Is Ofsted leading schools to mis-direct their energies?

There is much to be said for Ofsted’s willingness to change over recent years, and for its recognition of the limitations of its capability. Its decision to bring all inspectors in-house should probably be welcomed; its abandonment of lesson gradings has been widely praised… but is it actually achieving its purpose of raising standards?

As both inspections and reports become briefer, there is a risk that the guidance that schools are given on improvements, rather than raising standards may actually serve to distract a school from the work of improving its provision. After all, 10 hours is barely long enough to get any idea of what a school is like, let alone to accurately work out what it needs to do to improve. Yet, for some reason, inspection reports now insist on setting out what needs to be done.

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and one that seems only to have arisen as inspections have shortened. Take one school as an example – a primary school in my hometown. When inspected in 2004 it was satisfactory, ten years later it requires improvement. Reading of the reports suggests that the reasons are similar in both cases: progress in core subjects was not good enough (and hence outcomes not high enough given the favoured intake).

In 2004 it was inspected by 5 inspectors over 3 days (15 inspector-days in total, still a reduction from earlier inspections); in 2014 it had just 3 inspectors for 2 days – less than half the time. In 2004, inspectors limited themselves to indicating what needed to be improved, based on its more thorough inspection: it was for the governors (supported by the professionals who knew the school well) to set out a plan of how this was to be achieved:


Compare this to the 2014 inspection, where after just 6 inspector-days of work it seems that Ofsted feels that it can tell exactly what needs to be done:


Notice that the essential problem was the same: children were deemed to be making insufficient progress from their starting points. In the former case, it was for the school to set about improving that: Ofsted merely reported what it found. By 2014 Ofsted seems to see its role as directing those improvements.

This is almost certainly an understandable reaction to claims that Ofsted merely sat in judgement and failed to support schools to improve. However, does this really achieve that?

It strikes me that if children are not making enough progress during their primary years then the issues may well run deeper than making sure they’ve understood tasks in lessons and responding to marking. In fact, I’d argue that the first bullet point would be a ridiculous claim to make on the basis of a few lesson observations over 2 days. But isn’t that exactly the problem? That’s all the inspectors had to go on.

And so, no doubt, that school will now be investing its time and efforts into the bullet points put forward by Ofsted. When inspectors next return, tasks will be well-explained (although not necessarily well-chosen or used), mini-plenaries will abound to check that children know what they’re doing (although not necessarily learning), a new marking policy will have been developed (with the resulting dialogue, despite the recent clarification) and leaders will be checking on the quality of teaching and learning… by checking that tasks are being explained and mini-plenaries used.

Nowhere is there any advice that the school might look at the quality of its curriculum provision, or evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of its teaching and set out a plan accordingly. No: Ofsted has made its judgements on the basis of a few drop-ins, and that will now direct the school’s efforts for the next 2 years.

The fact is, two days is not long enough for an inspection team to ascertain what needs to be done to improve provision in a school. If it were, being a headteacher would be easy; consultants would be redundant; school improvement would be a picnic. By imagining that an inspection team have the knowledge or understanding of a school’s situation to effect improvements, we are being fooled. And by letting them dictate the direction of school improvement, how much time is being wasted in schools up and down the country in making changes to meet the bullet points, rather than to improve provision?

Increasingly it is becoming clear that flying inspection visits are not adequate for the real detail of school improvement; they can provide but a snapshot – even over a week. That’s not to say that the snapshot might not be useful; merely to note that an identification of the issues is not necessarily enough to propose a cure.

Maybe a medical model is worth considering? Inspectors can do a fair job as General Practitioners: brief check-ups and dealing with minor ailments, but where a school really needs improvement, perhaps it should be referred to the appropriate specialist for further examination and treatment. Otherwise we risk simply issuing the same simplistic treatments to everyone for everything.

Doubtless in many other schools there are teachers who know that they’re focussing on the wrong things because of Ofsted ‘bullet points’ – I’d welcome your comments telling me about them (anonymous comments welcome)

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4 thoughts on “Is Ofsted leading schools to mis-direct their energies?

  1. BekBlayton 4 January 2015 at 6:52 pm Reply

    This post reflects my experience of working in school improvement. Too often ofsted (or, even worse) the bought in ‘Mocksted’ directed all the energy. In some cases it just felt so lazy! At worst it reflected fashionable thinking that was out of date the next year. I really was not surprised when that inspector was found to be cutting and pasting information – so many of the reports were looking for the same thing that f course they offered the same advice.

  2. cazzypot2013 4 January 2015 at 7:24 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  3. julietgreen 4 January 2015 at 9:07 pm Reply

    I think BekBlayton is right. This is ‘cut n paste’ inspection – it’s likely to be identical advice in all the schools they visit and can be confusing. Often all those things are actually happening in a school and it’s difficult to see how they can be done to any greater degree. It requires a revolution in thinking about education in England – I was thinking about it today. It’s like going to a restaurant and constantly sampling the food and then telling the chefs they need to use salt and cook the ingredients properly, but never actually looking at things like who taught the chefs, what qualifications they have, what training they’ve been given access to, what other factors influence the quality of the food etc.

  4. DOI: I could never run a school, nor teach a class 8 January 2015 at 1:46 am Reply

    As a GP who recently underwent a similar inspection regime (CQC rather than Ofsted), this post was interesting reading. There probably is some place for outside ‘experts’ to briefly observe an organisation and report back on what they found.

    In contrast, detailed advice on the minutiae of improvement is likely to require local knowledge, support, technical know-how, ongoing discussion, focus on the organisation’s needs, wants and capacities, plus a commitment to follow-up the results.

    Maybe a medical model really is worth considering. Otherwise we do risk simply issuing the same simplistic treatments to everyone for everything. I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing your post a little 😉

    Inspectors can do a fair job as locum nurse practitioners in an out-of-hours triage centre, with brief check-ups and dealing with minor ailments. They may even do a passable job as a junior-grade hospital specialist seeing the patient once, dealing with one small part of their problematic body, and bouncing them straight back without expending any resources.

    But where a school (or indeed a GP practice) really needs a series of improvement, perhaps it should be referred back to a senior-GP-type for further examination and treatment. Big problems need someone who knows the patient over some years, with experience of taking into account the wishes of the ‘patient’ and the outside factors: the staff, the pupils, the whole school ‘family’, past history, current context, local resources. Plus the obvious need for continuity of care, and the ability to check on adherence, altering treatment as needed.

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