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Good news at last? Changes at Ofsted

Sir Michael Wilshaw’s speech to the ASCL conference on 21st March 2014 outlines changes which will help teachers greatly when they come about. They are:

  • good and outstanding schools to receive a one day inspection each 2 or 3 years by HMI or serving school leader
  • these visits to engage in “challenging but constructive” professional dialogue with senior staff (so no lesson observations)
  • “a root and branch review of outsourced inspection”
  • more proportionate and risk-based inspections, triggered by steep decline (or rise) in attainment
  • a move away from routine Section 5 inspections
  • HMIs to lead great majority of inspections; more to be recruited; other inspectors to be serving school leaders.

This indicates a reprofessionalisation of Ofsted, moving from potentially punitive judgments delivered by inspectors employed by contractors to constructive discussion by in-house inspectors.

What has brought this about? Mostly obviously, the current Ofsted model is too expensive. Regular Section 5 inspections of schools are wasteful when most schools are graded good or outstanding. For secondary schools, GCSE-based statistics (Attainment 8 and Progress 8) from 2016 will provide clear detailed evidence of how well schools are performing, triggering inspections only when there is evidence of underperformance or a steep decline (or rise) in attainment.

Behind this is a continuing concern about inconsistency of inspectors’ judgements. When inspections are carried out by commercial contractors like Capita and Tribal, employing inspectors who have often not taught for many years, their understanding of changes in teaching and learning sought by HMI may be unreliable and even lag years behind. Consistency can be better assured by recruiting more HMIs and training and supervising them in-house.

And behind this is a growing concern about teacher turnover. According to OECD figures, England has one of the youngest teaching forces in Europe, but 50 per cent of new teachers leave within 5 years. This contrasts with Scotland, for example, where retention after 5 years is 90+ per cent. In Scotland, as in other European countries, there are no league tables, inspections are supportive rather than judgmental and there is no detailed tracking of students’ progress against National Curriculum levels.

There is evidence that teachers’ working hours are lengthening and, in secondary schools, the introduction of new higher-demand GCSE specifications will bring greater pressure. We are probably heading towards a recruitment and retention crisis like 2002/03 – the year in which one-seventh of all teachers left the profession: see Smithers & Robinson : Factors Affecting Teachers’ Decisions to Leave the Profession (DfES 2003). This brought major changes in the teachers’ contract – the introduction of TLRs and the removal of 24 traditional tasks like exam invigilation and collecting money from students, now creeping back in some academies.

Mr Gove knows he won’t have to deal with a teacher recruitment and retention crisis – this will be for his successor after the General Election in May next year – though to be fair to the DfE, it is trying to reduce the burden on teachers of detailed assessment and tracking of progress by removing the National Curriculum levels from September this year.

As former headteachers, Sir Michael Wilshaw and his National Director (Schools) Mike Cladingbowl have a more direct interest in improving morale in schools than politicians and this is behind a remarkable paper by Cladingbowl in February this year which starts to reposition Ofsted inspectors as constructive advisers rather than mere judges. He says:

  • Inspectors should not give an overall grade for the lesson and teachers should not expect one.
  • Inspectors will provide feedback to teachers if asked.
  • They can share the grade for quality of teaching and other aspects, but must not say whether the teacher is a ‘good’ teacher or otherwise, or if they ‘taught a good lesson’ or otherwise. Feedback is confidential.
  • Evidence about individual teachers by inspectors should never be used for performance management.

This is the same basis as initial teacher trainers discuss their observations with trainee teachers. It is a further evidence of Ofsted’s changing role – inspectors can only discuss pedagogy with teachers if it employs inspectors who are knowledgeable and experienced in teaching and learning themselves.

Cladingbowl’s paper also introduces a welcome note of realism about inspections: “It would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency in such a short time.”

Why do Ofsted inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools?http://www.ofsted.gov.uk/resources/why-do-ofsted-inspectors-observe-individual-lessons-and-how-do-they-evaluate-teaching-schools.

The changes at Ofsted will take time to work through the system but, like the removal of National Curriculum levels and the detailed tracking they were used for, this looks like a move from a rather surprising direction to reduce pressure on teachers, help them stay in the classroom and actually improve teaching and learning.