Evolution Not Revolution

caterpillar transforming into butterlyDear Graham,

I agree with you that the balance has shifted too far in the current accountability system. As extensively catalogued elsewhere Ofsted is pushing school leaders and teachers down pedagogical paths that they may not think is actually in the best interests of pupils. The wider accountability framework is too focused on very narrow metrics (level 4s / C grades). There are few people who would disagree with this; Ministers have said as much in recent months.

As I’ve said before in this correspondence I think there are things that could be done to rebalance. The DfE could be more flexible when it comes to imposing academy sponsorship (and, perhaps more importantly, open about that flexibility). Ofsted could stop inspecting teachers altogether and focus on school structures and evidence of learning. We could look at the progress of all pupils at secondary school rather than just those on the C/D borderline.

But I think you’re talking about something more dramatic than this rebalancing; where the focus of accountability shifts away from schools and teachers having to prove their value to an assumption that they are adding value. Or as you put it they “should be assumed to be good or better until they prove otherwise.”

My worry is the cost of that assumption. Of course most teachers and schools are good (and the best always realise they can improve). But some aren’t; and, however much support they’re given, will never be. And they can do enormous damage. The same is true in the rest of the public sector. Most doctors are good and trustworthy but some aren’t which is why we get high profile disasters like Mid-Staffordshire and the Bristol heart scandal. Accountability systems are there precisely to catch the people that can’t be trusted! In other words it’s as unhelpful to assume everyone is good as to assume everyone is bad.

So the underlying question for any system – and the crux of our whole debate – is how to get the balance between having enough trust that good people feel free to innovate with enough accountability to catch the untrustworthy before things go too badly wrong.

I don’t think there’s a perfect balance that will work in all circumstances. In Finland and Singapore, which both have more autonomous, collaborative accountability systems, teachers are recruited from the top pool of graduates and there is exceptionally strong career-long professional development. I suspect, though, that we disagree about the causal relationship here. You think the autonomous, collaborative accountability helps create the excellent system; I think it works because the system is excellent.

In less impressive systems that have tried to follow the Finnish path (like Wales) it has had no apparent benefit. Indeed international comparative tests have showed performance going down.

I can see a variant of your Ofsted proposal working in parts of London where there are now a critical mass of exceptional schools; with leaders who would really hold colleagues to account. But in other parts of the country – where there are few outstanding schools – it could be pretty disastrous. You talk about these local inspectorates creating a “culture…where schools and teachers who are failing would be supported, not instantly removed; however, after all avenues of support have been tried, there would need to be changes in personnel.”

But if other professionals in the area don’t know what to do either – or don’t even appreciate how much better the school they’re working with could be – you could easily end up with poor schools being given an indefinite let-off. To avoid this happening you’d have to make the central overseeing body powerful enough that you’d probably end up reinventing Ofsted.

If we could get all schools as good as the majority of those in inner-London then that style of peer-assessment might work. But moving too quickly to looser accountability would make it harder to get there.

I’m less clear about your proposals for the publication of information outside of the inspection process. I agree, for instance, that it would be ideal to measure more than just academic results. Earlier in this correspondence I recommended using destination data more – as this requires schools to think about a child’s life chances rather than just their “C” grade. This is an entirely implementable suggestion as the DfE does now collect data about sustained destinations.

You suggest adding in “working with others, independent thinking, motivation, wellbeing.” All of which are admirable attributes but I have no idea how to measure them. You also talk of using qualitative data and other diagnostic tools. Again I have no problem in theory but what qualitative data? Which diagnostic tools? If you have specifics in mind are you sure they’re robust? That information would be comparable between schools? That, if to be used for sanctions, they’re not easy to game?

I hope I’ve answered your question about why Government doesn’t just trust schools: not everyone is trustworthy! We do, though, need to find the right balance. We don’t have it at the moment but shifting too far in the other direction could make things worse. Evolution not revolution.

Best wishes

Sam

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One Response to Evolution Not Revolution

  1. Richard Coe Monday, 16 December 2013 at 23:35 #

    It is bizarre to read an advisor to Mr Gove suggesting “Ofsted could stop inspecting teachers altogether and focus on school structures and evidence of learning” this broadly is what had happened with the introduction of School Self Evaluation.

    Under the model, Schools created the SEF and monitored their staff and Ofsted role was to verify that the school’s judgements about itself were accurate and plans to improve realistic.

    This seems to me broadly what you suggest, introduced by Labour in 2005 and abolished by Mr Gove recently. At the end of the day there must be a better way of improving schools. Maybe you know better than myself or the Secretary of State whom I recently wrote to on this matter.

    I asked what evidence he had for the efficacy of Ofsted in raising attainment in schools. His reply was to point to a small scale study, which showed that schools changed their practices after Ofsted Inspections. Mr Gove / DfE were unable to produce any quantitative data that showed Ofsted contributed to school improvement or raised attainment.

    In essence, Ofsted cannot provide for itself, the sort of evidence of efficacy, it routine demands of schools. This being the case how can Ofsted be trusted to inspect schools, when it cannot provide any substantive evidence that it knows what it is talking about or how to improve schools?

    Many moons and even more inspections regimes ago, the NAO did a report on Ofsted, which demonstrated some evidence that Ofsted had an adverse effect on the rate of school improvement. Although this report is now too old to be valid, it points to a false assumption, that we can uncritically accept that Ofsted know what they are doing.

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