In 1992, the same year that I started my teaching degree, a new organisation was established to inspect standards in education. The national inspectorate known as Ofsted replaced the previous system of inspections, which were carried out by HMIs within local education authorities. To use a handy euphemism, it has been ‘interesting’ to observe and experience the progression of the inspectorate over that time. There was the lengthy notice of inspection which meant a term of preparing departmental handbooks in a secondary school in the 1990s. The no notice inspection of a PVI early years setting in the 2000s, where the inspector was literally waiting at the door at opening time. And our latest inspection under the new EIF where there were more adults than children in our setting and as a result of which I am undergoing the ‘illuminating’ experience of working my way through Ofsted’s complaints system (about the process, rather than the outcome).
Ofsted’s current iteration, under Amanda Spielman, was supposed to bring an end to the ‘gaming’ and ‘narrowing’ that has plagued the English education system for years. But instead of solving all our problems, it seems possible that her tenure might end up seeing the demise of an outdated accountability system – a system responsible for a narrowing of the curriculum, a huge increase in teacher workload, costing a fortune in tax payers’ money and yet which does not appear to produce valid or reliable inspection results. In 2016 a report from the Education Policy Institute identified just how strong the link is between a school’s Ofsted judgement and its intake. The report found that “the least disadvantaged schools are most likely to be judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’” and that “schools with the most FSM pupils are much more likely to be rated ‘inadequate’ than those with the fewest FSM pupils (15 per cent vs. 1 per cent).” The latest Framework, which was meant to deal with narrowing and workload, ironically seems likely to cause narrowing in EYFS and KS1, to disadvantage small primary schools and to increase workload. It strikes me that this is the dying gasp of an organisation that has had its day.
In today’s TES, we hear that Spielman is going to try and deal with “stuck schools” – those schools that have been rated as less than ‘good’ for more than a decade. But once again, we see our inspectorate unable to look at itself in the mirror and be honest about what it sees. We learn that “Ofsted has said it is well placed to help these schools diagnose their problems” and that the issue is with “antagonistic” unions and “a carousel of consultants” rather than about problems with the inspectorate itself. Press coverage shows that once again Ofsted have fallen victim to the myth of their own insights, with a tiny study being presented to support self serving conclusions. Ofsted has based its conclusions on “evidence” which is “drawn from a study where inspectors visited 20 schools” and that was “self-reported through focus groups and interview and was not independently fact-checked”. Rather than understanding how contextual factors, and its own grading system, have caused these schools to get ‘stuck’, Ofsted insists the answer is more Ofsted not less.
The EYFS is under intense focus from Government at the moment, with a consultation on wide ranging changes to the phase currently in progress. Ofsted seems keen to support these changes, with some of the same names consulted by the DfE cropping up on Ofsted panels as well, and many people now questioning how independent from Government the inspectorate actually is. The changes are, once again, based on small scale studies of early years settings – studies like Bold Beginnings which (in a move impressive in its circularity) used Ofsted judgements as the starting point for identifying best practice. What Ofsted says works well, works well; therefore everyone must do what Ofsted says works well in order to work well.
Over the last decade, there have been repeated assertions from teachers and practitioners that Ofsted are telling them how to teach, alongside repeated assertions from Ofsted that they are not. Part of the issue is that Ofsted reports and pronouncements are seen as a source of information about ‘what to do’ to get a good Ofsted result, and as a consequence we have seen people mining inspection reports and Ofsted announcements for advice on ‘what Ofsted wants’. Previously, this led to teachers reporting demands from SLT to see group work/less teacher talk/progress every 20 minutes/every book marked in multiple colours/3 part lessons and so on and on. With the new regime at Ofsted, we see a situation where the demands have changed (to the apparent approval of those happy with the new demands), but the pattern is exactly the same. I have already heard of changes being made based on Ofsted’s recent Bold Beginnings report – an increase in formal approaches in EYFS, desks in rows for 5 year olds, phonics from day one in Reception, and so on.
We can see the pattern of Ofsted dictating practice, and telling teachers how to teach, in this recent blog from Gill Jones, Deputy Director for Early Education, on early reading under the new Framework. The blog claims Bold Beginnings (at the time of its publication presented merely as a ‘scoping report’) as “evidence” for “the things that make the biggest difference”. In this blog, Jones tells schools and teachers exactly how they must teach early reading. They must teach “direct focused phonics” every day, they must only let children read from books with sounds they know, they must provide extra practice for a specific cohort (“the lowest 20%”), they must use “the best” books, they must ensure “all children in Year 3” can read “age-appropriate books”. (This last apparently ignoring the existence of any children who have SEND.) However, we are perhaps supposed to be relieved that (in an apparent misunderstanding of the wider nature of phonological development in small children) Ofsted “do not expect to see phonics” in continuous provision.
