In the world of education it is rare to find a subject on which both Left and Right agree wholeheartedly. Yet here we are: the abolition or at least the reform of the schools inspectorate Ofsted is something that both sides want.
The arguments from the Left (voiced in the past by the teaching unions) have been relatively consistent for years and are often the ones held by most teachers. They point out that it is strange to trust the judgement of Ofsted inspectors because they are merely teachers or headteachers who couldn’t cut it in schools. Others believe that it is impossible to judge teachers on a 10-20-minute visit to a single lesson or indeed judge an entire school from a visit lasting two or three days. Some think that it is very discouraging for a teacher to be judged in this fashion and it doesn’t help them to improve. There is truth in all of these claims.
Indeed, as the Times Education Supplement online forum will confirm, there are two things that teachers complain about incessantly: bad behaviour and Ofsted. As such, any criticism of Ofsted has always been interpreted as teachers moaning and their complaints have gone unanswered.
Britain has not always had a national inspectorate. Ofsted evolved into its modern form in 1992 under John Major’s government. Many English-speaking countries, like the US, Canada and Australia and many other countries across the world, do not have inspectorates. Of those that do, many do not have the same remit as ours. They don’t try to inspect every school, nor do they publish reports about schools or shut them down. Why then, do we feel we need an all-powerful inspectorate for our schools?
Because it just feels right, doesn’t it? Ofsted makes families feel secure that someone is keeping our schools in line. Of course there are other methods of ensuring quality in our schools. One could leave school choice to the market and genuinely give families choice of school (unlike the current system of pseudo-choice). The market would weed out the weaker schools and the stronger schools would be inundated with applications. But that would require a voucher system and the acceptance that certain schools would fail and close. Currently as a country we simply don’t have the national stomach for a more competitive system, so we’re back to square one. Ofsted makes sense.
Except that it doesn’t make sense when the inspectors are not able to judge schools properly. Such was the charge recently lobbed at Ofsted by the right-leaning think-tanks Civitas and Policy Exchange: Ofsted, they suggested, might not be doing the excellent job that parents presume and its reports cannot always be trusted. This is important not just for parents, but for teachers too. Ofsted, more than anything else, shapes teaching practices in schools. Those on the Right tend to think that Ofsted’s belief in progressive teaching methods means that it is unfit to judge lessons. In recent years, what is often called child-centred learning has become the good-teaching norm in schools and teacher-training institutions. Gone are the days where the teacher stands at the front actually teaching, where desks are in rows, children looking to the front, admiring their teacher as a fountain of knowledge from whom they try to learn as much as possible. Rather than putting something into the child, teachers nowadays, like Rousseau, try to draw something out. This means that good lessons are those where children teach each other in groups, where the teacher is a “facilitator” of learning moving among the desks, giving advice and trying to keep the children on task. When Ofsted inspectors judge lessons, they often look for signs of what is called “independent learning” (without guidance from the teacher), of group work, and of so-called “engagement”. Some years ago, as assistant head of a London school, my advice to staff for getting through an Ofsted inspection was, “If an inspector is in the room and you find yourself talking for more than five minutes, be sure to move, change activity, get the class in groups, get them talking, anything, just whatever you do, don’t continue talking.” It worked. Teachers who followed my advice got gold stars. Those who ignored it did badly, and this included teachers who were considered to be the best in the school.
Sir Michael Wilshaw, chief executive of Ofsted, has been fighting this frame of mind for some time. The new Ofsted guidance, published in December 2013, stipulates: “Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style . . . For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons . . . Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons . . . On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.”
But if you read the Ofsted reports of various schools up and down the country detailing inspections that have taken place since the publication of this new guidance, you will find that in practice nothing has changed. Andrew Old, a teacher and Labour party activist, has written extensively on his blog, Scenes from the Battleground, about this. The appendix of Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education (she’s a Lib Dem supporter) summarises 228 best-practice Ofsted lessons, none of which are traditional. Where schools are praised by Ofsted, reports pick out things like “high-quality teaching where there are plenty of opportunities for students to find out things for themselves”. Where schools are criticised and found wanting by Ofsted, one reads judgements like: “Work is over-directed by the teacher and there are few opportunities for students to find things out for themselves.” Or “improve the quality of teaching . . . by ensuring that all teachers plan lessons which provide opportunities for students to become more independent.”
