If abolishing Ofsted is the answer, what is the question?
20th September 2019
Bart Shaw: Head of Policy, The Centre for Education and Youth and Kate Bowen-Viner: Senior Associate, The Centre for Education and Youth
It’s 1am, I’ve been planning lessons and marking since the children left at the end of the school day, and now I still have two more sets of books to get through. I’m less than a term into being a Newly Qualified Teacher, and to be honest, I’m not doing the best job with this marking. But it has to be done. Every class I teach must have their books marked up to date, because today we “got the call” and tomorrow, Ofsted are in.Every class I teach must have their books marked up to date, because today we “got the call” and tomorrow, Ofsted are in! Click To Tweet
Memories like this remain firmly lodged in my consciousness, four years after leaving teaching.
So, when the question of Ofsted comes up, I get why abolishing the thing seems like a great idea, but when it comes to making policy, a more rational, evidence-informed approach is needed.
Abolishing Ofsted (and possibly replacing it with a peer-review system) is neither an unequivocal good nor bad response, it’s a balancing act of consequences, intended and unintended.
Here we set out the key questions such a decision raises, and most importantly, ask “if abolishing Ofsted is the answer, what is the question”.
1. Will replacing Ofsted improve the system’s ability to spot underperformance?
Ofsted’s ability to spot underperformance has been heavily criticised. For example, in 2016 EPI found that:
- Judgements were excessively tied to how disadvantaged a schools’ intake was, with schools serving more disadvantaged populations more likely to receive a lower rating
- Schools rated outstanding or good were not re-inspected even if performance dropped.
Given this, the system clearly needs reform. The new Ofsted framework and the recent decision to ensure Outstanding schools are inspected, are a start ,so the question for any would be future reformers, like the Labour party, is whether Ofsted should be part of a new system given that it is already being reformed.
If not, then two key questions need to be answered:
- Will we still have a body whose role is to spot underperformance? If not, what will happen to children in schools that get worse and worse over time, or which persistently fail to improve?
- What would an alternative body look like? Who would make the decision as to whether a school requires intervention? How would the individuals empowered to make decisions be selected, trained and quality assured?
Given that it prioritises curriculum, inclusion and wider experiences/enrichment over data, reforms mean Ofsted will now play an enhanced role as a counter-balance to a reliance on league tables and quantitative accountability.
Abolishing Ofsted or replacing it with something less high profile therefore could actually risk making reductionist quantitative measures more sigificant than they are under our “dual” system of accountability.Abolishing Ofsted or replacing it with something less high profile could risk making reductionist quantitative measures more significant than they are under our “dual” system of accountability. Click To Tweet
As Amanda Spielman herself argues in her contribution to our recent report:
“Data measures cannot bear the whole weight of defining quality of education… we understand what goes wrong when too much weight hangs on results… the human perspective is also necessary”
2. Will replacing Ofsted reduce teacher workload and improve teacher retention?
There is no doubt that Ofsted inspections are a source of stress, and additional workload, as I myself found during my teaching career.
Ofsted’s own report on teacher wellbeing recognises its role in creating a long-hours culture as schools strive to meet the inspectorate’s standards. Meanwhile inspections generate spikes in stress, and heads receiving unfavourable judgements are too often publicly humiliated and pushed to resign.
The impact of abolishing Ofsted on teacher wellbeing depends on the nature of any mooted replacement. Stress related to accountability is partly related to school leaders’ own decisions, albeit driven by the fear of public failure, as Geoff Barton argues. Would replacing Ofsted automatically change the working culture of some schools? I fear that getting rid of Ofsted would not tackle the deeper-rooted issues driving low teacher-wellbeing.Would replacing Ofsted automatically change the working culture of some schools? I fear that getting rid of Ofsted would not tackle the deeper-rooted issues driving low teacher-wellbeing. Click To Tweet
3. Will replacing Ofsted drive school improvement?
Inspection systems across the world, including our own combine a dual focus on external accountability and supporting improvement. Ofsted is therefore expected to drive improvement at individual school level, as well as at system level.
However, the links between accountability and school improvement are poorly understood. It therefore is hard to design inspectorates that drive improvement. Evidence from New Zealand suggests that inspectorates are most likely to create positive change in schools when the inspection is a collaborative process between schools, their peers, and inspectors.
Too often, Ofsted inspections are negative ‘top-down’ experiences. If we got rid of Ofsted’s school improvement function, would we enable more collaborative forms of improvement? It’s hard to say, thought the basis of promising alternatives can already be found in models like the Quality Assurance reviews delivered by Challenge Partners, or in ground-up initiatives that schools themselves have initiated.
These could be rolled out to replace and improve Ofsted’s school improvement function. However, for this to work, the following questions need answering:
- Who sits on the peer review panels? Challenge Partners make a strong case that local headteachers’ interests are too interconnected to provide impartial advice. What would the implications be of local boards in areas where a number of schools are struggling? How does a local system bring in a wider range of ideas?
- What is the “trigger” for peer reviews? Would they be triggered by some universally agreed indicator of poor performance, or be a structured, planned process over time, ensuring all schools take part in ongoing collaborations?
- How does the system evaluate how well peer-reviewers are working, and whether peer-review members need replacing?
4. Will replacing Ofsted drive system improvement?
Through its annual reports, Ofsted produces information about how the system is performing nationally. Thematic and summary reports highlight geographical patterns in school performance or how SEND support differs across the country.
Such oversight helps to highlight patterns of strengths and weaknesses, and plays a role in influencing government decisions about how and where to distribute resources.
- Where does this oversight come from if Ofsted doesn’t exist?
- Does the DfE have too many conflicts of interest to provide this role itself (is a government department likely to publish a report pointing out how it is underperforming)?
- Can Unions play this role, or are they too politically aligned to provide impartial oversight? Surely such a role would conflict with their primary responsibility for defending and fighting for their members?
5. Will replacing Ofsted drive fairer access to schools?
Another function that Ofsted currently serves is as a guide for parents. Ofsted judgements are so influential in this regard that a change in judgement can lead to a collapse or skyrocketing of housing prices, as more affluent parents use their greater mobility compared to lower-income parents to access ‘better’ schools.
There is no doubt that Ofsted, adds fuel to these inequitable behaviours, so mightparents see schools as more equal if its influence were removed? It’s hard to say and somewhat unclear what other means parents would use to make decisions about schools?
Replacing or abolishing Ofsted would only improve things if school admissions processes were replaced with impartial lotteries or at least an independent admissions system.
Ultimately, the ripples of a decision to take Ofsted out of the equation would extend to every corner of our education system and it is far from certain that the benefits would outweigh the risks.The ripples of a decision to take Ofsted out of the equation would extend to every corner of our education system, and it is far from certain that the benefits would outweigh the risks. Click To Tweet