It will be crystal clear to schools and teachers from reading this blog that Ofsted want to see discrete, adult directed instruction in systematic synthetic phonics happening daily in Reception. Whether you agree or disagree with this approach is beside the point – this is an organisation that has repeatedly told us that it will not tell teachers how to teach, telling teachers how to teach. In the blog Jones uses quotes from reports to identify what Ofsted views as good and bad practice, apparently forgetting that this is what got Ofsted into trouble with their last framework. Teaching must “start from the beginning” of Reception. Books must not “contain sounds they have not yet been taught” and must not “vary in quality” (although quite what this means is not apparent). Interestingly, the blog tries to downplay the known link between Ofsted judgements and school intake. With the implication that disadvantage is irrelevant to Ofsted, that the PSC is no longer considered a ‘light touch’ screening check but rather a test that all children must ‘pass’, that passing the test equates to the totality of learning to read, and that ‘some schools’ just aren’t doing what they must, the blog states that:
“Some schools in disadvantaged areas help all their children learn to read well from the start. Some schools have said that this gap in the PSC between poorer and more affluent children is because of the lower levels of cultural capital among disadvantaged children. However, as we know, the successful learning of systematic synthetic phonics is not dependent on cultural capital.”
Even the most ardent supporter of Ofsted would have to admit that we have now reached the situation where Ofsted says “leap” and many settings simply ask “how high”? No matter what they do or say, it seems impossible for Ofsted to break this cycle. When the new EIF was published, Ofsted insisted that there was no need to prepare for it, but yet again we see a flurry of ideas, advice, training, books, articles, blogs, tweets, conferences and so on, all aimed at helping settings prepare for it. To my mind, and with our setting having recently undergone an inspection under the new EIF, I feel it is wise to know what the new Framework says. Not because I think that settings should ‘prepare’ for inspection, or do ‘what Ofsted wants’, but because of what can happen if you don’t. The assumption that there will be no hiccoughs when a new framework comes into place is naive. If you don’t understand the changes, how can you hope to know if something happens in your inspection that is not appropriate or that is not in line with the new framework?
The idea of an inspection system that does not twist and bend the education sector to the will of the current HMCI seems to be wishful thinking. With schools risking academisation if they ‘fail’ an inspection, and likely to struggle to attract children and parents if they are in a category, the stakes are just too high not to do ‘what Ofsted wants’. This issue has led to a parallel issue where Ofsted constantly have to ‘myth bust’ as interpretations of ‘what Ofsted wants’ very quickly start to do the rounds, particularly on social media. A line in an inspection report, a comment from an inspector – these quickly morph into Ofsted ‘wanting’ something that they subsequently have to claim they don’t. Again we can see this in the reaction to Ofsted announcements about a two year versus a three year Key Stage 4, with schools now scrabbling around to decide whether they need to shorten their GCSE courses in response to ‘what Ofsted wants’.
Since its inception, the idea of a national inspectorate with a ‘figurehead’ at the top, seems to have led to an issue with over reach. Any readers who might think I am unnecessarily harsh on the current chief inspector might like to read my views on Wilshaw’s tenure – for instance, here, here and here. Wilshaw was prone to exactly the same issue of believing in his own publicity. Indeed the role of chief inspector seems to go hand in hand with a desire to impose one’s own viewpoint on the education system. At the moment, we are being told that Ofsted are not imposing a viewpoint but are simply basing their approach on the evidence. And yet at the same time we see an inspectorate that is happy to tell us what the “core purpose” of the Reception year is. Nowhere in the EYFS Statutory Framework does it say that reading is the “core purpose” of the Reception year. And yet with Ofsted there is no room for argument – the vision is what Spielman says it is, it will be enforced via the new EIF and the inspection system, and that is quite simply that.
What are we to do then, if we feel that Ofsted is not correct in its judgements of our own settings? Well apparently, our only recourse is to complain to Ofsted themselves. Who will then proceed to inspect the complaint against themselves. In an amusing example of how little Ofsted understands how it feels to be inspected by Ofsted, the new Framework suggests that, if a setting is not happy with the way an inspection is progressing, they should challenge it with the inspector on the day. If they wish to make a complaint after the event, they can instigate the formal complaints procedure. Speaking from recent and direct experience, this is a torturous process in which the evidence used by Ofsted to support its conclusions is the evidence collected by its own inspectors. It is a process that seems custom built to make you give up in exasperation or dismay.
Although it has felt cathartic to write, I am loathe to finish this blog without offering some kind of potential solution to the Ofsted problem. First and foremost, the grading system has to go. It is outdated and poisonous, encouraging a ‘dog eat dog’ atmosphere between settings and warping the system out of shape. Next, there needs to be an independent complaints system, so that when problems arise, settings feel confident that there will be an unbiased appraisal of the evidence and that both sides of the story will be heard. And finally, there needs to be a serious rethink of the relationship between the inspectorate and Government, so that it is genuinely independent of politics. Because otherwise we will continue to have a situation where Ofsted is used as a blunt instrument to enforce Government policy, rather than to support and challenge schools. And the tail will keep wagging the dog.