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OFSTED’s worst practice – its four-grade scale – undermines the real advances in its new draft framework

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 31 January 2019

Frank Coffield
Ofsted has just issued a draft inspection framework for consultation which puts the curriculum at its heart. This is a welcome return to what inspectors used to value, namely the curriculum, although some fundamental questions remain, as John White details in his recent blog.
I want to draw attention to something different: Ofsted’s most objectionable and most damaging practice – the four-point grading scale to which it appears wedded. This is an example of unintelligent accountability.
The danger to Ofsted is that all the advances in the draft framework will be set at naught if it persists with these grades, because teachers will see the progressive language as a sham, hiding an iron fist behind all the gentle talk of taking “a rounded view of the quality of education.” The arguments against the grades are plentiful, powerful and persuasive. Here are ten of them:

  1. The best empirical research on this topic was carried out by Jo Hutchinson , who concluded in her 2016 report, School Inspection in England: Is there room for improvement? that “the inspection system may not be fully equitable to schools with challenging intakes” and that “notable proportions of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are not down-graded following a substantial deterioration in their academic performance”. So much for Ofsted’s claims that their judgements are valid, reliable and trustworthy. Ofsted rightly argues that inspection is not the same as research, so why not drop these research terms when making impressionistic judgements on such limited data? Not only is Hutchinson’s research omitted from Ofsted’s review of research, but most of the research that finds Ofsted’s methods flawed are also passed over in silence. Evidence includes Leslie Rosenthal’s 2004 study, which found  “a small but well-determined adverse, negative effect associated with the Ofsted inspection event for the year of the inspection” as well as reports by de Wolf and Janssens (2007) and Mansell (2008)*.
  2. Ofsted proposes that one inspector should spend only two days inspecting a complex, social institution such as a primary school.This move is in part a response to the drastic cuts to Ofsted’s funding, but a school’s fate should not depend on the impressionistic assessments of one individual, which is a recipe for invalid, unreliable judgements.
  3. Ofsted’s aforementioned review of research which is supposed to underpin the new framework admits that schools, especially poorly performing schools, “tend to show great [internal] variety in effectiveness” (p. 36). How can inspectors pin one label on a school when some parts will be ‘outstanding’, others ‘inadequate’ and still others ‘good’ or ‘requires improvement’?
  4. The two bottom grades, ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’, are crude and stigmatising and make it more difficult for schools, especially in disadvantaged areas, to retain or recruit teachers and students. These labels do damage to schools, teachers, students and whole communities.
  5. A judgement of ‘inadequate’ makes recipients feel humiliated rather than supported. Ofsted would censure a teacher who treated students this way, so why does Ofsted behave similarly to schools?
  6. One adjective applied to any of the new, mega FE colleges with 30,000 students and 30 departments is an absurdity, because it cannot reflect either the complexity of these colleges, or the widely differing contexts in which they are situated, or the internal variety in effectiveness.Large parts of standard college activity (such as higher education or overseas students) are not part of Ofsted’s remit.
  7. Ofsted dropped the grading of lessons because of the force of the evidence against it. The weight of argument against grading institutions is even stronger.
  8. The draft framework is rightly concerned about teacher workload, which is the major reason given by the 33% of teachers who leave the profession within five years of joining it. The grades matter so much to schools that they lead to all sorts of practices (most of which are detrimental to the quality of learning) that add substantially to that workload.
  9. The bottom two labels push schools and colleges to become, against their better judgement, exam factories that prioritise teaching to the test, an approach that goes against their professional values. The increase in stress on teachers and students becomes toxic and the quality of education becomes so thin that it puts students off learning.
  10. There are tried and tested alternatives. Inspectors could produce a more detailed and tentative narrative about each school, celebrating its strengths and how they could be built on; and identifying weaknesses and developing a consensus between inspectors and teachers about how they could best be addressed (see Coffield, 2017 for details).

Together these arguments present an unanswerable case for dropping the grades. Ofsted can no longer claim that parents want the grades. I asked Ofsted for the evidence for this claim and the Head of its research department admitted that it had none. Ofsted claims its actions are grounded in research evidence, so it should accept the overwhelming arguments against the grades and dispense with them.
*Mansell, W (2008) Ofsted: Overseeing the tyranny of testing.  In de Waal, A (ed) Inspecting the Inspectorate: Ofsted under scrutiny, London: Civitas, 53-68
On 13th February 2019 we’ll be holding a debate at the IOE on What if… we struck a different balance between school autonomy and regulation? Find out more and register for your free place here

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