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Sunday 2 February 2014

Once again this weekend the news seems to have been dominated by education, especially the ongoing issues, which first surfaced last weekend, about Ofsted.  Without getting into the politics of Ofsted and its leadership, a few personal thoughts follow.

I had already been a teacher for some years when Ofsted inspections were first introduced in the early 1990s.  Those early inspections were very different to what we know now.  There was very little data about the performance of schools, so really everything rested on what the inspectors saw on the inspection itself.  The school was notified weeks in advance of the inspection, and was expected to use the run-in to compile huge folders and boxes of documents and policies.  When the inspection came, it was usually for a whole week, and in secondary schools there were subject specialists who went into every class and saw every teacher a number of times.  The report, by today’s standards, was long, very detailed, and written in a way which meant it was more accessible to teachers and schools than to the general public.

A lot has changed over the past two decades. Schools overall are much, much better than they were then in almost every respect, and I think Ofsted, despite the many individual grievances along the way, has been a strong force for good in helping to raise those standards across the board.  We now also have extremely sophisticated ways of analyzing how effective schools are in what they do for their students through performance data.  This data is summarized in a document known as RaiseOnline which every school gets annually.  What RaiseOnline says is an important part of any Ofsted inspection judgement, because it is focused on the actual outcomes schools produce.

Some people, including some heads and teachers, of course don’t like this, and are suspicious of the use of data.  While I agree it is important to understand what data can and can’t tell us, and some knowledge of statistics is important, I personally think it is irrational to want to exclude data from the inspection process – each number, after all, represents the achievement of a young person.  And well used, the data we now have is a rich and sophisticated picture of the school’s performance.

Another difference between now and then is that schools are not notified in advance of the inspection date – they are given less than one day’s notice only.  They are no longer expected to produce crate-loads of documents, but only minimal and absolutely essential paperwork.  Inspections last less than two days usually, in a secondary school, with a team of four inspections, and the reports are much shorter and written with the non-education-specialist reader and parents in mind.  Much better all round.  I do think, despite his popular ‘bogey man’ caricature in some quarters, that Sir Michael Wilshaw has done an excellent job in simplifying and focusing Ofsted inspection on the really important things that schools do.

Why do we still need inspection at all?  For two reasons, I think.  Firstly, because it genuinely does incentivize schools to improve standards and to maintain high standards.  The quickest way for any government to get schools to do anything is to put it in the inspection framework.  Such is the power of the Ofsted ‘brand’.  Secondly, we need it because in a system which offers parents choice in which public service to use, they need to know objectively how good each provider is, from an unbiased outsider.

So what’s all the fuss about now?  Well, there are a number of theories, including some pretty far-fetched ones, which a dedicated follower of education Twitter and blogs could pick up, should they want to.  I will just offer four personal thoughts.

Firstly, I think we still need an inspection system.  This is not a matter of being unable to trust schools, but rather a safeguard for children in schools which may lose focus, because of the challenges which face them, if they did not have to consider the possible arrival of inspectors. I remember what it was like before Ofsted, and it would be in no-one’s interests to go back to those days.

Secondly, we know a lot more about schools’ performance now given the data we have.  I think there needs to be a way of making sure that inspections reflect that knowledge in a very direct way.  It may be that there needs to be a different kind of inspection to achieve that.

Thirdly, I think we need to embed the ‘culture of accountability’ more strongly inside schools – at the moment schools tend to see accountability as something that is done to them from the outside, rather than seeing themselves as the main agents of accountability.  I think an Ofsted approach which incentivized schools more strongly to track and report publicly their own performance, and checked they were doing this accurately, would be a big step in the right direction.  Of course, schools can still use all the modern means of communication available to tell parents and others about other aspects of what the schools does and is: ethos, sport, music and so on.

And fourthly, I think we really need to dispel once and for all the myths that exist about the kind of teaching Ofsted likes seeing.  Any teaching which enables students to learn and do well is good teaching in my book, and there is a very wide range of different approaches, all of which are perfectly valid if they work.  But as soon as you put inspectors into classes to observe lessons, the inspectors’ own prejudices, ideas, experiences come to the fore, and teachers find themselves being judged according to someone else’s style.  That makes teachers behave differently, and sometimes they even teach less effectively as a result. Good heads know which teachers are effective, because they analyse the progress their students make.  That’s what Ofsted needs to focus on.

We don’t know yet how the debate over Ofsted inspection will pan out, but I am sure that in due course we will learn more about future plans for Ofsted inspection – we will await with interest.

Next week is a very special one for me.  As part of my year’s presidency of ASCL, the Association of School and College Leaders, I am visiting Dallas, Texas for a convention of North American school principals.  It will be a great honour to be there and I will attempt to blog a summary of the convention as it unfolds.  Sadly it will be a short visit only and I will be back in the UK less than a week later.