Don't give Ofsted all the blame - RSA

Blog: Don't give Ofsted all the blame

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  • Picture of Tom Gilliford
    Tom Gilliford
    Former Project Engagement Manager
  • Education
  • Schools
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

In my recent work with school governors at the RSA, I have been asking, “What are the barriers to creativity in schools?” Time and again governors tell me that they feel Ofsted holds their schools back from releasing the latent creative potential of staff and students. But when Ofsted say they don’t expect any specific method of teaching -be it creative or not - are we, as a society, taking the easy way out by laying the blame squarely at their feet? Maybe we aren’t being the ChangeMakers we should be?

I’ve worked in schools where the dreaded ‘call’ was expected at any minute, and have seen first-hand that creative practice can, and often is, swept away in preference for ‘grab-folders’, pro-forma lesson plans and weekly ‘drop ins’ when the Ofsted Spectre looms large. A good or bad judgement can make or break a head’s career and can mean the difference between oversubscription or a intervention, such as forced academisation. When the stakes are so high, is it any wonder that schools, governing bodies and academy trustees err on the side of a compliance culture, which values consistency over creativity? Only when every teacher is working from a preordained checklist do school leaders feel confident that nothing will go wrong.

But when we take a closer look at exactly what it is that schools fear, something surprising comes to light. Ofsted does not determine whether or not a head keeps their job, provide advice to parents on which schools their children should attend, or have any hand the process of academisation. With this in mind I asked Ofsted what they thought about being described as a barrier to creativity, and they told me, Headteachers and governors should not feel constrained by the inspection framework and should focus instead on ensuring that the school has the maximum impact on outcomes for pupils.” Now while this is far from a full-throated endorsement of creative methodologies, it certainly makes clear that Ofsted cares about outcomes not process. If creative teaching is what children need, Ofsted wants you to do it. Their assertion is echoed in a 2014 briefing for schools, which makes clear that they have no interest in seeing certain types of lessons, planing or specific pedagogies, leaving the stage open for new takes on them all.

It would be naive of me to suggest that Ofsted presents no barrier at all. Unfortunately, when you talk to school leaders you see that there is a gap between what Ofsted says and what they do. Although Ofsted says it doesn't look for specifics, the fact that they are trying to pass judgement on an entire school in a couple of days often forces an inspector to go in with preconceived ideas about what success means. This means that schools do what they know for certain will meet a set definition rather than trying something new that has the potential to be better. But don’t rush to condemn Ofsted – it’s not all their fault. This barrier has been co-authored by the inspector and the inspected alike, neither of which should be acting in this way.

The Ofsted framework has a narrow definition of success and definitely values attainment targets over creativity, but they are not alone in this. As a school governor I am well aware that the majority of the questions my fellow governors and I pose are about attainment and progress rather than research and innovation. Parents too continue to use league tables rather than values and creative practice to choose a school. Heads buy into this destructive cycle when they bow to external pressure and choose to link pay to exam class performance and high-stakes appraisals. If we want Ofsted to embrace and value creativity, then we all need to start practicing what we preach.

Governors, school leaders, educators, and parents who believe that creativity will improve our educational ecosystem shouldn’t be blaming Ofsted and waiting for it to change. Governors and parents can make it clear to school leaders that they value creative practice and want to see more of it in schools. In turn, school leaders and educators can create a culture of experimentation and rigorous innovation for both themselves and their students. How about we all abandon the blame game and be ChangeMakers instead?


RSA Academies in action

School leaders & governors at the RSA’s family of Academies are always looking for ways to support the creative practice of their educators. With this in mind they will be holding a celebration of research and design practice in September (2015). At the event those teachers who have been working hard to trial and test new ideas will have an opportunity to showcase their findings and share best practice. Events like this are an excellent way for school leaders to show that they value far more than results and Ofsted grading.


Next steps:

Join tom_gilliford and the RSA on Tuesday 26th May between 5pm and 6pm as they ask the Twitter-verse: “How do we give teachers the space to create?” Use the hashtag #RSAcreatespace to get involved.

Are you a governor? Take our Governor’s survey here and tell us what you do to make your school creative.

Are you a teacher? Learn more about using research to drive innovative practice by clicking here. Or look for a vacancy at one of our Academies here.



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  • Hi Tom. Thanks for an interesting blog.


    I think your piece exposes a tension in Ofsted which both they and us teachers have some responsibility to address.


    Firstly Ofsted. While they say, quite rightly, that they like to see creativity in lessons they have to accept that the fear of inspection and the resulting catastrophic negative impact on leadership and consequently teaching and learning is a direct unintended consequence of their inspections. There are opportunity costs and unintended consequences of practically any policy or strategy you care to think about, education or other. Ofsted need to recognise this, reflect and accept the problem as partly one of their making even though we all agree they didn't plan for it to be like this and it's not their "fault". Let's solve the problems without blaming eh? With the famous "hairs on the back of the neck" comment, they accepted that an "outstanding" lesson is not always outstanding. Of course there was a lot of discussion about this but was anyone really listening? They don't know!


    Secondly, teachers and leaders. Who owns teaching, school leadership? Clearly there are many stakeholders but It feels to me like it is now Ofsted. Colleagues defer to the inspectorate and use the inspection framework to construct "outstanding" lessons which leader have to grade as outstanding because they have all the elements carefully and painstakingly constructed by a conscientious and committed colleague. Regrettably a lot of these do not lead to outstanding outcomes either in exam grades or intangibles like confidence and wider skills. I know of places where one could remove the name of the Head from the panel at the front and replace it with Christine Gilbert or whoever else was in charge of Ofsted at the time as they were the de facto Head of the school and everyone knew it. Why have we surrendered our authority so?


