In thinking about how we might create a system which supports schools in their development (I use development deliberately, rather than improvement which I feel has become too closely aligned with reductionist, quantitative ways of understanding change) I certainly wouldn’t want to start from where we are at the moment. From the outset, I argue that Ofsted is now not fit for purpose and is indeed a barrier to creating a really fantastic education system. We need a drastic rethink across many areas of the current English education system, but core to that change is a different way of supporting and collaborating with schools. In this first post outlining the change I believe we need to see, I think it is instructive to reflect on how we got here, and the changing approach taken by Ofsted over the years, and why it is now a problem.
Prior to 1992 school inspections were carried out under the 1902 Education Act by inspectors who were based within local education authorities. His/Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMIs) reported to the Secretary of State concerning education across the country, based on the work in each local authority area. HMIs were there primarily to support, and to suggest improvements. They were experienced in their local area and their work was often formative and collaborative.
In 1992, Ofsted was formed, part of a wider move towards regulation with such agencies as Ofwat (Water Services Regulation Authority) and Ofgem (Office of Gas and Electricity Markets). This shows a particular shift in government thinking, as in the latter two cases, a regulator was needed to ensure that a free market sector was held to given standards. But why was a similar idea used in education, particularly as it is not a competitive, private sector activity? I suggest that this showed an ideological consistency by government, as education and health were both in the vanguard of the revolution in New Public Managerialism (NPM). This was/is a philosophy which argues that those public services which cannot act as a market, nevertheless need to operate in line with market principles. Thus, schools were to compete with each other through the mirage of school choice for parents, touting for children by showing they were the best school in an area. Keith Joseph, one of Margaret Thatcher’s ideological gurus, saw the idea of schools growing or shrinking in relation to consumer choice, a desirable and sustainable solution to marketisation in education! Grant Maintained schools were set up allowing individual schools to leave local authority control to be funded directly from the Department of Education. At the same time, internal changes began to occur in schools, with a greater focus on performance management and a burst of interest in ‘leadership’, both seen as important levers for improving outcomes in the private sector. Thus, with the move towards a competitive education system underpinned by NPM, the idea of an independent regulator which was there to ensure quality, and give consumer information to parents to help them decide which school they would send their children to, was in keeping with regulation in the newly created private sectors.
The important shift here was from an HMI which was there to support and develop, to one which was there to regulate. As a consequence, Ofsted has never played a role focused on helping schools to understand how they could develop their work, how they could further understand the contextual complexity within which they are embedded and work with it to help local communities. It is there to report the degree to which schools are in line with predetermined criteria. This automatically makes the role of Ofsted narrow, non-contextual and summative. The little bit of formative feedback given in reports is often very generalised, and is also pretty useless on the whole as by the time a school is inspected again, Ofsted have moved on to a new framework and may not even be interested in the areas they have flagged up previously. Hence, their work is indeed regulatory rather than developmental.
This situation was made even worse by New Labour. Under their ‘deliverology’ philosophy developed and matured by Michael Barber, schools were to be micromanaged form Whitehall through the development of the Self-Evaluation Form (SEF). Introduced in 2005, the SEF was a framework which had a large number of questions/foci a school had to reply to, submitting detailed, evidenced answers each year to the Department of Education. This led to an explosion of quality assurance work in schools with leaders at all levels, as well as teachers, now having to collect and collate myriad forms of data and evidence which could all be funnelled into the SEF, thus proving to the DfE that the school was operating well. This in turn changed the role of Ofsted. Where, prior to the SEF, Ofsted would come into a school for a week with a large number of inspectors to check all aspects of a school’s activity, now a small team would come in, there merely to quality assure the quality assurance of the school leadership team.
There were three insidious consequences to this move. Firstly, the SEF became a way of micromanaging education from the centre as the detail of the SEF could be changed, with the knowledge that this would result in a shift in activity and focus in schools because if such shifts were not made, then an Ofsted visit would lead to trouble. Secondly, the fear of Ofsted meant that school leadership teams effectively became branch offices of Ofsted, with a school-based inspection team within the school 365 days a year, leading to well founded criticisms of the Ofsted approach being underpinned by panopticism, i.e. self-surveillance within schools. Finally, the link between Ofsted and the SEF meant an erosion of the idea of an independent regulator, as Ofsted began its move towards being a subsidiary of the DfE rather than an independent body.
Since the election of the Conservative party into coalition and then individual power since 2010, this trajectory has continued. As with a number of areas of activity, New Labour opened the door, Gove, Gibb and their SpAds then barged through it. So here we are with a ‘regulator’ which is far too close to the DfE, which regulates and does not play a role in development. In one or two instances they have attempted to involve themselves in development, but then produce deeply problematic materials, many of the subject reviews being an example. There is an increasing view that Ofsted have predetermined ideas about what they want to see rather than accepting context and alternative models or approaches, for example, which reading scheme is being used.
And underpinning all of this is a continued increase in the amount of quality assurance that is expected, the amount of paperwork needed to underpin the work of schools, and ultimately results that are sometimes seen as unfair, are distrusted, and increasingly challenged. This is perhaps the result of attempting to ride two horses at once, that of independent regulator, and that of DfE ‘wingman’. Given the pressure on headteachers, particularly in some MATs, where they are more area managers than headteachers, where a poor Ofsted result can lead to professional oblivion, we have allowed the creation of a behemoth which appears to believe that it is above scrutiny and which appears to play only a minor role in helping schools develop, but a huge role in stifling creativity outside of the narrow ideological parameters of Gibbean educational philosophy.
Given the recruitment and retention crisis, unsustainable workloads and the growing rifts between the DfE/Ofsted and those on the ground, it is high time that Ofsted was replaced with something very different, and in my view something which goes back to the supportive and developmental role of the original HMIs. I’ll reflect on this alternative in my next post.
This is a blog which hopes to explore and navigate a different way of doing education