The Big Listen

A big man, definitely listening.

Ofsted’s “Big Listen”, [Ofsted Big Listen – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)] their consultation designed to “inform [their] thinking going forward”, and to gather our views on the “future direction of Ofsted” feels like a hollow exercise in enabling the inspectorate to signal a ‘listening mode’. The fact that the outcome will be decided by the winner of the election this year adds to the sense of scepticism.

However, I generally tend to do consultations. When I came into teaching from another sector, I was amazed to find that teachers and schools don’t often take part in consultations. These play such an important role in other parts of the social, political and economic framework of the country. Since then I’ve come to understand that education consultations are hard to fit in with everything else (even when they’re not timed to make it even more difficult for schools to respond, such as the generous six weeks between end of July and the end of August provided for ITT market review consultation).

Despite this cynicism, there are examples of consultations making a difference. In 2013 the response of the History teaching community (see – You Spoke. We listened. Our response to the History Consultation 2013 / News / Historical Association) to the terrible Gibb/Gove proposals for a reductive, nationalist history curriculum ended with capitulation, and a much better History curriculum as a result.

So, here I am completing the Big Listen. My responses are below. You’ll see what I entered in response to the the very leading survey questions, and the further detail I wrote in an attempt to escape that sense of constantly being asked ‘when did you stop hating quality education?’.


Priority 1 – Reporting

Further detail:

I think it is possible to comment on the quality of the things you mention in this question, but 'clear judgements' are not only difficult to do with any fidelity, but also result in reductive data such as 'good' 'outstanding' etc. Of course you will have thought carefully about how to word these questions to get the results that reflect the policy of the day, so that this distinction is not seen in the data or analysis.


Priority 2 – Inspection Practice

Further detail:

I have found inspection in the second phase of the current framework to be collegiate, challenging but also focused on some valuable things in ITE/T. The first phase, when political influence required that Ofsted was 'let rip' amongst ITT providers, made the organisation look like the tool of the government of the day, rather than an independent inspectorate.

For more on the ‘let rip’ phrase – DfE hopes snubbed teacher trainers will help plug ‘cold spots’ (schoolsweek.co.uk)


Priority 3 – Impact

Further detail:

These questions aren't about impact. They are assertions or descriptions of intentions of impact (ironically, given the most recent framework).

The most important aspect of impact in relation to Ofsted is that the organisation's institutional memory is short, because of it's dependent nature on the government of the time.

This is not a party political point - I objected to enforcement of the gamification, skillification etc of the DCFS as much as I do the cognitive-turn which has been required by more recent policy. Each turn is enforced by Ofsted, which must forget the previous policies. The number of 'outstanding' providers is therefore a measure not of quality. Instead it is partly a reflection of the level of compliance with the policy at hand and partly a tool for more immediate policy goals. Inspections of ITT/E providers under phase 1 of the most recent framework illustrate both of these points - 'good' providers found themselves outside the new 'good', outstanding providers had not reacted quickly enough to the most recent changes in policy (despite previously being told that the process of development and change would be recognised). This process of softening up for the re-introduction of the Market Review and re-accreditation having been achieved, the practice, tone and outcomes of inspections in phase 2 returned to more usual patterns.

The most recent reports are written in ways that reflect this lack of underlying consistency, quality assurance. These bland summaries using standard text make it impossible for reports, evidence, judgements to be critiqued, intentionally so in my view. Ofsted itself publishes little about the impact, or reliability of its judgements. Schools, teachers, and educators know that the system is a game. The persistence of that game avoids and devalues the legitimate interests of the public in a robust inspection system.


Priority 4 – Culture

The experience of inspection is highly variable - it depends too much on the character and style of inspection teams, and on the policy environment at the time of inspection.

Provision of feedback to Ofsted is one thing - but reactions to that feedback are, non-existent. Processes of reaction to feedback, quality assurance of systems and judgements, relations with policy makers are entirely opaque.


Is there anything else you want to tell us?

Two things would make very easy quick-wins in re-establishing credibility and trust of teachers, schools and providers with the inspectorate.

The first is open-access to important processes. Training materials, manuals, ppts, videos etc should be made available to schools and providers at the same time they are used by Ofsted to train inspectors. Quality assurance materials, outcomes and data should similarly be made available.

You might argue that this provision would encourage more gamification, narrow working to the rules and outcomes set by the Inspectorate. There are two responses to that. The first is that Ofsted's processes, outcomes, training etc should not, if they are capable of accurately evaluating the quality of education, lead to gamification. The second response is that removing the high-stakes nature of Ofsted judgements would significantly reduce these incentives. With a lack of evidence that such judgements are effective in school improvement (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09243453.2014.927369) and plenty of evidence from the crisis in our education system to the contrary (Punishing Ofsted regime is driving us out of education, say school leaders | Ofsted | The Guardian), there is no reason not to change Ofsted's role in this way.

So, the second, quick-win change would be to remove one word judgements, and to make reports much more useful in helping schools and providers understand the evaluation, contexts and reasoning of inspection teams - so that reports are readable, read and used.