Does Ofsted know any better?

Where would the UK be without the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills?

Ofsted has been given responsibility for making sure everything is hunky-dory with schools and various educational establishments in the UK. Depending on what you read, recent headlines cast Ofsted either as the villain or the saviour of our educational times. The Three Amigos – Wilshaw, Gove and Twigg – would seem to have nothing but the utmost faith in the organisation. Teachers hate it as much as they appear to despise Gove, however.

So, given the vitriol surrounding Ofsted, we thought we’d ask the very simple question: Do they (i.e. the inspectors) know any better than the teachers, heads and support staff that they go to snoop on? The assumption obviously is that they do but is that really the case? It would seem to be a complete waste of public funds to keep the organisation going if the inspectors have no secret magic spell to conjure, and know no more than the next man. Is Ofsted then not worth the effort?

What do inspectors need to know in order to make their judgements of quality? They should know what works, but what does work? Where do they/we find such information?

A good place to start you’d think should be (social) science. Education research ought to be the place to find effective educational strategies and practices. However, education research is a hotch-potch of competing theories and methodologies and therefore not a secure foundation to make definitive pronouncements of what works and what doesn’t. Indeed, you only have to consider recent controversies over research in education – synthetic phonics, for example – to know that this isn’t a suitable starting point for declarations of facts about what is and isn’t effective in the classroom.

If education research doesn’t tell us what to do, then where next? Perhaps we could build up a fund of knowledge – a repository of best practice – which inspectors have privileged access to, which only they understand, and from which only they can make reasonable judgements of quality.

This would appear to be the current approach to what works in schools. Ofsted knows that education research has been found wanting i.e. cannot provide answers. The euphemism that is best/good practice is the ‘alternative’, of which the Ofsted website has many different case studies for us to look at. Good practices are identified, written about, and the findings used as a comparative tool with which to make quality assessments out in the field.

Isn’t Ofsted best placed to assess practices because of its proximity to what is going on? They should then be responsible for telling us what works, or so the theory goes.

But is best/good practice a more acceptable base from which to make assessments of quality? After all, a judgement is a personal thing. Surely we need judgements of best/good practices to be objective in the sense of above personal tastes for such judgements to be fair. Otherwise it makes a mockery of the inspection process, dependent as it would be on the inspector’s whim rather than the impartial knowledge they possess. There is also the potential for corruption with livelihoods and mortgage repayments at stake.

However, that there are multiple inspectors, that they change, and the fact that inspectors are not omnipresent suggests objectivity is a pipe-dream: inspections are and can only be personal assessments of educational institutions. Good/best practices there may be but these are and can only ever be the opinion of specific inspectors, never an objective fact.

It may be argued that inspectors are experienced, highly-skilled and chosen for their excellence in teaching etc. But are they? The same lack of objectivity applies to their recruitment as much as it does to the reports they write. Inspectors are a matter of personal taste.

And how is best/good practice identified if the inspectors don’t know before they go to inspect? They either know what works in advance or they don’t. If they do, then why bother with inspections at all: they simply have to relay this information to schools and no more. If they don’t know in advance what is effective, on the other hand, then how can they somehow identify it in schools?

Often the riposte will be that inspectors are needed because they, and only they, can judge what works. They are special. But are there such people? Inspectors were teachers once, after all. They then were no different to the people they now scrutinise. But maybe they offer an objective viewpoint where a head or colleague cannot. However, we have already dismissed the claim that inspectors are somehow able to detach themselves from personal taste and assume the birds-eye view.

Another response could be that there are objective standards of excellence that anyone with the necessary, advanced skill-set (i.e. expert inspectors) can properly understand. Yet the problem of personal opinion does not go away. Standards, as we have written about at length over the years ad nauseum, are only as good as the paper they are written on. Their interpretation is as much an individual decision as that of an interpretation of a good school or a good teacher. Ask a teacher or inspector to define what the standard of encouraging independent learning means, for example, and you’re sure to get a variety of different answers.

Indeed, you’d think given the amount of research, inspection and observation that has been done in the classroom over the centuries that we’d know by now what was effective and what wasn’t. But we seem no nearer that point. There is then another paradox: history tells us that the fact that we inspect, observe and research does not mean that we will find the answers, unlike in the natural sciences, but we still continue to inspect, observe and research in the hope that we will.

Do we then wait for the inspectors to turn water into wine? Is that ever going to happen? Do politicians want this to happen, moreover? After all, where would an Ed Sec and his OFSTASI be left if we knew what worked?

Does this mean then that Ofsted and the inspection regime is a waste of time, effort and money? Well, we think that without a sound, objective and scientific basis for what it does, there seems little point. We can’t go on thinking that they’ll eventually find the solution to the problem of effective education when they haven’t so far. Self-appointed experts do not a good education system make. Indeed, they may even make it worse.

Passing the buck to best practice is a clever tactic. It allows inspectors to judge others’ work and do no more than ‘objectively’ report what they see while all the while making others responsible for what works. But if it is others who are responsible, why do we need Ofsted?

Unless the point to Ofsted is not a scientific one, of course. This is pretty obvious. Maybe inspectors don’t have to know better anymore, they simply have to be seen to be in the know. It is this, above all, that probably explains why in the face of such professional hostility, OFSTASI (as it has come to be known) continues to exist.

We then have an organisation (Ofsted) that does not and cannot do what it is supposed to, masquerading as a solution to a problem that is the making of the very people who wish to be seen to be solving problems, and costing teachers, heads and support staff their jobs, their health and perhaps even worse. All in the name of quality, when in reality it is a way of keeping an eye on untrustworthy and slovenly teachers while all the time looking to do good in the eyes of the voting public.

The very unfunny joke that is Ofsted may make politico-managerial sense but with teacher satisfaction at an all-time low, strikes on the increase and persistently high teacher turnover, we think the best thing to do would be to run a happy ship, not drive the crew to mutiny with Ofsted surveillance and distrust.

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