Ofsted should become less rigorous and thus more reliable.

Michael Gove has suggested Ofsted should inspect private schools as they are more rigorous in their inspection than the private school’s own inspectorate, ISI. My reaction was one of horror. If anything highlights to me what a hollow and harmful process an Ofsted inspection is, it is picturing what they would make of the private school in which I teach.

It is my personal view that the majority of private schools would be torn to pieces by Ofsted. In a whole host of ways private schools fall far short of the ‘professionalism’ I encounter in the hours of my daily life I spend communicating with state school teachers on twitter. Certainly, some on twitter seems to relish the prospect of Ofsted getting their claws into private schools. I do wonder what the motive of this group is. Have they been losing sleep over the possible substandard education enjoyed by the 7% of pupils whose parents can afford and choose to pay for a private education?

My horror is simply explained. My school gets superb value added, my own results and uptake from my classes are often pretty good but it is my personal view that the academic teaching at schools like mine would probably (and my teaching would certainly) be criticised by Ofsted. It is not the unreliability of individual inspection teams which concerns me most, it is the very criteria they use. True, there is a big push to stop expecting a particular teaching style. However, there are just so many subjective assumptions about what ‘good teaching’ might look like (Harry Fletcher Wood’s blogs about his Ofsted inspection are a fascinating demonstration of this) that unless an inspectorate simply judge by results they are sure to be imposing some degree of prescription. This prescription leads to the ‘professionalism’ I see in state schools put in place to prove to Ofsted that their expectations are being met. However, so much of this bureaucracy inflicted on my long suffering state school colleagues is just busy-ness. The paperwork, assessment and data tracking give an impression of professionalism but they are largely a sham and often waste time better devoted to getting to grips with your subject and thinking about how to communicate it effectively. I’ll explain further:

Ofsted still expect well -polished individual lessons.

It is my experience that you can teach well with lessons that are generally just ‘satisfactory’. (You might have read about my ‘really bad’ teaching.) Teachers are not first and foremost entertainers and they don’t have time to keep producing well-crafted lessons. Teaching a class is a marathon , not a sprint. Do we criticise the marathon runner because at the moment we observe him he is not running flat out? An experienced teacher knows when they need to really polish up the performance and when ticking along is good enough. For me THAT is what being a professional is about. It is about being allowed to use your wisdom to determine your priorities, NOT about being seen to fulfil the priorities on someone else’s (Ofsted’s) check list. Under an ISI inspection, the hoops I must jump through are fewer and so my school feels much less compulsion to prescribe how I should teach. I am allowed to be a professional (rather than demonstrate apparent professionalism through paperwork). I am horrified at the thought of an Ofsted inspection because  much of what makes teaching good at my school is barely valued by Ofsted and I would have to waste precious time jumping through absurd hoops to appease the inspectors. Unless your lesson is being observed by a real subject expert, with a proven track record of success they are unlikely to spot the myriad of ways your apparently bog standard lesson is doing a good job. Ofsted reports rarely praise careful long term planning that ensures each apparently bog standard lesson provides the next brick in the carefully planned structure I am building. They probably wouldn’t even be thrilled by the testing regime I’ve introduced that has helped kids remember the material. The fact that students are expected to work hard and given plenty of practice with written work won’t save me if a checklist suggests my individual lessons are ‘uninspiring’.

Ofsted expect proof children are making ‘progress’.

In my school we don’t set formal targets, the tracking is very light touch and mainly used to ensure kids are working hard. ISI expect schools to keep tabs on progress but the whole data game in which you must demonstrate progress year on year or even term by term is missing AND RIGHTLY SO. Except in subjects that are very hierarchical in their subject matter, such as maths, the whole process of demonstrating progress against objective levels is an almighty sham.

School inspection is like marking an essay. You can grade against the criteria you have decided and put systems in place to moderate that process and declare your marking reliable. However, your very criteria can be suspect. In fact the more prescriptive you are in your criteria, the more impoverished your model of what a good essay (or a good school) looks like. Ofsted inspections are like the most prescriptive mark schemes I am forced to train my students to understand. My A grade AS history students would get a C or D on their OCR document paper if they weren’t rigorously drilled – and good schools would be ripped apart if they did not prepare for Ofsted. To highlight this, imagine that Ofsted started to inspect schools abroad. Are all those schools requiring improvement? Yet few would pass an Ofsted inspection without a thorough familiarity with Ofsted expectations. Would that familiarity then make them a better school? Well, some of the schools must have been good already, so most of their busy-ness would be simply to appease inspectors.

I don’t think I am lazy and I’m sure the teachers at my school work very hard. I’m not scared of getting ‘found out’ if Ofsted inspected private schools. I’m scared of losing all the freedom that makes my job satisfying. It is that loss of freedom that puts me off working in the state sector.

I am in favour of accountability. However, I am against pretend accountability. There is no point saying something is a necessity if it doesn’t work. Ideally I’d like a system in which I am inspected by highly experienced subject specialists with a proven track record of success that looked at the students’ work in detail and spent time talking to the HoD and department teachers. They are more likely to recognise good learning, whatever their prejudice about classroom teaching methods.

Failing that, don’t pretend you can judge. School inspection should accept the proven limits of its capability to judge the quality of lessons. (as demonstrated by Professor Coe here.) Exam results, for all their flaws, are the only really objective measure of a school’s success but should be used intelligently. Private schools live or die by their exam results but I am free to use my judgement of how to achieve those results. ISI inspections seem to have less fixed expectations of what they expect to see fulfilled and so, seem to find less to criticise. In this sense I’d agree that Gove is right to say they are less rigorous. However, in a situation where success criteria are so subjective, less ‘rigour’ is a very good thing. ISI inspections need to spot big problems but to me do seem more the ‘hygiene inspector than the food critic’. School inspections are necessary but prescriptive expectations seem to lead to bad judgements rather than spot real weaknesses in schools primed to jump through the Ofsted hoops. Therefore inspections need to become LESS rigorous and thus, within the limits of what they can safely judge, more reliable.


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