Ofsted – a satisfactory performance?

Written by: HTU | Published:

Sir Michael Wilshaw has come in with all guns blazing. He has already announced the intention to introduce no-notice inspections, now he’s moving on to good teaching in outstanding schools. Suzanne O’Connell takes a look

Ofsted is not new as a mover and shaker of our education system. Introduced in 1992 through the Education (Schools Act) it has continued to frighten teachers and their schools for 20 years. As it is almost due to come of age it is perhaps time to consider whether it has made the progress expected or not.

The changing framework of Ofsted

Until the arrival of Ofsted, school inspection was not the formidable feature it is now. It did not monopolise the talk in staffrooms nor boost the budgets of conference organisers. With the introduction of Ofsted in 1992 and perhaps, just as importantly, the appointment of Chris Woodhead in 1994 as its head, there was a change in the way that schools and teachers behaved.

Preparation for Ofsted became part of the school improvement plan and the level of paperwork and number of meetings could largely be determined by proximity to an inspection. Suddenly, this external body had the power to name and shame schools within their communities and, in some cases, nationally too. The cosy world of teaching was in tatters.

Mr Woodhead was replaced by Mike Tomlinson in 2000, David Bell took on lead role in 2002 and Christine Gilbert in 2006. But Chris Woodhead had set the standard as the figurehead of a non-compromising inspection service. From the beginning of his appointment he became a controversial figure who claimed there were 15,000 failing teachers, that performance management in schools was a farce and that class size made no difference.

The framework was revised in January 2000 with shorter inspections being introduced and a reduction in notice to between six and 10 weeks. A period that became the death row for school life. The new schedule included a greater emphasis on best value and inclusion and the framework incorporated an evaluation schedule and criteria.

More changes in 2005 and 2009, each time with a growing emphasis on data, an increasing role for students and inspections that were “proportionate to risk”. By 2009 inspectors were cast as verifying the school’s own self-evaluation. However, teachers are under no illusion that this is a friendly advisory service. Inspectors are on a mission – ostensibly to improve our schools but one that can also end your career.

For a few years now, the inspection service has broadened its outlook. The changing schedules began to reflect other aspects of a school’s work such as community cohesion and Every Child Matters. Its edges were softened through self-evaluation and school leaders were given more opportunity to participate themselves. But it looks like the old-style Ofsted is back on track, with a vengeance.

What is ‘satisfactory’?

Chris Woodhead and Sir Michael Wilshaw have plenty in common. They are both unafraid of becoming targets of derision and even hatred from teachers. They both speak out strongly and provocatively. They both court publicity and know which headlines work well, being insistent that things must and can be much better than they are. Getting rid of the satisfactory is one step on the road to all schools being good.

Sir Michael has told us: “I am determined to look again at the judgements we award, not only so we are accurately reporting what we see, but so that those schools that most need help are identified and can properly begin the process of improvement.” He proposes that any school which does not provide a good standard of education should be given a new grade – “requires improvement”.

The grade of satisfactory has not always been as it is now. Throughout Ofsted’s 20 years, the judgements have varied and the grading system too. In 1992 there was a five-point grading scale that grew to a seven-point scale in 1996:

- Grade 1 = Excellent.
- Grade 2 = Very good.
- Grade 3 = Good.
- Grade 4 = Satisfactory.
- Grade 5 = Unsatisfactory.
- Grade 6 = Poor.
- Grade 7 = Very poor.

These grades were then grouped together to rate the quality of lessons seen:

- Excellent or very good (grades 1 and 2).
- Good or satisfactory (grades 3 and 4).
- Less than satisfactory (grades 5,6 and 7).

A system that meant that a satisfactory school was in the same group as a good school. A much more solid position than satisfactory schools are occupying now.

As the inspection system has grown up, “satisfactory” has become increasingly less so. With monitoring visits a possibility, surely no school would “coast” or languish in this category by choice. So why do they stubbornly stay satisfactory?

The satisfactory report

Schools that Stay Satisfactory: An analysis of secondary schools that have stayed satisfactory for more than one inspection and the reasons for this is an Ofsted report produced in December 2011. Although it focuses upon the performance of secondary schools, it helps put in context the reasons why schools do not budge.

The report suggests that there are two types of satisfactory school:

- Schools that have a history of fragility and vary between satisfactory and inadequate or remain stuck at satisfactory.
- Schools that usually perform well but “dip” or are on their way up.