So clearly Wilshaw and the new guidance are not having much effect. But spare a thought for the poor inspector too. When one isn’t allowed to comment on teaching styles in the lesson, it is hard to say anything at all. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for the man at the top trying to turn this oil tanker round. It is particularly frustrating, of course, for schools that are trying to do things differently. At Michaela Community School, our free school in Wembley Park, North London, that will open in September with 120 year sevens, our selling point is that we reject child-centred learning. We are all about knowledge-acquisition and I expect my teachers to be standing at the front of the class teaching our children. In fact, we do not intend to grade our teachers according to Ofsted criteria at all. Normally when teachers are observed twice a year, the line manager will give them a one (outstanding), two (good), three (needs to improve), or four (inadequate for the lesson). But it is not possible for a teacher both to learn and improve from an inspection and be fairly judged by it. If being judged, the teacher inevitably puts on some kind of performance. The feedback then refers to their acrobatic stunts as opposed to their everyday practice. One has to choose. Under the current system, people pretend. Line managers go through the motions of giving out grades and targets. Teachers perform and nod politely as the advice is dished out. Even if the criteria for the lesson observation were what I believe makes for a good lesson, the problem with grading is that research shows that when the same lesson is observed a second time by another person, the grade changes 63 per cent of the time. At Michaela, our open-door policy means that our teachers will know to expect me or their line manager in their lessons, without warning, once a week. But they will never get a grading from us. Suggestions yes, advice yes, but judgement based on what I consider to be an unhelpful scale? No way. Knowing line managers could walk in at any time is far more effective at achieving great practice than graded observations. Removing the focus on observations allows the school to focus on professionalism, quality book marking, commitment to extra-curricular activities: all things that should matter when judging a teacher’s quality but so often get overlooked. Teachers at Michaela should teach without fear, always striving to do their very best.
But we do this at huge risk. When people ask me what is the thing that bothers me most, I always say Ofsted. I worry that our very clear stand against progressive teaching and graded observations will land us in hot water and that inspectors may do us a great injustice. Moreover, the many detractors of free schools will pounce upon any critical inspection report of a free school.
But when David Green, director of the Civitas, spoke out recently on behalf of those of us in free schools who are trying to innovate and questioned Ofsted’s assumed authority, the response was troubling. Michael Wilshaw caricatured those of us who favour a knowledge curriculum, presumably including teachers like Andrew Old and all the teachers at my school who vote either Lib Dem or Labour, claiming that we want “children to be lectured for six hours a day in serried ranks”. It made some of us wonder whether our original assumption that Wilshaw was trying to change the Ofsted mindset was wishful thinking. He has the coming months to demonstrate whether he means to stand by the new published guidance and hold his inspectors to account for inspection reports that do not follow it. I hope he steps up to the plate.
In defence of Ofsted, it does act as a wake-up call for schools that are failing. When it comes to really bad schools, teaching methods are less of a concern. Here, it is generally about bad behaviour and poor leadership. Schools that are failing tend to react well to an Ofsted inspection. It makes them jump. That can only be a good thing. But while Ofsted is good at highlighting failure, as it did in over 400 schools last year, including two free schools, nothing much seems to happen after this.
It is troubling that the media do not generally discuss the more than 400 schools that were found to be inadequate but have analysed every detail of the failure of the two free schools. Ordinary families can easily be forgiven for thinking that those two free schools were the only inadequate schools in the country. And this is where things become dangerous. As an example, there was an inordinate amount of media coverage when Sally Morgan was not reappointed as chair of Ofsted by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. She was not dismissed, as the media claimed. Gove appointed the Labour baroness himself to the post in 2011 and she served a full term. Maybe Morgan’s thinking was too similar to that of Wilshaw’s. Maybe it is as Gove says: he just wanted to shake things up a bit. Why is this so impossible to believe? The media help to shape public opinion — and public opinion matters when it comes to school choice. It plays a large hand in encouraging failing schools to get better. If the media give an inaccurate impression of the reality of our state schools, then not all schools will be held to account and Ofsted’s excellent judgements in these cases will go unheeded. There are two things that schools have to get right for general success: behaviour and teaching. If children are behaving themselves and learning, then on the whole parents will choose the school.
Ofsted does seem to get it when it comes to behaviour. It looks at the results rather than the methods. It wants to see children behaving themselves and if they are, inspectors are happy. Whether that is achieved with progressive behaviour methods like restorative justice, or whether the success is down to more old-fashioned line writing and Saturday detentions is not their concern. If it works, they’re happy. For some reason, this has not been the approach when it comes to teaching. The role of Ofsted should be the same here. Inspectors should look at the data and judge whether the children have indeed been learning. Their job is not to prescribe what should be happening in lessons, just as it is not to tell headteachers how to run their detention systems.
Alas, the chances of a Left-Right consensus to reform Ofsted now look remote. When Civitas and Policy Exchange voiced their concerns over Ofsted, the teaching unions were silent. Similarly, when Michael Gove recently made some comments to schools on how they might improve behaviour — suggestions, not orders — the leaders of the unions were all over the media denouncing them, rather than supporting their members and welcoming the advice being given to heads, the ones who should be held to account for behaviour in their schools. Never has there been a clearer opportunity for the unions to support their teachers.
Half of teachers leave the profession in the first five years because of stress brought on by bad behaviour and Ofsted pressure. Union leaders, teachers and think-tanks alike should demand reform of Ofsted and insist that heads support their teachers with effective behaviour systems. In other words, we should all support Michael Gove and Sir Michael Wilshaw in their extensive reform of our education system.