Wednesday, 22 May 2013
As the last few weeks has shown yet again there are few areas of consensus in education. But if anything comes close it's this: Ofsted inspections are too inconsistent. And despite Sir Michael Wilshaw's genuine commitment to judging outcomes not pedagogy too many inspectors are ignoring him. (Though others aren't).
At the highest level these concerns are now openly discussed. In his Times' article on Monday Michael Gove wrote:
"The quality of inspection is still sometimes inconsistent. That’s why...the chief inspector, is rooting out weak inspectors and recruiting more serving heads to monitor other schools."
I take from this that conversations have been had and action is being taken but I fear toughening up the training and recruitment of inspectors, while essential, won't be enough. There is a deeper problem of trust which NAHT general-secretary Russell Hobby expressed well in his conference speech at the weekend:
"I believe Sir Michael Wilshaw when he says there is no model lesson, but it is a brave school leader who takes this to heart, when there is no way of knowing whether the team which turns up on your doorstop will have read that bit of the guidelines."
Until reasonably-minded leaders believe that Ofsted will judge them on impact not teaching style the prospect of an inspection will continue to act as a major drag on innovation and autonomy in many schools. I say "reasonably minded" because leaders need to take responsibility for not being unnecessarily cautious. But right now the uncertainty is too great. And it's very hard for teachers to stand up to their leaders' insistence that "Ofsted wants us to do it this way" unless they can be certain they really don't.
I'm sure many in the profession would argue the best solution is to scrap Ofsted altogether; but this would be a big mistake. We need to be able to hold schools accountable in a way that isn't entirely reliant on data; and that can help leaders and governors understand weaknesses in their school. This fascinating report from the LSE suggests that schools found to be inadequate do see a real and sustained improvement in outcomes.
However, while I think we need Ofsted, I also think it needs to do more to rebuild confidence than offer reassurances about their motives. Something more radical is needed. I'm not sure what it will take but perhaps they could start by stopping talking about teaching altogether and instead focus only on learning. It is, in any case, unhelpful to brand an individual teacher as "requiring improvement" or "inadequate" on the basis of a single short observation. But it is, usually, possible to tell if there's good, or outstanding, learning happening in a school: if classrooms are calm; pupils are engaging with appropriately challenging material and their progress is being properly tracked.
As John Hattie has put it :
“I’ve given up on teaching. I don’t care a damn about teaching any more...[you go] into a classroom and seen some crusty bugger who sits in the corner and has been teaching this way for years, and it’s not the dominant style, but they have incredibly positive impacts on kids. Why would you change them? Our debates are too concentrated on how we teach, whereas all the visible learning work tells me it needs to be about the impact of how we teach. Observe the impact....It is a sin for a teacher to observe another teaching in the act. All they do is tell them (nicely and subtly) that they should teach more like them. The only reason for observing is to observe learning”
After all if inspectors weren't allowed to talk about teaching they wouldn't be able to criticise it...