The report does acknowledge that there is one factor that is often present: “The tendency for schools to fluctuate between satisfactory or inadequate, rather than improving beyond this, is much more prominent with schools in deprived areas than schools in less deprived ones.”

Of course, it also points out that this contextual factor does not represent a barrier for some. The fact that there are schools that break the mould is a favourite argument used throughout Department for Education pronouncements.

The report looks in detail at the recent inspection history of 36 “satisfactory” schools. What are their common features? The key points of similarity include:

- High levels of change among staff and at senior level.
- Recent changes in leadership including half of the schools changing headteacher between the two most recent full inspections.
- Issues of staff recruitment and retention.
- Maths and English as subjects needing improvement.
- Low-level behaviour problems.
- Lack of focus and effective professional development for teachers.
- Inconsistent practice in assessment and evaluation resulting in lack of challenge, mediocre progress and attainment that failed to improve.
- Teaching tending to lack pace and not having high enough expectations or engaging students sufficiently.
- Inconsistency among middle managers which is a limiting factor on improvement.

It was evident that many of these schools had difficulty managing the challenges that they faced. Does increasing the threat of special measures address these symptoms of the satisfactory or make them harder to deal with?

One characteristic that pops up frequently is a lack of stability among this group of schools. Far from coasting, there are problems with recruitment, retention and leadership change. Not surprisingly, consistency in policy and practice is compromised as a result. Typical areas for improvement in leadership and management include:

- Improve the effectiveness of leadership and management to enable greater consistency in the implementation of policies introduced.
- Improve the quality and consistency of leadership and management at all levels to match the standard set by the best leaders in the school.

It is not surprising that where schools lurch from one leadership team to another, change is neither embedded nor sustainable. The need to emerge from satisfactory as quickly as possible can lead to quick fix remedies being applied. The report points out that schools with weaker leadership tend only to be able to maintain progress in a few areas at once. Not surprising given the energy and resources it can take.

With high turn over of staff and changing leadership it is difficult to see how the circumstances that hold these schools down can easily be alleviated. Further pressure and insecurity in terms of the long term future of the school is unlikely to create the right environment for sustained improvement.

To make matters worse the report shows how pupil numbers dropped for a number of the schools scrutinised between the first and second satisfactory inspection – a situation that will not improve the financial stability of the school and can make it even less attractive for potential teachers and leaders to apply for.

Can all schools be good?

Satisfactory is not enough. Sir Michael wants all schools to be good. Is this a challenging target or an unrealistic ambition?

On January 31, 2012, a tweeted question was asked of Michael Gove as he presented evidence to the Education Select Committee. He was asked: “If ‘good’ requires performance to exceed the national average, and if all schools must be good, how is this mathematically possible?”

The transcript then goes:

MG: By getting better all the time.
Chair: It is possible, is it?
MG: It is possible to get better all the time.
Chair: Were you better at literacy than numeracy, secretary of state?
MG: I cannot remember.

A very astute tweet with perhaps a less than satisfactory answer.

With such demands being placed on schools, they can be forgiven for expecting their tough task masters to come up with the goods too. What happens when the very body which is urging them upwards and onwards seems to be having a few coasting issues of its own?

Are Ofsted satisfactory?

There has always been distrust among teachers about inspector quality and the ability to do the job themselves. With reports rolling out similar phrases and guidance for inspectors sometimes stating the obvious, they can appear to be one step ahead of those they are inspecting. As with teachers, the quality of inspectors is variable.

The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools 1993/ 1994 expressed the ambition: “We must be crystal clear about the ways in which inspection is contributing to improvement whether at the level of individual schools or that of national educational standards.” The historical evidence is far from clear that this ambition has been realised.

If our schools are still “coasting” and generally performing badly then doesn’t Ofsted, responsible for monitoring and reporting on them for 20 years, have some accountability for this too? Has Ofsted simply contributed to the maintenance of a failing system rather than to its improvement? If the judgement is “yes” then Ofsted itself requires a category.

It could be argued that if the heavy-handed bullying tactics of Woodhead did not work then those of Wilshaw are unlikely to either. Perhaps the inspection framework is too generic and clumsy to really be able to help our schools improve. Perhaps the notion of an inspectorate which goes in, makes judgements and leaves again needs to be inspected itself.

The Wilshaw approach is not new and neither is Ofsted. If this system has failed to produce the standards and quality of education we expect and our children deserve, perhaps we should look deeper behind the lines at the chiefs and captains who are urging us to do better, work longer and all be good.

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