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Recent Ofsted changes likely to increase pressure on schools to raise exam results “by all means possible”, says ex-Chief Inspector

(Note: some of the following relates only to science teaching but most applies to all subjects)

There were two major concerns about Ofsted after it was set up in 1992, wrote Sir Mike Tomlinson*, ex-Chief Inspector of Schools:
1 The consistency of inspectors’ judgements and their subject expertise;

2 The use of raw data to judge a school’s performance particularly when these results were not put into context.

Sir Mike felt the second concern was less of a problem now because more contextualised data was available which allows like to be compared with like.  But he said there’s a tendency for commentators, particularly politicians, to make judgements about school effectiveness based on one year’s results rather than a trend over a longer timescale.

The first concern, however, increased further after the introduction of short inspections in 2002. Inspectors spent less time in schools and subjects were judged by non-specialist inspectors. This seriously reduced both the quality and quantity of information about teaching in each subject, wrote Sir Mike. Reduced time together with an increased amount of test data meant the latter became the “dominant input” into Ofsted judgements.

England has a very autonomous school system, Sir Mike said, and accountability was crucial. However, he didn’t believe the balance in the current accountability system is the best possible. It is skewed so schools feel under increased pressure to increase test results. This leads to:

1 Teaching to the test;

2 So-called “safe” teaching;

3 A decrease in innovation;

4 A reduced emphasis on developing pupils’ enthusiasm for subjects.

Nevertheless, Sir Mike felt Ofsted had had notable successes:

1 It contributed to a rise in the quality of science teaching between 1995/96 and 2003/4

2 Ofsted’s concerns about Key Stage 3 pupils being taught science by non-specialists combined with the Wellcome Trust’s report on the professional development of science teachers led to the establishment of the National Science Learning Centre and 9 regional centres.

3 It contributed to the establishment of the National College for School Leadership in 1997 to improve school leadership.

4 Ofsted’s identification of good practice led to effective schools being linked to other schools. This had been a factor in the success of the London Challenge.

However, Sir Mike feared that changes to Ofsted in 2012 would “raise the bar for what is acceptable examination performance”. These changes are likely to increase the pressure on schools to raise test results “by all means possible”, he warned.

So, is Ofsted friend or foe?

The positive: quality of teaching in science had increased.

The negative: teaching to the test, over-simplified use of data, and the stifling of innovation.

Sir Mike concluded that the “weight of all the accountability measures needs to be reduced and test and examination requirements overhauled”. Ofsted should rely less on test data and more on direct observation.

This change would give teachers the room and the confidence to innovate and develop good teaching practices.


*Sir Mike Tomlinson’s essay, “Inspection: friend or foe?” is published in the Wellcome report Effects from Accountabilities (2013) available here.


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Comments, replies and queries

  1. agov says:

    “Sir Mike felt the second concern was less of a problem now because more contextualised data was available which allows like to be compared with like.”

    but not for Junior schools

    • I was chatting to a lady yesterday who said that her local primary school was good but she was unhappy because they were cheating at KS2 SATS. She’s progressed her complaint all the way to Michael Gove but it had gone nowhere and now she’s come to believe that all primary schools do it.

      Beside this comment I’d like to point out that I know for sure that many primary schools do not cheat. I’m now qualified as a primary maths adviser and am worried that I will end up working with a school that does cheat. I don’t want my reputation associated with this kind of behaviour in any way. It degrades everybody.

      • Leonard James says:

        Not sure about outright cheating but I’d say that gaming is endemic in the system.

        • agov says:

          Secondary schools moan about KS2 results and it may be that schools can game the system by teaching to the test etc but at least they are broadly all working to a common standard of attainment however flawed it may be. Obviously if KS2 schools are actually breaking the rules and, for example, telling children the answers that would be cheating.

          Ofsted does not just look at attainment but also at progress. For Year 6 children that means progress from KS1 attainment to KS2 attainment. Primary schools typically keep KS1 results as low as possible to magnify the supposed progress achieved by KS2. Ofsted doesn’t care about KS1 results in primary schools.

