The role of OFSTED – a critique of OFSTED’s consultation

The publication of a new consultation document on the future of OFSTED school inspections raises concerns about its approach to inspection that have in fact been around for some time (https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/education-inspection-framework-2019-inspecting-the-substance-of-education ). This commentary reiterates them in the light of this new consultation.

A reading of the foreword by the chief inspector Amanda Spielman appears to indicate a potentially important shift with a declared move away from relying on rankings of performance: “ too much weight placed on performance measures alone can lead to a degree of distortion”. Yet, delving deeper into the proposed framework we see statements such as “When reaching the quality of education judgement, inspectors will continue to consider the outcomes that learners achieve, using valid, nationally collected, data.” This, of course, has been a continuing drawback of OFSTED inspections. The assumption that the rankings based upon attainment outcomes are ‘valid’ and also, by implication ‘accurate’ is an assumption that has been widely falsified by research and been the focus of many past critiques. Likewise, we know, partly from OFSTED’s own research, that the judgements of its inspection teams can be highly variable. Most recently, for example, with Dr George Leckie in Bristol we have shown how different assumptions made when compiling examination results can make large differences to published rankings (https://harveygoldsteinweb.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/progress-8-and-contextualisation-final-1.docx) and earlier work showed how the unreliability associated with all ranking systems makes them quite unsuitable for use by parents and others for purposes of school choice.

By prejudging the use of existing ‘league table’ data, rather than easing the burden of judgements, the proposals are likely to do the opposite. The fundamental problem, as with league tables based upon test scores and exam results, is that the publication of these judgements is what has led to the perverse incentives, increases in stress and general gaming of the system that research has now documented so well. Indeed, proposals to extend the range of judgements as proposed, for example to measure  ‘learners’ wider personal development’ and to report on how schools promote this is likely to make this worse. Until both OFSTED and policymakers more generally understand and act upon this, changes such as those proposed will do little to ameliorate the harms that are being done to education generally. The term ‘window dressing’ seems appropriate.

Yet there are alternatives. Research we carried out a couple of decades ago (https://harveygoldsteinweb.files.wordpress.com/2019/02/assessment-for-school-improvement-1.pdf) showed how a sensitive use of test scores alongside inspectorial judgements could bring real benefits. Instead of publishing rankings based upon test scores, these could be fed back to schools so that their individual performances, with caveats about reliability, could be discussed in detail with inspectors, with a view to assisting the repair of any weaknesses and encouraging strengths. The implicit confidentiality of such a process would lift the stress associated with potential public humiliation and at the same time provide a continuing supportive environment. Needless to say this approach has not appealed to policymakers nor is it suggested in the current OFSTED proposals. Yet, it is precisely the publication of rankings and comparative OFSTED judgements that needs to change, and not any tinkering with what is measured or how it is reported.

This point is also, unfortunately, not generally made by most mainstream critics of OFSTED. Thus several letters from educationalists in the Guardian of 21 January 2019 offer critiques of the new proposals, but only one, from Richard House, even touches upon this issue. Of course, it would be a major undertaking to change from a system that produces both attainment measures and inspection reports for public consumption, to a system where this is abjured in favour of sensitive system of judgements, professionally moderated that is trusted to operate fairly. To even suggest that this should be done seems to be beyond the competence of the current managers of the education system in England (but not everywhere in the world) and certainly requires a degree of openness, courage and determination that has been absent in the past.

Unless OFSTED is prepared to give signs of such openness and courage, responding to its latest consultation document seems a rather pointless exercise. This is particularly so since in the survey form that they wish people to complete there is little opportunity to do anything except comment on how the framework is to be implemented and details of what is to be measured. There is no encouragement to comment on the underlying rationale. Thus we see yet another official ‘consultation’ that is highly constrained and whose reporting inevitably will fail to include comments on the underlying rationale which appears not to be up for debate.

Harvey Goldstein, Bristol.

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