How Ofsted quietened its critics: by inventing the "outstanding" category

Francis Gilbert's picture
The former QCA chief Mick Waters is a fascinating commentator on education. I've already commented upon his new book Thinking Allowed On Schooling; it's a really interesting read. What I like about Mick is that he is very approachable, and combines a healthy realism about schools with a desire for a more egalitarian system. He's obviously a keen supporter of local state schools which offer a broad and balanced curriculum to all children, and clearly believes that state schools have improved immensely in recent years. However, he is suspicious of a system which produces too many perverse incentives. I interviewed him this week at the Royal Society of Arts, the RSA, and was particularly struck by the comments he made about Ofsted. Having been a head-honcho bureaucrat himself, he's got an uncanny knack of nailing the ways in which bureaucracies promote themselves and their agendas. I think his observations about Ofsted are incisive; he sees quite clearly how Ofsted has generated a language which primarily protects itself as an institution rather than genuinely assisting school improvement. Watch him talking to me here on how Ofsted invented the category of "outstanding" in order to deflect criticism of its dubious inspection methods.


Waters' case is a strong one; the category of "outstanding" conferred great power upon Ofsted because it enabled it to make a substantial number of schools to feel very good about themselves, while encouraging other schools to aspire to this category. What it didn't do was genuinely assist with raising standards because as Waters argues in his book, and speaks about below, many of the judgments of Ofsted are based upon dubious data. RaiseOnline, the organisation which crunches exam data for schools and for Ofsted, base their data upon exam results which many people -- from the current Education Secretary to Mike Tomlinson, a former Ofsted chief -- question both the validity and reliability of. But least you think Waters is overwhelmingly negative about Ofsted and doesn't believe in it as a concept, you need to listen to a fuller explanation of his ideas here:


For Waters, the root of the problem for schools is an affliction which affects many public services at the current time, and this is the way in which an excessive focus upon specific targets distort the practices within institutions. He cleverly uses "game theory" to explain this phenomena. It's worth listening to him explaining this concept in his own words here:

What happened is that various institutions in education have played the game but forgotten the original purpose of the game in the first place. A few years ago, Ofsted was worried about its very survival because it was being attacked from all sides for the unreliability and unfairness of its inspection processes; its invention of the outstanding category introduced a new game into the system, the game of everyone wanting to attain "outstanding" status. Its grading category for lessons from 1 (outstanding) to 4 (unsatisfactory) fundamentally altered teachers' lives in schools because suddenly a number was defining many teachers' sense of self-worth and professional pride. Teachers stopped complaining about Ofsted in the vociferous way that they had been, and worried about whether they were a 1 or not. As a result, Ofsted, with the introduction of the category, altered the rules of the game for every state school teachers' professional life. A clever move, and not one I'd really noticed until Mick Waters pointed it out to me.
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