Ofsted's Mission Impossible
Former member of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Schools Colin Richards takes a critical look at Ofsted's current inspection regime and how it is not possible to achieve the stated criteria.
Inspection of schools has always been controversial — even more so with the appointment of Sir Michael Wilshaw and his recent initiatives.
The inspection regime to which you are subject in 2012 focuses on pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, the behaviour and safety of pupils and the quality of leadership and management.
As a past critic of Ofsted I have to reluctantly acknowledge that these constitute an improvement on the previous inspection regime, but they still contain many problematic elements that will have deleterious effects on schools and, more than likely, on your morale. I will concentrate, firstly, on some general features of the inspections and, secondly, on how Ofsted claims to recognise 'outstanding' teaching.
Most significantly, the inspections take an impoverished view of what constitutes achievement. This is seen almost entirely as performance on tested/examined subjects and devalues achievement in non-tested subjects and in other areas of pupils' development. This means that judgements of achievement are bound to be very partial and won't do justice to all the kinds of achievement you seek to foster in your pupils.
In my judgement, the inspections rightly focus on classrooms, but how far are inspectors able to judge teaching, learning and progress in observations lasting little more than 30 minutes? How can such short observations do justice to your practice?
It's very likely that, instead of classroom observation forming the basis for judging the quality of your teaching, inspectors' prior knowledge of your children's performance data will directly influence their judgements. As a result, you are unlikely to receive a true judgment of the quality of your teaching of those children whose progress is not deemed "broadly in line with that made by pupils nationally and with similar starting points" (whatever these dubious phrases mean).
Inspectors are on dodgy ground when they come to assess the quality of leadership and management of your school, since this too is tied far too tightly to pupils' achievement. Given inspectors' short time in school there are also severe limitations on their ability to make sound judgements about aspects of your pupils' personal development and about your school's ability to meet the needs of the full range of pupils.
All of us would like to work in schools where the teaching is 'outstanding'. Chief inspector Michael Wilshaw makes much of Ofsted's claim to inspect and recognise such teaching. But how realistic is that claim?
Let's look at the criteria used in inspectors' direct observations to judge if teaching and learning are 'outstanding': "All teachers have consistently high expectations of all pupils." For that criterion to be met, every single teacher in your school would have to be observed a number of times in a variety of teaching situations, their expectations of each and every one of their pupils elicited and these then judged 'high' or otherwise by an omniscient inspector. It's just not possible.
Take another: "Teachers use well-judged and often imaginative teaching strategies that … match individual needs accurately." How can inspectors as outsiders in a class for 30 minutes, or in a school for two days in all, know what the individual needs are of every pupil to judge whether you and your colleagues are matching strategies to needs accurately? They cannot possibly do this.
Many, though not all, of Ofsted's criteria for 'outstanding teaching' are equally impossible to apply. The problem is not with the criteria per se; they do embody teaching excellence. All of us want to have high expectations and imaginative strategies that as far as possible meet pupils' needs. But the real problem is that no school or teacher (even you at your best) could ever meet the impossibly high standards expected consistently day in, day out. Taken as a whole, Ofsted's criteria are 'outstanding' nonsense and need to be challenged by the professional associations.
The current Ofsted inspection regime is fundamentally flawed. It claims more than it can justifiably deliver. Its judgements on achievement and on the quality of teaching are partial and dependent on problematic evidence, especially performance data. The inspection regime urgently needs a fundamental reappraisal. But will the chief inspector have the courage to do this?
What do you think of Colin's opinion? ATL is always keen to hear your views.
The inspections take an impoverished view of what constitutes achievement