In my last blog, I argued that the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report about Ofsted asked the wrong question: does Ofsted measure the impact its inspections have on improving the quality of schools in England? As HMCI observed, there is a perverse incentive implicit to Ofsted measuring the impact of its own inspections. Ofsted could simply inflate grades and find that quality is improving. The Educational Policy Institute (EPI) considers that there is a possibility that Ofsted reacts to policy, though, not necessarily consciously.
In this blog, I want to argue that Ofsted protects policymakers from the consequence of poor policymaking. In order to do so, I want to look at the DfE’s claim that post-2010 government policy has resulted in 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools. I do not think that Ofsted is complicit with regard to these claims but the silence in response to them is deafening.
If education really wanted to improve, Ofsted would need to answer the following two questions 1. do inspections objectively measure the quality of schools over time? and 2. is school quality improving over time? Ofsted, however, does not collect the data required to answer those questions; current inspection frameworks quality assure individual institutions at a given point in time.
Measuring quality improvement over time is complex and would require a change of mindset at Ofsted. I doubt whether Ofsted has traditionally had the expertise to address those questions, however, action has been taken to address the issue. There are also other reasons Ofsted may not want to measure quality over time. Educational researchers, including Professor Rob Coe, have argued that the quality of education hasn’t improved for years, which would correlate with the OECD’s PISA data, which suggests that education in England has flatlined since 2006.
In The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, economist Bryan Caplan presents persuasive empirical evidence from a number of fields, such as education, economics, and psychology, that education is largely ineffective. Good quality, evidence-informed inspection data, measuring quality over time, would help education counter such arguments. But what if there is no improvement? Ofsted may well seek the evidence that justifies its role particularly if inspections are also expected to contribute to improving quality.
Policy-makers also use Ofsted data when empirical evidence does not deliver the requisite political narrative. Ministers must think that Ofsted data is manna from heaven as they survey the issues that now surround post-2010 policies. Issues that include the mediocre performance of academies, Free Schools that are not working as intended, teacher shortages, off-rolling UTC closures, reduced funding, a policy related fall in apprenticeship provision, a system that is increasingly centralised and lacks infrastructure, worsening social mobility for those eligible for free school meals, a disadvantage gap that has failed to narrow since 2011, a huge rise in unconditional offers for university entrants and criticism of the latest idea: grammar schools. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) recently criticised the DfE’s claim that there are 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools, A claim seemingly made every time the DfE needs to counter criticism.
The fair-minded may think plus ça change education has never properly measured the improvement of quality over time. Ofsted and educational leaders were happy enough to grade classroom practice after a 45-minute observation, promote the use of pseudo pedagogic practices such as VAK learning styles and accept the accolades bestowed upon them as a consequence of exam grade inflation. Ofsted data, however, should not be used to prop up a system that is not improving.
Without change, the argument that education is pointless will become damaging. Former HMCI Michael Wilshsaw oft-referred to mediocre education but did not consider it to be Ofsted’s fault, citing the “incremental improvement” seen over the 20 years since Ofsted came into being. It is hard to know what evidence he based that view on. HMCIs, however, can say what they will – Ofsted generates the data that substantiates their view. I am not arguing that Ofsted needs to be scrapped, quite the opposite – Ofsted needs to ask the questions that can lead to systemic improvement and generate the data that can be used to assess the impact of educational policies.
The problem is that the role of a standards agency in a sector where the actions of politicians affect standards to such an extent is problematic. A watchdog has few enough friends as it is, as the NAO points out, Ofsted’s approval rating amongst headteachers directly correlates to the number of good and outstanding inspections Ofsted performs (currently around 85 per cent are rated good or outstanding). Education needs better policy-making and less ideological dogma, but it is challenging for a government-funded agency to hold its paymasters accountable. Why should Ofsted rock the boat?
So, what can we say about the quality of schools and post-2010 policies? It is true that there are 1.9 million more children in good and outstanding schools, but has the quality of education improved? The answer is dependent upon the political ideology of the person answering the question rather than good quality inspection data. Does anyone really want to know whether quality in schools is improving? Probably not because it probably isn’t; there is far too much reactionary and ideological policymaking for education to have a chance to improve. On reflection, it could be the most dangerous question in education; fortunately for the current government, Ofsted generates the data, however implausible, to offer a counter-narrative to any criticism. Lurking behind the veil of Ofsted data; however, is a litany of policy-related issues.