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Why radical change at Ofsted isn't the answer, according a recent report

| 11 minute read
54 ARTICLE Sam Freedman

A consensus now exists that Ofsted is in need of reform. But just how radical and transformative should that reform be?

In a new Institute for Government report, policy expert Sam Freedman argues for cautious reform so as not to damage educational outcomes in the longer term. 

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Sam, who’s been a governor himself for more than a decade, says that whilst the system needs to work better for school leaders, the interests of young people and parents must not be sacrificed along the way.

He’s also keen to clear up confusion about how much of Ofsted’s current problems fall under the inspectorate itself, versus the Department for Education as the policy maker. We caught up with Sam to learn more about the report and its recommendations.

Firstly, Sam, what were you trying to achieve with the report?

Well I wasn’t trying to solve all of Ofsted’s problems but I did want to give a sense of where Ofsted is and the challenges it’s facing as the new Chief Inspector Sir Martyn Oliver takes over. I also wanted to explain what Ofsted’s responsibility is and what it isn’t. There’s a huge level of confusion about that in the sector. Ofsted gets blamed for things that are actually related to Department for Education (DfE) policy. Ofsted is independent, its inspections and its judgements are independent, but the policy framework in which it’s operating is the government's policy framework. Ofsted don’t get to set that framework. 

So, for example, if a school gets an inadequate judgement it will usually lead to the school being moved into an academy trust or, if it’s already in a trust, being rebrokered. But this is not Ofsted’s decision, it’s a DfE decision. Ofsted are not a regulator for schools, they simply provide a report. How that report is used is up to policy makers in the Department for Education. Even with the inspection framework itself - whilst Ofsted will lead on it, ministers sign it off so it can’t contradict government policy. You wouldn’t have Ofsted develop a framework that punishes schools that do phonics, when government policy is for all schools to do phonics. That would make no sense

I wanted to get across that Ofsted’s independence is real, yes, but it’s very specific and limited to the actual judgements they’re making - not the policy framework they’re operating in. And whether you think Ofsted needs substantive reform or minor reform, most of that will still sit with the Department for Education.

And then I wanted to get into the balance you need with any accountability policy. You want it to have bite, otherwise there’s no point to it. There needs to be a meaningful consequence that follows from low performance and this is true across the whole of the public sector, not just schools. But at the same time, if that bite is too strong, it will create - not just misery amongst school leaders - but incentives to avoid working in more challenging schools. That’s not an incentive you want as a policy maker because you want your best headteachers and your best governors going to the schools that need the most help. So you’re always trying to find a balance with accountability policy and much of the rest of the report tries to identify what that balance might look like. And then I looked at the reliability of Ofsted judgements and understanding how reliable inspections are as a way of making consistent judgements between schools.

Am I right in thinking Ofsted has already agreed to provide independent studies on the reliability of its inspections?

Well Sir Martyn’s talked a bit about reliability so far, but we need to see Ofsted actually working with independent researchers and giving them the data they need to properly study it. This will need DfE funding to do properly as it’s hard to do well. If that shows that inspections have a good level of reliability it should give some confidence to schools. If it doesn’t, that’s quite important information in terms of improving training, how inspections work and what they’re looking for so I think that’s really critical in building confidence and helping us understand the system. 

But, as I say, most of the report was about trying to find that balance in accountability and making sure we don’t do too much harm with that accountability.

As part of that balance, you talk about Ofsted adding more contextual information about schools to its reports, something I’m sure those working and volunteering in governance would value.

Yes and this is a problem that goes back to the start of Ofsted - how do you deal with school context? There is no one who’d argue that running a grammar school in Tunbridge Wells is the same as running a fully comprehensive school in Folkestone. It’s a very different kind of challenge. Those 2 schools are not going to look the same. So how do you apply the same set of judgements to them in a way that’s fair on parents who want to know whether the school is good or not and also to the schools themselves. My view is that while there will always be a level of context built into the judgements, we should be trying to make judgements as consistent as possible between schools.

Yes -  it’s likely that the grammar school will on average always get a better rating because it’s easier to make a school like that good or outstanding. That’s just a reflection of reality and parents should know that. But given that, if a report is then used for regulatory purposes, we should also be presenting information about the school context so that the DfE can make a more nuanced decision about what action they might take as a result of the report.

So, for example, maybe you’ve got a school that is inadequate but they’re operating in a situation where a local authority isn’t giving proper SEND support anymore as they’ve run out of money. Maybe you’ve got lots of children who should be on Education, Health and Care Plans but don’t yet have them. Maybe you’ve had 50 asylum seeker children arrive in the last six months because your school is in a part of the country that gets a lot of asylum seekers. Maybe your local mental health support has collapsed. These are important factors in why a school might be struggling.

My view is that this information should be included in reports so the DfE can then use that when making an accountability decision and deciding, whether to rebroker a school or, give the leadership team longer as most of the problems are largely, if not entirely, contextual or related to the local authority. However my worry about this is whether the DfE can cope with that level of nuance. This is another trade off; the more you ask the DfE to make nuanced, differentiated decisions - the more you risk introducing a new level of unfairness into the system.

