The Business of inspection

The Business of inspection

I was interested to read an article in The Guardian online today about the confusion that teachers feel about inspection and what is expected by inspectors when they visit: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jun/17/teaching-inspections-ofsted-transparency. In it the writer, an ex teacher bemoaned the confusion caused by changing of the inspection schedules and their attendant expectations re teaching:

‘Back in the mid-2000s, the criteria for achieving an outstanding lesson were lengthy but specific. Included were things such as: using technology, varying activities, developing positive relationships. The array of requirements was overwhelming. Sometimes the job of teaching involved being a ringmaster of an elaborate circus of activities. Concerns then arose that this frenetic effort was not translating into outcomes. Ofsted therefore split the criteria, offering a grade for teaching and one for student learning. But this led to its own problems. Schools told teachers they must prove student learning was continually happening. In some classrooms, teachers were pressurised into having students mark their work every 20 minutes to show how they were progressing.

By the start of 2012, when Sir Michael Wilshaw took over at Ofsted, teachers breathed a sigh of relief as he promised to simplify the criteria and said inspectors had “no preferred teaching style“. Yet the era of “anything goes” felt short-lived. With detailed criteria gone, school leaders try to “guess” the right approach….’

For the last 2 years I have been working alongside colleagues from The Open University, The University of Edinburgh, Oxford University, the University of Mid Sweden and Umea University on an ESRC project called: Governing by inspection: http://jozga.co.uk/GBI/. Working on the project has been a fascinating journey into the workings of the inspection and the ways in which it is used to govern systems of education during particularly turbulent times (Ozga, Baxter, Clarke, Grek, & Lawn, 2013) The article above caught my eye for two reasons: firstly due to the sense of confusion about what the agency expects of teachers and secondly because of this in relation to the new inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2012). Successive reports into the role and purpose of Ofsted pointed to the agency’s so called tick box approach to inspection;(Parliament, 2011). The previous framework had some 28 judgements and sub-judgements which in the new framework have been reduced to just four. This in theory should make life easier all round, but the challenges of ensuring consistency of approach, a core element in any public service inspection regime (see Boyne, Day, & Walker, 2002), have traditionally been a bone of contention with both public and profession.

The system has been in existence for 20 years and as Abrams so rightly stated ,’ Try asking serious questions about the contemporary world and see if you can do without historical answers, (Abrams,1982: 1). But the history of the agency is not confined purely to its own procedures and evolution but equally to the massive industry which has grown up around it. Books offering guidance as to ‘The Perfect Ofsted Inspection’ or the Perfect Ofsed lesson (Beere, 2011; Beere, 2012), offer myriad suggestions as to how to proceed during an inspection. Training courses advertise how to convey their school in the best light during an inspection and recently governors too have been targeted by the multi-million pound industry which rides on the back of inspection. That is not to say that such material is not constructive: some of the courses I attended both as a teacher and later as a researcher were often well run and very informative, offering practical tips and hints on many aspects of teaching and learning. But in general it was the Ofsted label that sold them; it was the thought of being able to get a 1 that got most of the participants through the door.

Ofsted is more than an inspection agency, it’s a brand, and one that is instantly recognisable to some 42% of the English population (Baxter, 2013; Baxter & Clarke, 2013), that is without considering its international reach. You only have to trot around your locale to see that now famous sign ‘Ofsted Outsanding,’. But at what cost to its primary purpose as ‘The parent’s friend’ as John Major put it in his speech to the Centre for Policy Studies (Major, 1991) ? Has the brand overtaken the machine ?

Much of the strength of an Ofsed Inspection Framework lies in the ways in which it is interpreted: by both professionals and lay people and while there is confusion around whether the perfect lesson is the same as the perfect Ofsted lesson its purpose as an instrument by which to govern education may well be compromised.

Baxter, J. (2013). What Counts as sucess in education in England, shifting criteria. Forthcoming

Baxter, J., & Clarke, J. (2013). Farewell to the Tickbox Inspector ?Ofsted and the changing regime of school inspection in England. Forthcoming Oxford Review of Education 39(5).

Beere, J. (2011). The Perfect Ofsted Inspection London: Crown House

Beere, J. (2012). The Perfect Ofsted Lesson

Boyne, G., Day, P., & Walker, R. (2002). The evaluation of public service inspection: A theoretical framework. Urban Studies, 39(7), 1197.

Major, J. (1991). Education: all our futures Paper presented at the Centre for Policy Studies London.

Ofsted. (2012). The Framework for School inspection 2012

Ozga, J., Baxter, J., Clarke, J., Grek, S., & Lawn, M. (2013). The Politics of Educational Change: Governance and School Inspection in England and Scotland Swiss Journal of Sociology, 39(2), 37-55.

Parliament. (2011). The role and performance of Ofsted London: The House of Commons Education Committee.

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