Inspector inspect thyself


I wrote the following blog yesterday. In this morning's Observer interview the Chief Inspector is in a more thoughtful mode and correctly - in my opinion - rejects an expansion of selection as a route to higher standards or greater social mobility. But while  I prefer this morning's opinions to last week's my concern about treating the head of OFSTED as an oracle remains…...

Sir Michael Wilshaw, continues to live a charmed life - politicians and media commentators respond with warmth and alacrity to just about anything he says. Last week in presenting the quango’s annual report he managed to get away with castigating policy makers, head teachers, teachers, governors and local authorities for the continuing ‘mediocrity’ (his word) of the English school system while managing to evade any suggestion that the responsibility for this state of affairs might, at least in part, lie with the most powerful institution in the English school system: OFSTED itself.

These are some of the points that commentators, were they less in thrall to him, could have made in response to the claim by Sir Michael that failure is everyone else’s responsibility:

Last year OFTESD made it clear to schools that performance management must not become detached from pupil attainment. If a teacher in a school is not delivering good results for pupils but the school’s performance management systems suggest this teacher is performing adequately it will be seen as evidence of weak school leadership. Yet, in an outstanding example of ‘do what we say not what we do’, OFTSED tells us that in a ‘mediocre’ system four out of five schools are now rated by the agency as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

In his speech Sir Michael claimed that turning the previous OFSTED category ‘satisfactory’ into the tougher ‘requires improvement’ (a recommendation which was influenced by work undertaken by the RSA) had a ‘galvanising’ effect in raising the number of schools that are good or better from 70% to 78% in one year. This is a remarkable 11.4% rate of improvement across a huge and complex system. If it was maintained, next year 89% of English schools would be deemed good or better and sometime in the spring of 2015 the system would triumphantly pass the 100% point.

However, as well as Wilshaw’s boast that this step change is down to a toughening of the OFSTED framework there are two other possible explanations: first, OFSTED may have failed to mitigate the risk that by making ‘satisfactory’ status more reputationally damaging and dangerous for schools it would lead inspectors to err on the side of ‘good’ when faced with borderline cases; second, the inspection system has surely become detached from a deeper assessment of whether schools really are equipping children with the functional knowledge that they need and that PISA tests suggest we are lacking.

The second point links to another. Wilshaw places great emphasis on what happens in the classroom, being particularly obsessed this year with discipline (a well-chosen topic if your aim is to deflect media attention from other more difficult issues), but the degree to which OFSTED inspections get to grips with what is happening in the classroom is highly debatable.

The Chief Inspector is fond of Manichean dichotomies. His speech contrasts the 'lucky child’ and the ‘unlucky child’ (the latter being its title). Yet according to the OECD, intra-school differences in teaching quality are more pronounced than inter-school differences. Wilshaw’s entirely lucky and wholly unlucky children are much less common than those who are, say, lucky in lesson period one and unlucky in period two. The Chief Inspector’s imagery may be vivid but it is also, as his officials and speechwriters surely know, largely misleading.

Sir Michael also implies that bad lessons and failing schools are obvious a mile off, characterised by such media-friendly images as ‘litter in the playground’, ‘disorder in the corridors’, ‘untidy classrooms’ where ‘it’s hard to see the carpets for gum’ and where teachers call pupils ‘mate’. Such things may be indefensible but the problem – as Wilshaw partly recognises in other aspects of his speech – is not just profoundly failing schools but more those that are coasting in affluent areas while failing their poorer pupils.

The distinction between an adequate and a good lesson is much more subtle than the kind of ‘heroic versus catastrophic’ contrasts of which the Chief Inspector is so fond (and on which his own reputation as a school leader are justly based). But OFSTED classroom inspections are limited, short and of dubious objective value. This is what two people who spend a lot of time in schools have said to me:

“When Ofsted are around, teachers do the five page lesson plan which no teacher would ever do in real life, they make sure they have a lesson structured as required, lots of interaction, and all the other things inspectors have said they want to see.  But it is much easier to change things to teach a lesson in a particular way than it is to make a real difference to students’ learning. So this approach means that teachers, schools and Ofsted can say that more lessons are good and outstanding.  It also helps the inspectors out.  If you’re a retired geography teacher sitting in on a French lesson and not understanding a word (it happens) you can tick the boxes to show which elements of the lesson have been covered far more easily than you can judge whether the children are learning.”

“The twenty-minute 'outstanding lesson' now endemic, with its enforcement by terrified leadership teams, and even training courses offered by the usual suspects who are making a fast buck out of teaching schools how to game the system. This concept requires teachers to split lessons into 20-minute segments (the length of time an inspector will attend a lesson), and in that twenty minutes, tick every box on the inspection framework, which itself would take most adults at least five minutes just to read and decode. Chief amongst the hoops teachers are required to jump through is that of demonstrating that every student in the class has made measurable progress inside twenty minutes. If you want to understand the truly devastating effect of OFSTED’s reign of terror, picture a history curriculum in which a thousand years of British history is divided into 20-minute long gobbets for students to regurgitate, parrot-style, to demonstrate “learning” for the inspectors. Picture students not being allowed to read a work of literature for longer than a few minutes, because the teacher wouldn’t be able to demonstrate “progress” in twenty minutes. Understand that any sixth form discussion of a complex topic, which lasted longer than a few minutes, would be graded as unsatisfactory, because the boxes could not be ticked for the inspector. OFSTED, of course, deny that this is their intention, and claim not to dictate preferred lesson styles. Yet, not for the first time, what Wilshaw says, and what his inspectors are driving schools to do, are not the same thing.”

Arguably a much more useful indicator of the likelihood of consistent good quality teaching would be for OFSTED inspectors to explore whether the school has a thorough system of teacher peer observation, review, inquiry and feedback. Not many schools do, so this would actually raise the quality bar.

Wilshaw’s speech also spends some time praising the London Challenge process that did so much to transform educational outcomes in the capital city. At the heart of that process was school-to-school collaboration (especially through the ‘family of schools’ approach). It was the need for thorough collaboration which was core theme of the RSA’s recent report (’No school an island’) on how to improve the quality of schooling in Suffolk.

Yet OFSTED has failed to make school collaboration (something which research shows is not only vital but very hard to do) a part of its inspection regime, while the Department for Education has also done too little to enforce the expectation that outstanding converter academies should provide wider system leadership. Moreover, many school leaders living in fear of OFSTED argue that it is that it is that fear together with the cut throat competition between schools to which OFSTED inspections contribute, which undermines the possibility of authentic and long term school collaborations. In questioning at last week’s event Wilshaw also revealed the mistaken belief that school collaboration only works on the basis of an outstanding school offering its brilliance to a failing school. In fact, collaboration is more likely to succeed on the basis of a mutually respectful partnership in which each participating school sees it has strengths to offer and valuable lessons to learn.

There are other issues with the Chef Inspector's speech. For example, he ducks the issue of how much intervention a local authority can realistically make in an academy or free school that resists that intervention or, come to that, any other form of engagement with its locality or other local schools.

Sir Michael argues that the ultimate virtue of good school leadership is ‘responsibility’: the good head teacher accepts that what happens in their school ‘is their responsibility and no one else’s’. I agree: Responsibility begins at home. Start with how you could improve before casting blame on anyone else.

Given the degree to which OFSTED and its methods are surely implicated in some of the weaknesses of our school system, dare I suggest that on this measure Sir Michael's own agency may ‘require improvement’.

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