Disclaimer: the views presented here are my personal ones only and in no way represent those of any schools with which I have been, or continue to be, associated.
I read a spine-chilling story in Saturday’s newspaper which stated that Chinese journalists will soon be required to pass a test, grading their understanding of the teachings of their leader, Xi Jinping. Here’s an account by a US news outlet on the same story. Journalists in China need a licence to practice their profession. In effect, this new edict reduces their role purely to that of propagandists for the Chinese government. Presumably, those journalists with poor marks will be barred from their jobs.
Strangely, you may think, this story brought to mind an organisation which strikes terror in the hearts of the professionals it seeks to regulate: Ofsted. Strangely? There is a strong resemblance, which I explain below.
Coincidentally, on the following day, the Labour Party at its conference has announced that it will include in its manifesto a commitment to abolish Ofsted and replace it with a new system mainly based around local authority inspection. The Times Educational Supplement gives a balanced account here and reports that teaching unions are strongly supportive. It’s worth noting that the comments posted below the TES report help to flesh out the main arguments.
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner said: “I believe Ofsted measures poverty. It measures deprivation. It doesn’t measure excellence. And I think Ofsted has to measure excellence.” From my 32 years’ experience as a school governor, I have long since come to broadly the same conclusion. But here I must first declare an interest: I am a Governor of a school in a deprived area with an exceptionally high level of students for whom English is not their first language. The head and the teachers work exceptionally hard to overcome these disadvantages and ensure that our kids progress well in their long and difficult journey of catch-up with children from more privileged backgrounds. But sadly, we concluded some years ago that it is virtually impossible, arithmetically, for our school to be recognised as “outstanding” because of the way Ofsted measures success.
The Number Fairies
The children’s author Michael Rosen writes an occasional series of articles for the Guardian under the title Letter from a Curious Parent. Rosen is clearly a man after my own heart and I always find him a good read. This article from April 2019 is a case in point.
Rosen’s main criticism of the current system is in its obsession with some highly suspect data and its systemic ignoring of other, more difficult to quantify, factors which influence the overall quality of the education given by a school. The present school “data” is a starting point for deeper probing and insights. It is not the end product from which facile conclusions can be drawn, for example in the notorious league tables so loved by government Ministers and ill-informed sections of the media.
A further major problem with the present Ofsted data system is this. It takes a single dataset (raw students’ results in tests) and cuts them every way conceivable, sub-dividing by gender, ethnicity, a somewhat arbitrary binary disadvantaged / non-disadvantaged categorisation and who knows what. Declaration of interest number two: I have a maths degree and several years’ experience working with statistical analysis in my early career. One of the effects of measuring differences between these various categories is that false positive results will occur by chance and by small sample sizes. Over-emphasis on the detail leads to a regime where false trails are pursued and invalid conclusions are drawn.
In short, the present approach to measuring school performance is statistically illiterate.
The really pernicious effect of this űber-accountability is on the consequences flowing from this rush to judgement. As a governor, I have spent much time discussing (anonymised) individual data, individual kids’ needs and circumstances and the pupil-orientated interventions used and known to bring about improvement. Much of this internal data is now, by Ofsted decree, ignored by their inspectors. Never mind the facts, just look at the huge amount of numbers we can produce for just one school. Reputations can be raised and destroyed by this flawed inspection process. The effects can last years and can destroy the careers of and create unnecessary stress for dedicated, hard-working teachers. The resultant increase in teacher “burn-out” and early retirement, together with the deterrent effect on would-be recruits to the teaching profession, does a huge disservice to teachers and pupils alike.
I am a strong believer in the need for accountability, especially for something as important to future citizens’ life chances as school education. I spent over 20 years as a fairly senior manager in a large corporation devising, redrafting, tweaking and adjusting various performance measures to try to ensure that the more senior managers had a clear and incisive insight into the performance of those we managed. Not an easy or straightforward task. Transferred to the world of education, the issues get ever more complex and important. But a world in which an Ofsted visit is viewed with fear and trepidation – and is seen, to a large extent, as a discredited lottery – is a world gone mad.
“Much Worse Than That”
A few months ago, I attended a Local Authority briefing session for governors. When the formal session had ended, I fell into conversation with a governor from another school, a woman I have never met before. I made some comment to the effect that I was unsure, on balance, whether Ofsted’s existence was a good or bad thing for the education of our children. I said I thought it was probably bad. “Oh no!” said my interlocutor. “They’re much worse than that!”
With Stupid Boy Pike as current Education Secretary, it looks like we will have to wait for a future Labour government before there’s any chance that things will improve.