Apart from Chief HMI's failure to condemn "discredited" teaching methods, what else bothered Civitas about Ofsted?

Janet Downs's picture
Yesterday I suggested Civitas’s anger at Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw was motivated in part by his unwillingness to denounce what Civitas described as “now-discredited child-led methods of the 1960s.” Instead, Sir Michael instructed Ofsted inspectors to be neutral and not comment on teaching styles.

However, this was not the sole basis for Civitas’s complaints re Ofsted. There were more:

1“Ofsted’s ethos is still influenced by the desire to enforce compliance with centrally-imposed targets, rather than to encourage the professional development of school leaders and teachers.”
2Ofsted’s imposition of standards is erratic and often varies with the personal tastes of individual inspectors”.
3Ofsted’s approach is based on a narrow theory of human nature… sticks and carrots… The objective should be continuous personal improvement, rather than public ‘naming and shaming’.

I’ll take each in turn.

Ofsted’s ethos

Civitas appears to recognise the destructive nature of centrally-imposed targets. Others have pointed out the negative effect of league tables and the excessive emphasis on raw test results in England. But targets are not set by Ofsted but by the government of the day. And Ofsted is required to comment on a school’s exam results in relation to the national average.

The concern about Ofsted’s remit was shared by the Education Select Committee in 2011. It said there was confusion about whether Ofsted was a regulatory and inspection body or an improvement agency.

The erratic nature of Osted’s judgements

This concern was also shared by the Select Committee. It concluded Ofsted’s credibility was undermined because too few inspectors had recent and relevant experience. Sir Michael has made it clear inspectors must not judge teaching styles. This should go some way to eradicating comments based on a narrow view of what good teaching looks like.

But the suspicion that Ofsted is erratic is not reduced by such high-profile cases as Downhills, where the same lead inspector overturned her own opinion within weeks, or Roke Primary, forced to become an academy after a temporary blip in performance picked up by Ofsted.

Ofsted’s approach

Civitas is correct that Ofsted’s focus should be on improving schools. But Ofsted, the Department for Education (DfE) and the media combine to pillory “failing” schools. When Ofsted changed the meaning of Satisfactory from “satisfying the criteria” to “Requires Improvement” and then applied it retrospectively, hundreds of schools were downgraded into the “failing” category. This fueled suspicion that Ofsted is dancing to the DfE’s tune.

Civitas is also right when it says teachers are motivated by a sense of purpose and the desire to improve their own competence. But Ofsted and the DfE often appear in collusion to shame schools into improving their results. And the Government’s insistence on performance-related pay (PRP) shows it doesn‘t understand what motivates teachers.

The think-tank is right that good schools make a difference. But it’s wrong in assuming that only free schools can innovate (providing they escape Ofsted’s yoke, of course). All schools are intimidated by a centrally-imposed accountability system based on league tables. It is this which hinders innovation and encourages schools to play safe.

Civitas is also wrong in assuming that “innovation” means dumping the “shibboleths of the last 30 years”. Innovation means taking risks, trying things out and evaluating them. It doesn’t mean being restricted to what outside bodies, whether rogue Ofsted inspectors, think-tanks, politicians or the media, believe is good teaching practice.
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Alex Jones's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 13:19

I wonder whether Ofsted has outlived its usefulness to the education marketisation project? Now that the academy programme has an almost unstoppable momentum, harsh and objective judgements on the effectiveness of schools are no longer necessary. The new effectively privatised schools need to be demonstrably 'better' than the old local authority establishments. A softer less challenging Ofsted or replacement is needed to facilitate the "success" of the project.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 14:04

Alex - I think you may be on to something. Civitas and others (Policy Exchange, New Schools Network) call for academies and free schools to be subject to a different inspection regime than other state schools. Already we have a situation in which state schools given Grade 3 are judged "Requires Improvement" but Grade 3 private schools inspected by Ofsted are judged "Satisfactory". Sir Michael has set up a consultation to remove this anomaly (another thing which would count against Sir Michael in some quarters). However, Grade 3 private schools inspected by the Independent Schools Inspectorate are judged "Sound".

There's a vast difference in perception between "Requires Improvement" and "Sound".

A cynic might say that redefining "Requires Improvement" to "Sound" when applying it to academies and free schools would promote the perception that Grade 3 academies and free schools were "better" than Grade 3 non-academies.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 17:38

Alex, your analysis is credible. We shall see.

A Cooper's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 21:28

Absolutely spot on. The gulf between state maintained and central government run schools would be widened even more should a different inspection regime be put in place. Of course, academy sponsors have a vested interest in lobbying for this to happen.

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