As I suggested in my first post on Ofsted, governments since the early 1990s have opted for a model of school improvement based on hyper-accountability and creeping micro-management from Whitehall. At the centre of this model is Ofsted as regulator. But is regulation the only or even best, model for system development? I argue that any regulatory system is founded on accountability, and in turn that accountability can be negative and overbearing and can stifle the work of educators. This isn’t a given, but in general accountability tends to veer towards quantitative systems, particularly when you have a regulator which is merely wanting proof that organisations have met a set of given standards. The easiest way of doing this across a system is to have a series of quantitative benchmarks. But this begins to distort the work of organisations and individuals. For example, as Green (2011: 62) reflects,
‘Consider the requirement for teachers to be precise and explicit in their practice about ‘outcomes’. This duty to be explicit results from the ideological pressures...which have made all public sector organizations transform themselves into an auditable commodity – ‘one structured to conform to the need to be monitored ex post’ (Power, 1994b: 8)’
This ultimately leads to a situation where all work needs to be made transparent and explicit, and leads to an inverse relationship between trust and accountability, i.e. that as one increases the other decreases. Hence, in those schools where there is micro-management of all tasks, be it behaviour, teaching etc, there is a very low level of trust. This might be something that is deemed acceptable, but nevertheless it is a feature.
The big problem with a regulatory system such as has been created by Ofsted is not only the centrality of a limited view of accountability, but also that this distorts what schools do and how they do it in a way that is unhelpful. Schools are complex places, built of huge tangles of processes, but simplistic regulation collapses this complexity beyond a level where it continues to understand what is purports to measure. As Tsoukas (1994: 10) argues,
‘Events, processes and experiences in organizations are rarely transparent, self-evident or completely fixed, but are intrinsically ambiguous and therefore open-ended in the interpretations that can be attached to them.’
Any regulatory system will collapse the complexity and context of individual organisations, and will ultimately be based on some degree of coercion and threat. This is particularly true in a system which over-simplistically labels the rich and diverse reality of schools with single attributes such as ‘good’ or ‘inadequate’. In turn, those in the system are scared of not being assessed positively, and will therefore feel coerced into working within the narrow frameworks set out by Ofsted.
This is dangerous when a regulator is no longer independent to government. In recent years, Ofsted has become a limb of the Department for Education rather than an independent agency which is testing the government as much as schools. Government is not being held to account by Ofsted, instead, the Department of Education appears to determine how Ofsted sees the world. This is a hallmark of a failed regulator. In addition, the unhealthy relationship between government and regulator means that secretaries and ministers of state are able to micromanage schools through Ofsted (a feature since the New Labour government introduced the Self-Evaluation Form). As a result the curriculum becomes a political vehicle and teachers are essentially forced to teach in particular ways.
Regulation of this form has a long term damaging effect. Aspects of professionalism are curtailed as teachers simply need to follow the government line on how to do their job (just see the CCF, ECF and NPQs for evidence of this). In addition, ever increasing burdens of work beyond the classroom to measure, record, and justify, actually make the act of teaching a minority activity. In the most recent teacher workload survey (DfE, 2023), data suggests teachers spend, on average, 48.7 hours a week working, and of this only 23.7 (F/T teachers) spent teaching.
Regulation can therefore be argued to have distorted the way teachers work and schools prioritise, merely to prove to Ofsted that they have yet again morphed their work to suit the most recent Ofsted framework, something which itself shifts regularly, with no coherent trajectory over time; frameworks merely reflect the views and peccadillos of chief inspectors and government ministers.
But what of an alternative? Firstly we need to accept that alternatives do exist and that they can’t be flicked away as something silly or wrong-headed, which is the general refrain from certain of the DfE astroturfers and outriders. After all,
‘Colas has shown how the liberal war on humanity’s psychic powers of imagination has effectively entailed the will to pathologize all political utilizations of the imagination as fanatical and mad (Colas, 1997)’
(Chandler and Reid, 2016)
I start by going back to Jane Green’s (2011) work. Accountability and its system-level version, regulation, have led to a serious erosion of trust within the education system. This is apparent in the English education system where there is little trust in teachers, replaced by an extensive accountability system with the need for schools to take on the role of proxy-parent, proxy-social worker, proxy-community worker with all the administration that goes with it. These roles have defaulted to schools as other agencies have atrophied, the result of local funding to councils collapsing, with a government happy to assume that the education system can keep taking up the slack with less and less resource, but with more and more frameworks and statutory responsibilities. A surprise then that there is a recruitment and retention crisis!!
So what might a different system look like. Firstly, we need to redevelop the myriad of support services which have been lost. This is more difficult in some senses now because of the disjointed academies system, but there could be a requirement for certain services to be centrally sourced, so that communities have a known and consistent set of agencies from which they can draw. Yes, this deadens the quasi-market philosophy held so dear by some, but this would be part of a wider philosophical reorientation. By funding community activities, support services, and peripatetic professionals, schools could move back towards focusing their energies on their core activities, whilst working in a multiagency network to re-establish stronger, more developmental processes to help families and children meet the challenges which naturally emerge from time to time. This would make a huge difference to the current system which is effectively a constant, high-pressure triage process in the hope of getting minimal support to those most in need – many get nothing or fall between the cracks.
A contrasting approach to what we have now would jettison regulation and in its place foster a system based on responsibility and collaboration, all within a broad drive to re-establish and develop the notion of community, both within schools and between schools and their local areas. How this might look in practice is the focus of my next post.
This is a blog which hopes to explore and navigate a different way of doing education