Why Ofsted always hurts schools

Recently the educational world became aware of some ‘aide memoires’ Ofsted had provided their inspectors during their training. Someone ‘leaked’ them online and loads of people clambered to see what pearls of wisdom they possessed. Some were angry that not all schools get them, others were just glad the inspectors were given training and guides to help them inspect the full range of subjects. It was a big kerfuffle. 

If you haven’t seen them this is what they looked like.

I’m not really interested in them, I’m not a school leader. However I am really interested in the system dynamics that they help illuminate. 

Within the current educational climate we can conceive of a world where every Head Teacher felt compelled to download and read the whole set of aide memoires. Why was that?

To me this is indicative of a problem with the inspection system. 

Ofsted are not a bad thing.

Let me first preface my criticism by saying that on the whole I am in favour of Ofsted. I have experienced Ofsted highs and lows, working in schools in special measures and ones rated good. I even applied to be the HMI subject lead for science, so I value their role in focusing schools energy and reviewing a school’s systems and climate. Schools need to be inspected. So please don’t feel I am one of those lining up to take my potshot at Goliath. It’s also worth pointing out I am not privy to the training that goes on and the mechanisms they have internally to counteract these weaknesses. I will just assume they exist but, like all things, are imperfect.

What is the problem then?

To me, the problem is in the current way inspections are reported. I’m going to work on the massive assumption that Ofsted’s overall aim is for all schools to be measured accurately and given feedback so they are better after they are inspected than before. Seems fair.

The way the inspection system is currently created leads to lethal mutations. A lethal mutation occurs when an idea in education that has good intentions is misinterpreted to such a degree that its definition changes and it is associated with a practice that is detrimental to the students. In fact the current inspection framework is in part a response to previous lethal mutations. Do you remember 2 weekly marking cycles with written feedback and then feedforward? Yep, that was mainly due to inspections. Remember ECDL and schools entering entire cohorts for BTEC science instead of GCSE? Yep you guessed it, Data driven inspections! How many clubs is your school running right now? Could that improvement be due to the idea that extra curricular is mentioned in certain ofsted training materials? I wonder.

The problem is that every time they reform the inspection framework they lack the courage or maybe they are forbidden from doing the one thing that would actually work: Reduce the stakes.

At the moment the stakes of Ofsted inspections are incredibly high. Probably the highest in the world. Jobs hang in the balance. A school’s intake for the subsequent year and the financial implications are only a single word away from decimation. 

As the stakes are so high this creates a couple of issues:

  1. Inter-rater reliability: This is the ability for two assessors to award the same mark or grade. For example, in general, a Maths exam has high inter-rater reliability whereas marking an English essay is much lower. Even if we assume perfect assessors it’s an inherent problem with the assessment choices that are made. Now Ofsted have to give a grade for an incredibly complex system like a school, based on a few days in the school and some paperwork. That is an incredibly challenging task at first glance. Now there are things they can do, like training and the creation of rubrics etc.. to support that decision, but I still think it’s going to be incredibly hard to discern between the ‘good minus’ and ‘requires improvement pluses’ in the country.
  2. Internal variation of inspector quality: Quite simply inspectors are human and within the cohort of inspectors there will most likely be a normal distribution of ability. Quality of an individual inspector will also vary day to day best on a number of factors. Most importantly we all have unconscious biases that inform our judgements. Now having a team does help mitigate these issues, aggregation is our friend, but it won’t remove them. This leaves schools in a position of having to plan for their inspection with the question ‘what will the weakest inspector think’ or ‘what if the inspectors personal opinions on what good teaching looks like conflict with our schools approach?”  some people might call this controlling your controlables, but it’s more likely the worst-case scenario that is being planned for. 

These two things put school leaders in a bit of a predicament. They are under a huge amount of pressure to fit their school into the inspectors model of what a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ school looks like. So they go in search of ways to understand that model. This is where the rumour mill plays its part. “I heard of a school that did a 2 year KS3 and got downgraded for it” Says one Head to another. “Oh no!” says the other and goes back to their school and announces “Ofsted want a 3 year KS3!” Panic ensues as the school tacks into the winds of change and plans to change their curriculum model. Does Ofsted want a 3 year KS3? Maybe. Have they given glowing reports to schools that only do 2 years? Sure. 

These school leaders are not weak, it is the perverse incentives that the system creates that forces them to meet the demand characteristics of a fictitious inspector that drive them to it. And let’s not get into the role of consultants who specialise in making schools ‘ofsted ready’. If it is hard to get all inspectors on the same page, then it is borderline impossible to get the consultants to agree.

How does this hurt schools though?

Well quite simply schools run on an incredibly tight budget. It’s not the money that’s being squandered that’s the biggest loss, it’s time. I’ve written many times about the opportunity cost to all things in schools and why that is so important to factor into decision making. Adapting the existing school systems to make them ‘Ofsted ready’ reduces the capacity available to do other, possibly more meaningful, work. Strategies that encourage complete certainty become incredibly desirable and 5 year plans go out the window. All this is caused by the decision to award schools a grade. 

Teachers already know that the minute you give a student a grade they focus on that and struggle to see the detailed feedback. The same issue happens with inspections. Get a Good and it doesn’t really matter what the inspection says. Get a Requires Improvement and no one cares about the strengths the school has.

But the parents like them?

This is the staple response when people ask why bother with the grades. That’s great I guess but is it enough? Should the grade be that important? Are there not enough other measures parents can use to judge the school. I think parents like the grade because it’s very easy to use in conversations with other parents over which school they chose. But in a world where most schools are good it doesn’t make much difference. Surely exam results, performance metrics and a physical visit are sufficient? Heck most parents just go on reputation more than any tangible data anyway!

What’s the solution then?

If Ofsted is truly a mechanism not just to measure schools but improve them then ditching the grades is the only way to build a system that has a chance of delivering that without creating the waves of lethal mutations that are currently inevitable. I would not obviously support the removal of the crucial role in ensuring all schools meet a certain standard. So we would still need to maintain a pass/fail system. And to the pedants out there I recognise that pass and fail are technically grades but we need a mechanism to create rapid improvement for schools that are currently inadequate, not compliant with statutory guidance. 

How do we ensure schools continue to improve?

Well now we have lower stakes and the actual feedback of the report becomes much more important. The feedback would help the school set out plans based on degrees of urgency. So schools with a particular weakness would be given a chance to provide an action plan to improve that aspect in a shorter window, say a 6 months to 2 years. Those that are less vital or require a steady approach will be given a 5 year window to make the improvements. So the school would have a report that says it has passed its inspection and within the next 2 year must work to improve the outcomes of PP students for example. Or a school might pass and be asked to plan on a way to improve the standards of careers provision over the next 5 years.  

Isn’t this just grades with extra steps though?

It is true this does still have two grades; pass and fail. This is impossible to remove given the remit of the inspectorate. Will this still create pressure to game the system for schools on that pass/fail boundary? Yes of course it will! Given that the proportion of schools who will be in this situation is comparatively small the knock on effects to the system as a whole will be minimal. The chance of a lethal mutation occurring will be low. That’s what counts. The current inspection framework was put together with great thought to try and avoid the tail wagging the dog. If we can remove the grades and shift the inspectorate towards a more developmental approach then we will have a chance of actually preventing the next round of lethal mutations.

Anyway I’m off to update my curriculum road map, ensure all students are being taught the exact same lesson at the exact same time, and replace the word differentiation with scaffolding in all my training materials*.

*Tongue in cheek here

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