    I would argue that have we been deprofessionalised to the extent that we are now collectively looking outside our own profession to a government agency to tell us how to teach. Can you imagine a similar situation with our medical or legal colleagues? (Sadly the Police are in an even worse situation) We do not engage intellectually with the work. Witness the marking martyrs. Now there is no doubt that marking and assessment is a vital part of learning but how much difference does it make? We need to consider the leverage of work in terms of cost (time) and benefit and engage in discussion rather than just moaning about it. But often we don't why is that?


    I think we need a whole new attitude in school leadership. Teachers have quite highly developed followership skills so it has to come through leadership. We need courageous reflective leaders with a deep understanding of leaning supported by governors (limited liability) who have the moral courage to set a vision for the children in the school and future cohorts. What are we doing for these individuals, families, employers, this society, economy, government? This is vitally important work and any one who sets "Ofsted Outstanding" is no school leader and needs to 'fess up and get outside with the paintbrush. Check. Have you ever spent lots of money on getting an inspector/consultant in to tell you if your school is any good? Resign. You and your team are pulling down over half a million a year and you need someone else to tell you what to do?. Of course examination results are important but they are not the whole story. They are the cart pulled by the horse deep learning and creativity and purpose.


    I believe our system, teachers, leaders, politicians and inspectorate is full of good people who are committed to the children and wider  society. So how did we get in this pickle? We are we so worried about what a colleague, another decent person will think of us and the consequences of it? I am not saying the system is broken either. There is fantastic work going on in every school and we should be proud of ourselves. However, this is often despite, not because of policy, leadership and the severe tensions in the system. This practice is much more likely to emerge in a high trust environment. We can liberate ourselves from the dead hand of inspection culture with a re-professionalised re-empowered body of teachers, leaders governors and inspectors. Remember they are not the bad guys, it's not a confrontation and inspection does have a vital part to play.


    How to do it? What about if we stopped paying so much attention to Ofsted? I have some limited experience of inspection and found them a decent bunch of people who are on the same side as us. Don't dress up your lesson for them. Are you doing the best for these children? Prepare your arguments and let them have it. They like that. Leaders- Surely you know what you are doing, where you are going with this, why and how? Tell them, engage them, manage them, We have the power.

    I understand the "realities" and I am aware that there will be no revolution. But there can be evolution. I know there are enough disruptive thinkers in the system, any governors want to back us?  




  • I think you are quite right, Tom, tosay that we should not just blame OFSTED for the fear of innovation andcreativity that is paralysing our schools. And I think you get close to theheart of the matter in your penultimate paragraph: “The Ofsted framework has anarrow definition of success and definitely values attainment targets overcreativity, but they are not alone in this…” It is ‘narrow definitions ofsuccess’ that are, I suggest, the key to the problem. Educators, parents, politicians and inspectors can pay all the lip service they like to the value of creativity,but we all know that it is measurable data (exam grades, ticks in boxes,positions in league tables etc.) that are the only valued indicators in thecurrent system. Yet we also know, if we have the courage to be honest with ourselves,that what really matters in education and creativity cannot be measured. We canfor example say that a Beethoven symphony and a Cole Porter song are bothexamples of amazing creativity in music, but we cannot meaningfully comparethem by attaching a grade to each! And it is exactly the same with the creativeachievements of young people. Trying to understand the complexity of human learningand creativity by measuring and analysing outcomes for each individual lessonor each individual pupil is as pointless as trying to understand the complexityof behaviour of a colony of bees by measuring and analysing the outcomes ofdissecting individual bees.

    So if we want to encourage and nurture creativity ineducation we have no alternative, I believe, but to ditch the measurementculture. And this will be difficult as it is so firmly entrenched in thecontemporary educational narrative. So although OFSTED is not per se to blame for the lack of creativityin education (as you correctly point out), we do have to get rid of OFSTED andall the reductionist measurement that goes with inspection and compliance if weare to stand a chance of being able to promote creativity. And we should not beafraid to do so. Finland manages very well without school inspection (which wasabolished there over 20 years ago). The other thing that we need to move awayfrom is exams designed to be taken at a specific age. (I’m thinking mainly ofGCSE.) Sixteen-year olds vary hugely in their interests, experience and creative aspirationsso it is surely crazy to put them all through the same process just so that‘performance’ can be compared across schools. No wonder there is so little roomfor creativity when so much energy is devoted to browbeating young people towork hard for the GCSEs. If we must still have exams then the graded ‘whenready’ music exams are a far better model, as is the six-level CEFR forEuropean languages. And of course technology has given us many new methods ofrecording/reporting learning that are far better than exams (as described inthe final chapter of my recent book “Using Technology to Gather, Store andReport Evidence of Learning”).

    Let me finish, Tom, with a slight rewording of your final sentence: How about we all abandon the measurement game and be ChangeMakers instead?

  • It would have been great to have a few more contributors, but those we had were brilliant.

  • How did the 26th May Twitter-verse go? I didn't get to hear about it until too late.

  • I'm excited about the direction of this thinking for the future of education. Looking forward to the twitter chat.