Ofsted Reforms can’t work

Here’s the problem: when the situation is very fuzzy, it is very difficult to reach non-fuzzy conclusions. Education is very fuzzy.  It’s fuzzy because education is very complex, and almost nothing is agreed. Teachers don’t even agree what the overall aim of school education is. Everyone does agree, however, that Education is very important; but this only means that politicians must be seen to be ‘improving’ Education. But no one has a convincing narrative of what success looks like, and robust evidence of effectiveness is lacking. This has not prevented politicians from implementing initiatives as if they really were certain of what these would achieve. The result has been an increasingly powerful Ofsted, because high stakes inspections was the easiest way to ensure compliance. One problem is, improvement has been hard to evidence…..so, was high stakes inspection a successful strategy (even on its own terms)?

Schools, teachers and SLT have struggled to cope with the pressure and consequences of the high stakes inspection. Evidence started to appear that key elements of the inspection process were deeply flawed (e.g. lesson observations lead to robust assessment of teaching and teachers). Workloads in schools became unmanageable. And the Fear. Ofsted needed to reform. So, they attempted to do so. Don’t get me wrong, here. None of this is personal with respect to Ofsted and its main staff. Those who have engaged on Twitter have been patient and cogent. The problems are system-wide, not personal or personnel based. (Well, apart from contracted out inspectors, and subsequent conflict of interests). There is a Legacy. Any changes that Ofsted make to inspection, and any myth busting they attempt, simply spawns a new brain gym. The fear remains. My contention is that as long as politicians think they need to (or can) make changes that will significantly impact on attainment, in a short timescale, then this high stakes accountability system will remain, and Ofsted will be a source of fear and unmanageable workloads.
It is for these reasons that I conclude that the high stakes inspections do not lead to sustainable improvement in education. We need to ditch this approach and arrive at a new accountability paradigm based on encouragement and nurture.


9 thoughts on “Ofsted Reforms can’t work

  1. Anon

    Hi Chemistrypoet,

    I know we don’t currently agree on this. I think deflecting the problems onto ofsted, blaming ofsted for driving teachers to act unprofessionally out of fear will fail to deal with the problems in the current situation. The extent some teachers will go to is down to a lack of integrity, not down to big, bad ofsted. There are plenty of good teachers and headteachers who have the integrity and guts to lead a school honestly.

    I had the interesting experience of sitting in a complaint hearing with a whole host of advisers who advise the local education authority, present at our Hearing to advise the governing panel. It was my first face-to-face experience of the bogeyman, ofsted.

    The ofsted bogeyman was normal looking, no curious double-heads, presented with calmness and open-faced smiles. Said bogeyman was informed (I can’t convey what a sense of relief this is after two years of obfuscation), and sensitively highlighted to the governors what they should be doing – which wasn’t what they had been doing. Ofsted bogeyman was clear that the school were required to deal with a situation. Unfortunately, in our meeting, bogeyman was only an adviser, only present for part of the meeting, and the local education authority decided to bluff it out and ignore the advice – based on communication received last week it looks like they may have finally realised that this was a poor strategy, and ultimately fails the child.

    My child sits Y6 SATs in 6wks, so no biggie. In an outstanding school, a gifted reader’s last piece of writing could not be graded (level 3 in spelling – child was 2b/a at end of KS1 but couldn’t get beyond level 3 four years later – so they said they couldn’t grade the paper to my child. We identified the problems 2.5yrs ago. Apparently the interventions were all effective, there are no SEN needs being missed (!!), and child is making adequate progress. A child who should achieve a L6 in Y6 Reading is producing writing that can’t be graded … . Now I’m not a teacher, but my dad is, many of my friends are, and the ofsted adviser was. Everyone else recognises there is a problem.

    Ofsted is not an issue for us or for our child – they were willing to identify the issue. Headteachers and local authorities who fail to meet their legal duty remain our issue. The bureaucracy to sort this out is protracted. The person who is failed is our child.

    Teachers want to be respected as professionals. It is essential to act with integrity in the interests of the child.

    Integrity is a choice.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author


      My analysis above is system-wide, and in many ways the problems you highlight is also consistent with my view that high stakes inspections, and attempting to drive improvement via them (and via League Tables) doesn’t work. I don’t know all the details of your situation, but it seems to me that the current accountability system didn’t work. One of the problems is that it is possible to learn how to fool such a system….but, regardless, my contention is that being driven by such a system makes it very difficult for a school to do the things they should do – in essence, the focus is wrong.

      As I also said, my gripes are not with individuals within Ofsted, but with the system. In a new accountability system the current HMI’s would have a very important role – as nurturers/advisors. I do not know what this new accountability system should look like (I, too, am not a teacher), but it is definitely time for serious thinking into what it should look like.

      Finally, I agree that integrity is a choice, and I guess that many teachers have left the profession because they can’t carry on in such a system.

  2. julietgreen

    I completely agree with this analysis and I’m pretty sure all the evidence points that way too. However, they (in particular government policy makers) don’t operate on the basis of evidence, but on the basis of rhetoric.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author


      You are right, the sound bite rules. I am an optimist, and have seen a lot of angst expressed by those deeply involved in education, over the last few years. Levels have been abolished, Ofsted has attempted to reform. Once such things start, it is often difficult to stop the renewal process. I hope that is the case here.

  3. julietgreen

    The levels were abolished on the basis of a supposed understanding that they were not really meaningful and that it was not possible to be reliable when assigning levels to pupils. But the high stakes have not been removed and the reality is that many, many schools, like my own, feel the need to ‘account’ and to track pupils in some way. So we have replaced the levels with another system based on hundreds of statements (which are not assessment criteria and thus even more vague) which we have to decide upon in terms of ’emerging, attaining, exceeding’ etc. for the year group, for every single pupil. Furthermore, if they are not quite emerging or attaining, then we need to decide whereabouts they might be in the year group(s) below. I have expressed my opinion as to how ludicrous it is, but the response is that we ‘need to track progress’ because we will be asked to demonstrate how we have done this. Not levels, but still levels – only even less reliable. The fact that there can not be any reliability in all these types of assessment seems to be a closely guarded academic secret.

    1. chemistrypoet Post author

      Indeed, I agree. Many of the systems that will replace Levels in the short term will not be fit for purpose, in the same way that Levels weren’t. I am extremely sceptical that robust assessments of where children are at (at a resolution that would allow tracking of progress on a month by month basis) are actually possible in Primary. As progress isn’t linear, and young children go up and down. I am not sure about Secondary. Also, I suspect that young children struggle with tests per se. The recent developments have opened all this up, I think. We now await the review into assessment in Primary. Although, to be honest, I doubt that this will fix the situation…as thinking the very unpopular – that robust assessment is meaningless for young children – will be difficult for the review panel.

      As we wait, though, SLT will play it safe…and increase workloads for no real gain to the education of children. But, I think that very big changes are coming.


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