Can Ofsted Be Reformed?

Gorbachev_(cropped)

Even great statesmen struggle to reform institutions with ingrained tendencies.

During the debate over abolishing Ofsted at Michaela on 21st November, an audience member compared the inspectorate to the Soviet State Planning Committee. He said that Gorbachev’s efforts to reform it had led to its collapse. It could not be reformed. It had to be destroyed, because it was incapable of changing fundamentally.

There has been a schools inspectorate ever since there has been large scale state education, but there has not always been Ofsted. The great Victorian education reformer Matthew Arnold was an inspector, for example. So inspection and Ofsted are not synonymous. The question we have to ask is whether Ofsted is capable of being reformed so radically that it actually does more good than harm.

We are talking about an organisation that has, with almost complete impunity, ruined the careers of many good teachers. There are countless stories of how inspectors have branded knowledgeable teachers who get good results as inadequate, on the basis of misguided dogmas. Katie Ashford shared some of these nightmare tales during her speech in favour of abolition.

Because of the incalculable harm done by Stalinist inspectors, Ofsted is viewed with suspicion and fear by most in the teaching profession. Although there have been genuine reforms, most notably in the abandoning of lesson grading, and although Sir Michael Wilshaw talks sense, is it really possible that the whole institution has had a change of heart?

It seems unlikely. Sir Michael is not St Michael. He presides not over an army of angels but a large number of fallible human beings. Many of these human beings have blood on their hands. A lot of it. They are responsible for destroying careers and closing schools based on arbitrary and misinformed judgements. And despite the sanity being spoken by those at the top, we haven’t seen much public penitence from the people who got their hands dirty carrying out the purges. It won’t be Sir Michael who visits your school. And it might be one of them.

Aristotle points out in his Ethics that virtues develop over time by the repeated performance of good actions: ‘by doing just actions we become just’. In other words, virtues are habitual. But so are vices. What is decisive is not knowledge, but habit. So whatever Sir Michael says, we have to face the fact that many inspectors have very bad habits, which would take a long time and a lot of willpower to break. Even if they have been told not to judge lessons, they are in the habit of doing so, based on misguided criteria. How could we know how much their judgement of a school would be swayed by the false judgements they are in the habit of making? Of course, they wouldn’t officially admit to it, but we’re all very good at making judgements based on flimsy evidence and then rationalising them afterwards.

Should people with habits like these really be trusted with making or breaking the careers of teachers, and deciding on the very existence of schools? Or do we need to start again from scratch if we are going to build an inspectorate that does not have Stalinist tendencies?

(Image from Wikimedia).

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7 thoughts on “Can Ofsted Be Reformed?

  1. To reform them, you have to remove them entirely from the area in which they have no credibility: judgements about the quality of teaching and ‘learning’. In its place, they should be allowed to comment on (but not grade) the quality of the school’s teaching ‘policies’ – i.e. the policies the school has, whether these are adequately documented/shared, whether these policies are reflected in reality.
    The grade for attainment of pupils should be based solely on external measures – in this case it is not Ofsted’s fault that the available data is sparse (but they fuelled the trend for internal garbage data).
    Behaviour and safety should remain, but with an objective focus on management of poor behaviour.
    Finally, there should be a new category for school culture. This should encompass things from pupil attitude through to extra-curricular offers. This should not be graded and should give an objective account of the type of school so that parents can make choices informed by more than a glossy prospectus.

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    • If they’re going to look at behaviour, it would have to be whole school policies and whether they are carried out: essentially, are senior management supporting front line staff with proper centrally managed and enforced structures for discipline.

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      • As I said, I think there are 2 elements to reporting on behaviour. The element that falls under behaviour and safety (and is graded) is about managing poor behaviour. As you say, this should be an audit of whether a suitable policy exists and there is evidence that it is working (both through observed practice, and records).
        The other part should be in the qualitative description of the culture of the school. Here the inspectors should describe, objectively, what sort of attitudes they observe. There is room for many different school cultures (both highly disciplined and more relaxed) to be acceptable. You, for example, have applauded ‘no excuses’ whereas I (as a parent) would prefer that an occasional forgotten pen is not an issue. The only ‘negative’ I would expect in this area is if there was a big disconnect between what the leadership claim is the culture and the reality in the classroom/playground.

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  2. There should be no judgement involved. Humans are incapable of carrying out this kind of judgement reliably and it needs to be stopped. OFSTED should merely audit the activity of the school where no actual judgement is required.

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  3. The other problem is that a lot of the madness now isn’t from Ofsted *as such*. It’s the Zombie Ofsted (hat tip to emc2andallthat for the concept). Essentially, there are lots of people in and around schools still doing what Ofsted liked 5 years ago, because nobody in charge has stood up and said that a lot of it was nonsense. It may not be Ofsted-compulsory any more, but it’s still seen as Ofsted-acceptable. Combine that with the observation that a lot of people in charge in schools are there because they did well at playing the Ofsted game 5 years ago, it’s not surprising that being told that other approaches are acceptable hasn’t led to their adoption.

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  4. Pingback: The Michaela Inspection Result Is Good News for Everyone | The Traditional Teacher

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