Monday, 17 March 2014

My take on Policy Exchange's Ofsted report

First thoughts

This is one of the best think-tank reports I've read in a very long time. It's timely, pragmatic, while not being too safe. It's also well written (rarer than you might think).

And importantly it's the first report I've seen that makes real use of social media expertise. The authors acknowledge that they've built on the ideas emerging from twitter and the blogosphere and the final product is much stronger as a result:

"We would like to thank all the teachers and other educationalists who have continued to debate the role of Ofsted on blogs and on Twitter and in doing so, influenced our work - even if they didn’t know they were! Social media is a democratic phenomenon which offers a tremendous opportunity for closing the gap between practitioners and policymakers. If ideas are good and arguments are compelling, then it has never been as easy as now to shape what politicians and policymakers are thinking."

How I wish that social media had been in full flow when I was running the Policy Exchange education department back in 2008 - it would have significantly improved my thinking.

The full report is: here.

The key recommendations

The report sets our a new design for inspections with a shift to regular short inspections based primarily on data and self-evaluation. Only schools where inspectors had concerns (or couldn't tell) would get a longer "tailored inspection". This seems eminently sensible and is line with Ofsted's slow shift towards risk-based assessment over the past decade. 

There would be no teacher observations in these short inspections. Again I strongly agree. And set out my reasons why this would be an important shift here.

Longer tailored inspections would include teacher observations - but inspectors engaged in these visits would have to be trained to a high standard. This feels like a bit of a fudge. Obviously if we are going to have observations then inspectors must be trained but there's no reason given for why they are necessary.

The problem is that even with the best training available observations are not hugely reliable. The report acknowledges that the gold standard models of observation can achieve 61% agreement between 1st and 2nd observers (p.19). That still an awful lot of teachers getting the wrong grade for their teaching - with potentially significant knock on effects for their career. And to achieve that 61% could require up to six separate observations by different people (p.20) which is phenomenally time consuming and expensive.

Of course inspectors, as part of a longer visit, would want to spend time in classrooms but there would need to a really clear added value to formalising these observations to justify the cost both of resources and to individuals.

I remain of the view that the purpose of even a longer inspection should be to understand whether senior and middle leaders understand their school and not to make potentially invalid judgements about individuals' teaching. As I've said previously:

"Inspections should focus on systems. Essentially Ofsted should be looking at what the school is doing to ensure consistent good teaching. They should be inspecting the school's quality assurance not trying to do the quality assurance themselves. In their classroom visits they should be checking the leadership know their teachers and understand how best to support their future development. They should be checking that they have thought about professional development and about performance management. They should be seeing if the behaviour policy is being enforced; and if the school curriculum is actually being used."

Other recommendations

The full list of recommendations can be found in this blog by Joe Kirby. I agree with nearly all of them - particularly a new requirement that inspectors take a data interpretation test and the suggestion that Ofsted end the practice of having thousands of part-time, contracted, additional inspectors.

I have an issue with the suggestion that schools should only be considered outstanding if they "engage in a serious and meaningful way in some form of school to school improvement with other schools - as chosen by the school itself". This is laudable but very hard to inspect without visiting the other schools adding cost and complexity. It could also lead to quite a lot of fake collaboration. I'd rather have an additional category of "system leader" for those schools that were indisputably playing that role.

I also remain unconvinced that we need a separate system for inspecting academy chains. Ofsted are already doing inspections of multiple schools within a chain - which led directly to the recent reduction in the number of schools run by EACT. It's not clear what another framework would add.

Will any of it happen?

There's no question Ofsted have woken up - in recent months - to the extent of the public relations challenge they have. The social media engagement of their Director of Schools Mike Cladingbowl has been welcome and extremely encouraging. The reforms he has proposed in recent months fit with the direction of travel of the Policy Exchange report - shorter more risk-based assessments, emphasising that individual teachers shouldn't be graded - but they are much less radical.

Under the current regime I suspect this will continue - with incremental shifts in the right direction but no big bang reset. Whether we see the Policy Exchange recommendations implemented in full (or even the end of lesson observations all together) will probably depend on who gets to choose the next Chief Inspector and who that is.



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