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Ofsted #MythBuster – Speaking Truth to Power

If you amend the title slightly – speaking truth to power, discuss – you end up with the type of question I might ask when helping some of our Sixth Formers prepare for a university interview.  They tend to dive straight in rather than dissecting the statement and starting a discussion around the two axes of the question; truth and power.

“Anyone who assumes that the high value I place on evidence and data means that I am reluctant to speak truth to power will find themselves mistaken. In fact, it is the use of robust evidence and data that gives Ofsted the authority to challenge, on behalf of the minority of children who are being let down.”

The above quote is taken from Amanda Spielman’s speech at the 2017 ASCL Conference; it may have been better to state, “We will never knowingly or willingly say things which are incorrect, however, we do not and cannot speak absolute truth.  It’s impossible and we recognise this as an organisation.  When inspectors have literally been in a school for a couple of hours they are having the best punt they can at what has occurred in the tens/hundreds of thousands of hours of teaching they have not seen.  In reality, this is now an untenable position for us.”

Ofsted doesn’t just speak to the powerful; it also speaks to schools, school leaders, teachers and support staff who feel increasingly powerless as the inspection machine rolls over them.  Bus loads of school leaders and many teachers have lost their job due the over bloated, ill-informed accountability system we have in place.  There has to be a bottom line in terms of children’s education; this is part of us being responsible as a profession.  But responsibility cuts two ways; as school leaders we have responsibilities to both our children and our staff.  Without the latter the former are impoverished.

Please note, I do not speak from an appointed position of authority about other schools.  I do not speak for the powerless; I have no such mandate.  I do not and never have spoken absolute truth; I just give a perspective in the most honest way I can.  This is based on my experiences, limited as they are, and my beliefs or if you prefer biases.  I’ll try to use evidence, with all it its limitations including my understanding of it, to inform that perspective.

Photo Credit: Bob~Barley Time via Flickr cc

In “Creating the Schools Our Children Need”, Dylan Wiliam looks at the folly of school improvement policies based on sacking poor teachers.  It is unbelievably difficult to identify, with any certainty, the poorest performing teachers; unless you have eleven or so years on your hands.

Based on evidence: good teachers have bad days and bad teachers have good days; the same teacher will appear better in front of “a class of highly motivated, well-prepared students from affluent backgrounds.  It is very hard, if not impossible, to distinguish between motivated students being badly taught and less motivated students being well taught; teachers will tend towards short term gains in performance, when faced with high stakes measures, potentially at the cost of longer term learning; depending upon the method you use to assess teacher quality the same teacher may will be very differently graded/ranked; even when we can identify and remove poor teachers the system only improves if we can appoint more capable ones – at the moment were struggling to train and appoint enough.

Putting aside the difficulty in identifying the poorest teachers, the overall improvement if we remove them is alarmingly small – removing a quarter of teachers who were in the lowest performing quartile for two consecutive years gains 1.5 days of extra learning.  That’s removing a quarter of teachers for a one and a half day improvement in a full school year!  We are also more likely to remove good teachers from our schools than poor teachers using this type of approach.

The same is likely to be true of school improvement based on Ofsted grading or performance tables; schools full of affluent able students look better than they are and vice versa for those schools who serve the most disadvantaged pupils; serendipity has too great a part to play – the day you are visited; the team who visit you and which year you are visited may matter massively to your grading/league table performance.  If you’re now thinking “the Emperor’s New Clothes” then you are not far off. 

Including the three previously proposed solutions from the first Ofsted #mythbuster blog, Consistency and Contextualisation; here are some more thoughts:

#Solution1 – Is Ofsted partially to blame for the minority of children who are being let down?  Let’s think long and hard about whether inspection is the best way to improve a school?  If it isn’t what options would be better and how can we use Ofsted as a resource to serve the needs of the education system?

#Solution2 – Implement an annual Safeguarding Audit process in all schools.  This will remove the need, given by some, for the routine inspection of schools and also massively improve the quality of Safeguarding in our schools.

#Solution3 – Move to a multi-year contextualised value added score (outliers capped; off rolled back in) as one way of assessing whether a school is providing an effective education; schools above an agreed benchmark (e.g. set at -0.5 for Progress 8 initially) would no longer be inspected.  It’ll take time to wean a lot of the profession off a reliance on inspection.

#Solution4Agree a national attainment measure for pupils from a disadvantaged background as a way of helping evaluate education’s contribution to social mobility.  Progress measures are of limited value to disadvantaged pupils who start primary/secondary school behind their most affluent peers and stay that way when making expected progress.  It’s their attainment that provides them with a passport for the next stage of their education/life.

#Solution5 – Identify the few schools that over time, across multiple measures, seem to be delivering a poor quality of education and are stuck in terms of leading and managing their own improvement journey.  Wrap a HMI team around the school, who visit multiple times over a year, to help co-construct the potential reasons for the poor performance and approaches required to resolve them.  The same HMI team sticks with the school for the following years to see the effective implementation of an agreed plan.

#Solution6 – There’s now no need to grade the limited number of schools being inspected.  Grading arguably never was a good idea as the chance of variability, unreliability and lack of validity in the conclusions drawn was too great.

#Solution7 – Where there is no improvement in the school’s performance or little hope of it then the Regional School Commissioner would re-broker the governance arrangement for the school; maintained to academy or vice versa, for as long as we have these different designations.  The new governors would have a detailed longitudinal report and access to the HMI Team at the start of the new phase of the school improvement journey.




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