Blog: If not now, when? An opportunity to create an efficacy-led school quality assurance body - RSA

Blog: Ofsted, efficacy, and the need to rethink everything


  • Picture of Ben Gibbs FRSA
    Ben Gibbs FRSA
  • Education
  • Curriculum
  • Schools
  • Creative Institutions and Systems

News of the death of Umberto Eco in February prompted me to dust off old texts and revisit the man’s genius. This fitful retrospection coincided with news from the DfE about its search to replace Michael Wilshaw when he leaves later in the year. Of course, the media was full of it, but I was struck by how all the commentary focused on who might take over, rather than on what they might do; on whether the DfE would install a high-profile puppet more 'aligned' with its policy agenda, or a no-nonsense union-basher from the US charter school movement.

Perhaps this is unsurprising when one considers how we still seem confused about the concept and purpose of 'leadership' in public life. But what would Eco say? 

Well, he’d not be surprised by our obsession with the idea of the 'heroic leader'. That’s how we ended up with the current HMCI in the first place. He might also add that we should be careful about giving too much power to people who mistake rhetoric for philosophy, and who use rational argument presented in restless but simple language to excite anger and ‘selective populism’. In his 1995 piece in the New York Review of Books, Eco warns us that unless leadership is focused on the achievement of agreed impacts to the public good, it can easily become subject to a set of underlying and compelling cultural tendencies: a cult of tradition, a rejection of modernism, action for action’s sake, an inability to withstand analytical criticism, appeals to a frustrated middle class, popular elitism, and the use of an impoverished vocabulary.[1] 

Of course, these ‘agreed impacts to the public good’ should be the measure of Ofsted’s efficacy. Indeed, this was the subject of the ‘planning for real impact in school improvement’ workshop, jointly hosted by the RSA and Pearson to explore how an efficacy-informed approach to public sector leadership might help achieve better outcomes. See Matthew Taylor’s three blogs (here, here and here) for more. 

It’s fair to say that from this perspective, the inspectorate was found by the workshop to be ‘requires improvement’ at best. Few disagreed with its aims, but it was felt that Ofsted’s work was having at least as much of a negative impact on schools as positive. Looking across the sector - the teachers quitting in droves, the school leaders in fear of ‘the call’, the broken careers after poor reports, the parents confused by perverse incentives and false choices - one could make the case for putting it in ‘special measures’ and sending in the A Team! 

Ofsted has become too high stakes, too pervasive, and too broad in its remit. It is all too easily used by government as a lever to enact ideological change (‘British Values’, anyone?), and by schools as an excuse for narrow - even sharp - practice. At the same time, the public remarks made by its leader have alienated large swathes of the profession. The organisation has come to embody a negative form of hierarchy, and encourages a fatalistic outlook in schools, rewarding compliance, stifling creativity, and breeding the sort of collective defensiveness and cynicism that stunts system-level progress. 

This is *not* an organisation with efficacy at its heart! And yet it still claims to have raised standards since 2010, presenting evidence that there are more schools labelled good or outstanding now than there were then. The problem with this is that the judgements made by Ofsted’s inspectors about schools are highly contestable. Their dependency on progress or attainment data that wasn’t designed for this purpose is questionable, and many people feel that inspectors now react to borderline cases with ‘if in doubt’ grade inflation from 3 to 2, following the change from ‘satisfactory’ to ‘requires improvement’ descriptors (a change inspired by RSA research!) in 2014.

More fundamentally, there are concerns (currently being swept under the carpet) with the reliability, quality and consistency of the judgements made by the 2,000 ‘additional inspectors’ who carried out the majority of Ofsted’s inspections between 2010 and 2015. For example, a 2014 report from Policy Exchange identified variations in inspectors’ “ability to understand, interpret and draw conclusions from statistical data”, whilst David Green of Civitas wrote in The Spectator that “Ofsted’s imposition of standards is erratic and often varies with the personal tastes of individual inspectors.”  More recently, Andrew Morrish, a former inspector and now conscientious objector, wrote in The Guardian that "in any inspection, if you repeat it a week later with two different inspectors then the outcome will be different. And given that decisions can rip the heart out of a local community, inspection at its worst is both cruel and unusual." I've seen that up close and personal, and it's devastating.

So what would an Ofsted 2.0 look like if it were based on the principles of efficacy? 

For Steve Munby, CEO of the Education Development Trust, it needs to go back to first principles. It should become a far more focused inspectorate, providing assurances that children in a school are learning and making progress over time, and benchmarking schools only against others with similar intakes. That is all. As just one part of a wider regulatory strategy for schools, it will cede the auditing of finance, governance, child safety and well-being to other more specialist bodies. 

Others, like the NAHT and the Whole Education Network, have been modelling alternative peer-to-peer inspection programmes which seek to improve outcomes by encouraging and rewarding innovation, returning responsibility to the classroom, and taking ownership of standards back into the profession. The arguments are that these approaches would better enable system improvement by empowering the profession to take more of a lead in developing innovative practice, driven not by accountability and fear of Ofsted’s pollice verso, but by research, evidence and support.

 For James Park in Detoxifying School Accountability: the case for multi-perspective inspection, the key to a more effective and less toxic accountability system involves two steps. The first is to de-couple Ofsted’s inspection framework from the standardised qualifications system, thereby exposing more clearly the inherent limitations of using children’s test results as a measure of the quality of school performance, and enabling a reformed inspectorate to focus on those broader metrics that better indicate school quality. Moreover, Park’s second step would be to create a multi-perspective inspection system, in which whole school communities - students, parents, teachers, leaders, and other stakeholders - analyse and discuss a broad range of quantitative and qualitative data each year, publishing honest reports about strengths and weaknesses, together with widely negotiated improvement plans. 

These are interesting, and - in Park’s case at least - include a critique of what Ofsted is for. Because of course that is what’s actually needed now; a rigorous evaluation of its aims, an analysis of what role it needs to play in a complex but (hopefully) integrated school improvement system, and an agreement on the outcomes it needs to achieve in the public interest? What is the best way to organise an accountability system if one accepts that the achievement of improvement in individual schools (efficacy one) needs to accumulate as system level improvement (efficacy two), and therefore requires an approach to system design based on the idea that school improvement at the level of individual schools is no longer an end in itself (efficacy three)? Only when it is sure of these footings, would Ofsted define a set of measures against which to evaluate its efficacy; it’s measurable impact on the things it said it wanted to improve. 

None of that is easy or quick, but if Ofsted is to play as important a role in the system as its £160m annual budget requires, then all this thinking needs to be done before it even asks itself what sort of organisation it needs to create in order to deliver its plans. Or, instead of doing some hard thinking about public interest, it could just focus on what sort of heroic leader it wants as HMCI to do more of what Wilshaw has done, only harder, and with more of a nod to their policy priorities. As Estelle Morris wrote recently in The Guardian, “appointing a new inspector because they agree with government policies such as free schools would be plain wrong.” Eco had something to say for us here too: “The real hero is always a hero by mistake; he dreams of being an honest coward like everybody else.”

[1] To be clear, I’m not drawing undue political comparisons with Eco’s main point of reference, which was his experience of growing up in a fascist state and his fear of the resurgence of ‘Ur Fascism’ in the late 20th century. But his fourteen warning signs of a type of socially dangerous authoritarianism are useful here. 

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