Ofsted: A better system is possible and the DfE knows it

Colin Diamond sets out what the DfE might do to bring school inspection in line with high-performing systems – if only it listened to its own research

Colin Diamond sets out what the DfE might do to bring school inspection in line with high-performing systems – if only it listened to its own research

21 Apr 2023, 5:00

The cumulative impact of staying open during Covid lockdowns, compensating for increasing levels of child poverty and a seeming perma-crisis in recruiting and retaining teachers has required extraordinary resilience from schools, especially those serving disadvantaged communities. Then, amid increasing frustration about an accountability system growing ever more disconnected from the realities of teaching and school leadership, came news of the death of Ruth Perry.

The response has been raw, visceral and disturbing. It is an inflexion point which has catapulted the debate about Ofsted school inspections onto the national stage. Stepping back from this harrowing period, we must now explore the role of inspections in school improvement, and where better to turn than the department for education’s own research?

When Ofsted was created in 1992, there can be no denying that something was needed to shake things up. Under-performance was rife, and there was a good argument for grading lessons and schools. Since then, the values of high standards, educational equity, professional accountability and evidence-based practice have become deeply embedded, but this has come at a cost.

Too often now, ‘doing things right’ overrides ‘doing the right thing’. Costly armies of consultants continue to provide pre-inspection ‘mocksteds’ despite repeated admonishments from Ofsted itself not to do so. Schools know when they are ‘in the window’ and monitor website activity to ascertain when inspectors are gearing up for their visit. Each new framework attempts to undo the gaming the previous framework set into motion.

So what can we learn from the DfE’s own research about the characteristics of ‘high-performing’ education systems and what is the role of ‘high-stakes’ inspection in neighbouring European countries?

A DfE study looked in depth at Estonia, Finland and Germany which all have high levels of decentralisation. It also looked at Singapore and Taiwan, which are harder to compare with England as both have centralised systems.

This is an inflexion point in the Ofsted debate

The study found that the common factors associated with high performance are the weight given to three core elements: the value placed on high levels of equity in outcomes and achievement, high-quality teacher development, and support for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It found no overall correlation between high-stakes inspection systems and high-performing schools.

Where inspection exists and adds value, it is one component of a balanced system which supports lower-performing schools through a range of approaches, including assistance from school inspectors (but not relying on their feedback, and recognising that follow-up is required), school-to-school collaboration, investment in additional resources and teachers’ professional development, and a non-time-limited approach.

Working alongside schools rather than telling them what to do is a common feature of these systems and, as in some parts of Germany, they operate in a low-stakes way by not generally publishing inspection results and keeping the emphasis on quality process criteria, not outcomes. Consequently, these models are not punitive towards schools in socio-economically challenged areas.

In short, they are designed to improve schools, not to help them pass inspections and punish them for failing to do so.

Given that much of the above is lifted from DfE’s own research, it is hard not to conclude that the current government likes things as they are. But the evidence-based approach to raising standards and reducing heads’ collective blood pressure would be to abandon the crude, narrow way of defining success ministers and His Majesty’s Chief Inspector appear wedded to.

Overnight, the ’Outstanding’ and ‘Inadequate’ grades could be removed in favour of two categories: ‘Good’ and ‘Requires support’. School performance could be summarised in a scorecard rather than one-word judgements.

In the medium term, appointing a new chief inspector with teaching experience – in the mould of Sir Mike Tomlinson and Dame Christine Gilbert – would be a big step towards restoring confidence. The role should be seen to be independent and distant from government, its statements evidence-based and unafraid to speak truth to power.

And in the longer term, we should be confident enough to learn from international research about the standing and performance of our education system, rather than cherry-picking ideologies from the States.

A good start would be for the DfE to remind itself of its own research, and stop avoiding its inconvenient truths.

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  1. It’s the gravytrain consultant hordes that I cant abide. Zero humility, rarely listen, reinvent the wheel more times than I can count whilst coining it in. Many havent actually taught for years and years. They get most of their ideas from online sites. Many aren’t too bright. The primary school ones being the worst. Poor subject knowledge, tinted with fakery. Time they disappeared. Mind you, they’ll just be replaced with another set of bigots with ‘ their rifle sights on you’ ( Crass …band …1980’s punk)

  2. John Davies

    Amanda Spielman came across as rather arrogant and didn’t appear to want to listen to the comments Laura Kuenssberg read out.
    I have said in previously statements that all the experts in education should go back to the classroom after a period of 6 years out.
    No one has asked how much the inspectors earn.
    Gillian Keegan appears to not want to meet with the teaching unions. Is she therefore not doing her ministerial duty and is on strike?

  3. A butcher is trained to deliver meat in the best way. After training , nobody stands over their shoulders checking their work. They are trusted.
    It is trust that is missing. It costs a fortune to train a teacher. Few teachers want to undersell the education of the little souls they work for but that is the insinuation of the inspection process. Thats why I got out after two decades and more. Its an insult to the professionalism of teachers.
    Here is a thing. If an inspection team criticsise team of teachers, why not show that team how it should be done? I know, flying pigs.
    Why not scrap inspections and introduce educational establishment audits. Plain and simple. Because, in actuality that is what they are. A data crunching exercise. Everyone understands audits but not many seem to want to commit suicide if one goes badly.