As well as adding contextual information to reports, you also talk about the DfE immediately stopping any intervention based on two “requires improvement” (RI) judgments.

Yes  - it's not technically automatic that if you get a second RI judgement, the DfE intervenes and your school is rebrokered or moved into a trust but I think people believe it is. Therefore if you get one RI judgement it puts huge pressure on the headteacher and the school in general because you get a follow up inspection relatively soon, within 3 years. The temptation is to do relatively quick fixes to try to get your school up to ‘good’ at the next inspection but not necessarily by making sustainable changes that will ensure the school is good in the long run.

If you’ve got lots of headteachers and boards across the country sitting on one RI judgement, they’re going to have a much more negative view of Ofsted because they know the next visit could be damaging to them. I think bringing in that additional intervention was an unnecessary change. Schools feel under enough pressure as it is. I don’t think we need to add more. I think it’s created some quite negative additional incentives. It’a also an area you could move on quite quickly but again it’s a DfE decision and not an Ofsted decision.

The Beyond Ofsted report takes a much more radical view overall, including calling for inspection at a trust level. Is that something you’d support?

If you start inspecting at the trust level, rather than at the school level, my first question is what, in effect, are you inspecting? You’re going to end up having to go back and inspect the school because what else is there to look at? I think it’s much, much harder to inspect school improvement which is quite an abstract concept - or even governance. An inspection of governance is already in the framework at the school level in the sense that inspectors talk to governors but really that’s going to give you much less information than sitting in on some lessons and looking at books and all of the other things that inspectors do. I’m very sceptical about the reliability of inspecting that kind of thing.

I also think the original purpose of Ofsted was to give information to parents about their kids’ school. A lot of parents don’t really know what the trust is. They might see the name on a school’s logo or banner but their school is their school so being told that the trust is good when your school within that trust is not performing well isn’t much use.

You start and finish the report by saying, in a nutshell, “look, no one likes their inspectorate”

Yes, that’s right. Ideally inspection should be a positive experience in that the process of preparing for one and going through one should tell you more about your school and help you improve your school and think about the changes you want to make. But, there is always going to be stress related to any accountability process and if there wasn’t it wouldn’t be an accountability process as there wouldn’t be any bite to it. And that’s true in every job and every part of the private and public sector.

There are always consequences attached to underperformance. I don’t think you can create a system that’s good for children and fair on children that completely protects the adults in the system from any stress and I don’t think that should be the objective of an accountability system. What’s important is  making sure the system is as fair, reliable and consistent as possible - so that people at least accept that if there is a negative consequence, it’s probably a valid one and that’s where I think we’ve gone a bit off track over the last few years.

So do you believe that if your recommendations were acted upon, it would be enough to redress the current imbalances in the system?

Yes, it’s just about balancing I think. We’ve gone a little bit off track over the last few years with the DfE interventions related to poor Ofsted judgements - the intervention based on two RI judgements and interventions for inadequate schools that don’t take into account local contextual information. It’s just made it feel so binary for school leaders and governors that I think it’s started to create perverse incentives and I think we should row back from that.

I’m not completely against ever doing more substantive reform. I just think if you’re going to do it, you can’t start from a position of ‘inspection is bad therefore we should get rid of it’. You should start by considering what a good overall accountability and regulatory system looks like and design it from there.

My worry about the Beyond Ofsted report is that its starting point is ‘inspection is bad’ and then they’re working back from there.

Finally, you provide a really useful history of school inspection from before the 1970s to the current day. It’s definitely worth a read for people who want to understand how we’ve arrived at the current situation.

I think looking at the history allows you to remember the trade offs. Where we are now might feel negative, but if you go back to the 70s and 80s, there were really, really dreadful schools. Of course there are still bad schools now, but back then you could have schools where no-one got good results, where no child got the equivalent of 5 GCSE passes and where whole cohorts of kids were completely written off as unteachable, people deciding education was not for the likes of them. That doesn’t happen today, or if it does it it’s incredibly rare.  

That’s not just because of Ofsted. There has been a concerted effort by governments of different political persuasions not to allow that to happen. I always worry that when we think about the negatives in our system then we miss acknowledging this huge improvement in the system and we mustn’t lose that while trying to redress some of the negatives that have crept into it.

You can read the full Institute for Government report on the IFG website.

A bit about Sam's career in governance...

Sam was a governor at Woodside High School in north London for 15 years but stepped down when the school joined Mulberry Trust, a move he supported. He’s also been a MAT trustee in the past. Sam says he’d recommend becoming a governor to anybody working in education policy.

“I did find it useful, particularly around something like exclusion where you can read about it in the abstract but it does not give you a proper sense of what it’s really like. Those were some of the hardest things I did as a governor - when a child’s broken the rules and no one is denying it and school policy dictates an exclusion but you’re sitting opposite a parent in tears saying you’re ruining their child’s life. That tells you more about exclusion than any report ever will.”

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