          On the other hand Infants schools tend to claim amazing KS1 results – who wouldn’t when you get judged by ‘results’ and get to choose your own results? Which of course leaves Junior schools having to actually create more progress than Primary schools in order to get a similar Ofsted grade. All this is common knowledge in the Primary sector, not least because staff move around and know what happens in various schools. Of course Ofsted, useless and destructive as ever, pretend to have no knowledge of any of this.

          Rebecca may not want to be at a cheating Primary school but she’ll be lucky to find one that doesn’t choose to have low KS1 results.

          • I watched an excellent program on the banking crisis on iplayer yesterday:

            A seminal insight came at the end when Fred Goodwin could answer all the questions the education select committee asked him except the one about the principles on which Barclays was created.

            When I worked in banking in the city it was clear to me that I was expected to work in the interests of my employer at the expense of everyone else in society. That’s why I left to become a teacher. I wanted to do something which was all about contributing to society. The world of teaching I entered was one where the character of the teacher was considered to be an essential component of their ability as a teacher as we were the role models for all our children.

            Until 2008 I was head of maths in a school in exceptionally difficult circumstances. We never considered cheating or gaming in any way. We worked incredibly hard with what we had and were proud of what we achieved. If it had come through cheating I would have had no pride in it at all. There was no gaming by focusing on some children at the expense of others. Perhaps we focused our attention on the exam year groups more than on the others but not in an inappropriate way (we weren’t neglecting the other year groups, we were just focusing on improving what we were doing with the exam year groups first). We certainly worked our students hard, getting them to use revision tools and classes. That is not gaming the system either. It is teaching them appropriate skills they will need when they take qualifications in the future and giving them the confidence that they can achieve such qualifications.

            When Michael Gove came into education I saw him bringing all bad point of Fred Goodwin in with none of the good. Had we had any sanity instead of this brutality and ignorance we could, of course, have reformed our testing and tracking systems to merge AFL and summative assessment and this conversation would be irrelevant. And of course we wouldn’t be dealing with this £1bn overspend.

          • Here’s another example of Gove taking a position which is rational and grounded rather than one which produces the DM headlines which are most likely to generate Conservative votes…..

            But then why would he do anything which is actually in the interests of society? He’s never attempted to do that and he’s not developed any of the relevant skills. He exists because he knows how to generate the headlines which general votes without consideration of their wider implications and he has no reservations about ‘his team’ bullying and discrediting people.

            Why on earth should he bother about the impact of this attitude on the country? He is not here for the country. He’s here for the Conservative party and their benefactors.

            I know many on this forum understand this but most teachers still don’t really because it’s a culture which is so alien to them. And of course Ofsted won’t turn round and boot out Gove like the FSA got rid of Goodwin because like all people of this vein he’s got control of his own independent regulator.

  2. The two key structural flaws in Ofsted when it was set up were:

    1. It was, in practice, unaccountable to anyone but itself and the SoS for Education.
    2. It adopted the practice of grading the quality of provision rather than defining unacceptable practice and acceptable mechanisms of quality improvement.

    Had these two structural flaws been addressed schools would have had the power to force Ofsted to improve when the issues Sir Mike identified became problematic.

    Other regulators have addressed these issues and the positive impacts of them to adhering to best practice are well understood.

    It worries me greatly that the level of debate is still so low after all this time. Here’s yet another report which wastes a great deal of energy because doesn’t seem to understand the importance of learning from regulation outside education.

    • Rebecca – the Education Select Committee shared your concerns in 2011. These included:

      Ofsted was too large. It should be split in two: the Inspectorate for Education and the Inspectorate for Children’s Care.

      Ofsted’s remit should be clearer – there is confusion as to whether it is a regulatory and inspection body, or an improvement agency.

      The new inspectorates should be independent of the Department for Education (DfE).

      There should be greater transparency concerning contracts with and performance of companies (Tribal Group, Serco and CfBT Education Trust) who undertake inspection on Ofsted’s behalf.

  3. Leonard James says:

    I’d sooner be judged on my results than lesson observations which are, invariably, conducted by people who can’t or won’t teach themselves.

    • The idea that anyone can walk in knowing no context and grade the quality of a lesson was always madness. It’s hard enough when you know the kids, the history and the teacher.

      The only think they can really do is to observe whether there are clearly defined unacceptable teaching, learning or behaviour in evidence or not.

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