Ofsted · Policy

Ofsted must have this confrontation with the DfE

amanda spielman

A recent article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) entitled DfE and Ofsted at odds over exams caught my attention. The article suggests that the DfE has taken umbrage at the decision by “Ofsted (is) to downgrade the use of exam results as a measure of school quality”. There is an escalating confrontation between the DfE and Ofsted.

It appears that some schools are teaching to the test and doing little more:

Schools where teachers just think about how you get exam results and not what is best for the children to learn will be marked down,” an anonymous source told the Sunday Times. “The chief inspector wants to shift a culture that is betraying a generation.

Commentators have noted HMCI’s determination to challenge the issue; however, they have been surprised at the robust response from the DfE. Ed Dorrell sheds light on its  importance and political nature in TES:

The Department for Education, which is gaining confidence under its new-ish secretary of state, Damian Hinds, is worried about the development and is, I understand, pushing back. While incredibly subtle, the official response to The Sunday Times story was telling: it went much further than the usual “we don’t comment on rumours” and set out a defence of the status quo:

(,,,) Our exams are on par with the world’s best education systems and will ensure young people have the knowledge and skills businesses tell us they need from their future employees.

The argument portrayed is one between an unusually defensive DfE and a well-meaning but somewhat naive HMCI. The sideswipe at Ofsted in the article, about losing good staff to MATs, is indicative of the DfE’s sensitivity on this issue and seems anything but subtle.

In this blog, I offer an alternative view and suggest that Ofsted has little choice but to downgrade exams results.

The issue of quality surfaced in the recent National Audit Office (NAO) report into Ofsted. Asked by the NAO how they measured the impact of inspections on quality; Ofsted replied, “we don’t” or words to that effect. Education, however, is an increasingly global phenomenon and so are inspectorates. Education systems are seen through the prism of international organisations such as the OECD.  The English exam system can no longer be viewed in isolation and Ofsted’s problem is that exam data in England does not correlate with data generated internationally.

Pisa data, for example, suggests that quality in the education system has flatlined for years in stark contrast to the grade inflation in the English exam system. How do you square the circle? Is the English education system improving or flatlining?

The issue of exam integrity has rumbled on for years. Former Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, said this about exams in 2013:

For years, ministers in previous governments looked at the way more and more people were getting GCSEs and they congratulated themselves, like Soviet economics ministers on the growth in statistics,” Gove told a US summit on education reform on Thursday night. Slipping into a mock Russian accent and syntax, Gove said: “Look in Russia, thousands more get GCSEs. Surely now we are education powerhouse?

(…) the truth is that we were lying to children” by telling them they would be able to go to university or find skilled work.” Employers said: ‘You have a piece of paper that says it, you’re qualified in English and mathematics. But you can’t write a business letter, you can’t do basic arithmetic required to work in this store or on this shop floor.

Ouch, but that was 5 years ago surely, by now, the Conservatives have done something about it by introducing new qualifications with less emphasis on course work? Tory-supporting newspapers like the Daily Mail do not think so:

The qualifications had been designed to better prepare youngsters for university, and much of the coursework – in which it is easier to gain marks – has been abolished. 

But it emerged that grade boundaries have been set low in many of the new exams to stop a fall in results – leading critics to accuse regulators of ‘undermining’ the changes.

Exam regulator Ofqual promised grade boundaries could be lowered if the new exams were tougher than expected, and therein lies the problem. It is all very well mocking the previous administration’s supposed tendency to apparatchik Soviet behaviour but five years on and not much has changed. Let’s be honest, no political party is keen to preside over a system that is not improving.

A standards agency cannot heavily rely on exam data, as a measure of quality over time, that is subject to the kind of political interference that results in grade inflation. Ofsted has little choice but to have this confrontation with the DfE because it cannot solely be responsible for quality in a sector that has traditionally had such a cavalier, and politically motived, attitude to measuring its outcomes.


grade inlation graphic

This is the graph I have most often seen to evidence grade inflation.

grade inlation

Source: Alan Smithers, Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham

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