Ofsted have finally announced their proposals to reform their practices following the outcry after the death of Ruth Perry. Missing from their list of changes is anything to do with summative one-word judgments. Back in March, even Michael Gove said should be ‘looked at’, and less than a week after the announcement, that other Michael from a time gone by, former HMCI Wilshaw chimed in to echo that call.
Pity Amanda Spielman. Months from stepping down from the role, her legacy is likely to be defined by this event and her inability or unwillingness to countenance this single change may see her remembered by the profession as even more wicked than her notoriously hard-nosed predecessor.
But what if the problem with our inspection system is, in fact, that Ofsted is not wicked enough? Bear with me, this takes some explaining.
By wicked, I don’t mean its dictionary definition of ‘sinful, ill-tempered or iniquitous’. Nobody wants an inspectorate that acts like Elphaba, Lord Voldemort or Aunts Sponge and Spiker. I have a more theoretical definition in mind.
In 1973, Rittel and Webber described as ‘wicked issues’ those that included a large number of complex variables. These variables are dynamic, context-dependent and interrelated. They contrasted ‘wicked’ issues to ‘tame’ ones – those with relatively simple solutions and low levels of uncertainty. Tame issues behave in a linear fashion – beginning, middle and end – and respond to tried-and-tested solutions (or will, once those have been identified. Wicked ones… don’t.
So when I say that Ofsted is not wicked enough, what I mean is that its highly structured, standardised inspection framework is not equal to the complexity of the schools it sets out to assess. It is incapable of encapsulating their unique contexts, their dynamic human relationships and the complex web of beliefs and practices they have evolved with their communities over time.
Take the pandemic as an example. During that period, schools did amazing things. Teachers were preparing lessons for children of essential workers to be delivered face to face while adapting lessons for remote learners. School workers delivered books, homework and even school meals to families. Departments re-engineered themselves to create PPE for local hospitals.
Meanwhile, Ofsted effectively went home. Its systems had nothing to contribute and the right decision was taken to just get out of the way. Upon their return, it can be little surprise that so many see in it only the potential encumbrance its tameness represents for the profession’s wicked thinkers and doers.
Headteachers, school leaders, teachers, governors and inspectors themselves have known for years that inspecting schools is too complex a process to be reduced to single-word judgements when so much rests on those words. Schools are complex and dynamic places, teachers teach in a variety of ways and pupils learn in different ways, meaning the learning culture in one school is likely to be different from another. Headteachers often say that preserving their school’s uniqueness is an important goal for them.
But Ofsted’s one-word judgments usurp and come to define what schools mean for their communities. This is true whether the result is an ‘outstanding’ on the letterhead or the word ‘inadequate’ in the local newspaper. Instead of informing parents driving improvement, they act as a barrier to genuine communication and encourage unhelpful behaviours from complacency to over-activity. The re-inspection of previously exempt ‘outstanding’ schools proves the first, and the recruitment and retention crisis proves the second.
This is what comes from trying to use a tame inspection framework to assess wicked issues. And the solution is for Ofsted to embrace its true wickedness. That starts with ditching its one-word judgments.
The formulaic, cartoon version of wickedness the inspectorate currently embodies is not helping schools, parents or children. If its aim is to raise standards in education – or even just to adequately account for them – it needs to raise the bar for communicating what schools do in its full and glorious complexity.