 2013 Michael Wilshaw hailed the “unprecedented rate of national improvement’ in school performance across England”. Children in England now have the best chance, he said, they have ever had of attending a good school. With his accustomed modesty he said that he believed “changes to Ofsted’s school inspection framework that came into force 12 months ago was clearly having a galvanising effect on England’s schools system.”

We commented at the time on this blog that this claim was based on some very shaky statistical foundations. That didn’t stop Ofsted seeking to draw all kinds of conclusions from its supposed data, including some assertions about sponsored academies that were not supported by more rigorous data analysis.

But sadly this year it’s all changed. Primaries continue to improve, he says, but improvement in secondaries “has stalled”. Cue a number of generalisations about problems with leadership, teaching and school culture.

Setting aside for the moment whether there is any reality behind Ofsted’s data, you might think that it would try to offer some explanation for why the picture is so much more gloomy this year. Not a bit of it – when asked that question more than once on the Today Programme, Wilshaw had only a few generalisations about what Ofsted thinks isn’t right in schools. But he had nothing whatever to say about why there has been such a change in such short time – if of course there really has. One thing of course we can be sure of – Ofsted was happy to take the credit last year for improvement but they’ll take no responsibility for any decline.

Wilshaw also tied himself in knots on the issue of holding schools to account. His assumption is that “most people recognise that school autonomy is a good thing.” He seems not to realise how little autonomy schools in academy chains actually have. Letting Harris do what he likes is very far from autonomy for individual schools. But when Wilshaw is forced to recognise that schools do need to be more answerable to someone outside, the circuits begin to get a bit scrambled. When evidence collides with ideology, it’s sometimes not a pretty sight.

Nevertheless, this year’s report is much less of a love fest with ministers. After the hand to hand combat we’ve seen between Wilshaw and Gove and Cummings, that is probably not surprising. The report makes no bones about saying that:

• Free schools succeed or fail for broadly the same reasons and in the same proportions as all other types of school.
• School status – academy or maintained – makes no difference to performance.
• Too many schools do not receive effective challenge and support but there is a particular issue with stand-alone converter academies. In 2013/14, Ofsted found that 89 converter academies had declined since their previous inspection to requires improvement or inadequate
• There are effective academy chains and effective local authorities. And ineffective examples of both.
• The report identifies very clearly that areas most in need of support, such as the east coast, have the least access to teaching schools and national leaders of education.
• Similarly, School Direct can have the effect of letting high performing schools scoop up the most promising new teachers at the expense of schools in greater need.

The fact that Ofsted is perhaps becoming a bit more realistic about some issues should not however blind us to the very real problems it is causing. In the Guardian’s words today, “if the punitive approach ever had its hour, it is past”. It’s becoming a huge issue in relation to teacher recruitment and retention. There is clear evidence that there is a structural bias against schools with high levels of deprivation and low prior attainment just as we say we want to encourage the best heads and teachers to work there (see https://www.tes.co.uk/article.aspx?storycode=6440390).

So it was encouraging that in a debate on Wednesday, Kevin Brennan said that “Labour believes that the role of the schools inspectorate needs to be examined. In government we will ensure that the inspection process is more collaborative and that school improvement involves schools reviewing one another, and monitoring by the middle tier”. A professional workforce in this day and age expects to be involved as a partner in any accountability regime. The two day snapshot by complete outsiders is an entirely inadequate way of judging a school.

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One Comment on “Wilshaw tells the DfE some tough truths – but the Ofsted model is still a broken one”

  1. Paul East says:

    “Raising the bar” sounds great as long as you don’t expect the proportion of those clearing it to increase. Believing that “being autonomous” makes you better, regardless of what you do with that freedom was always daft. Continually changing the ground rules even before the results of the last change have been established is more likely than not to make teachers feel they are merely pawns in a political game.
    The last time we had a serious teacher shortage, local authorities scoured the English-speaking world to hire staff but that isn’t going to be an option in Cameron’s Farage-tinted landscape. It’s very difficult to see any good outcome in the foreseeable future without a radical change of heart.