Reading the preamble to Ofsted’s consultation about radically overhauling the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) suggests a degree of reflection from Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector: not only the title, but the narrative and rhetoric. He hints at three main weaknesses (or perhaps that should be ‘areas for improvement’?) in the inspection methodology that need addressing: consistency, better inspector training and more practitioners becoming involved as inspectors.
The consultation’s questions cover quite different areas, though. They mainly relate to developing a ‘more common’ CIF – across maintained schools, academies, FE and skills, early-years settings and some independent schools. Given that disparity, here are some ideas about those three issues raised by Sir Michael Wilshaw.
At first glance, this new approach could potentially enhance consistency to a degree. It’s been welcomed as providing more equitable comparisons between, say, school sixth forms and sixth form or GFE colleges.
However, critics of a lack of consistency in inspection haven’t focussed on the framework’s validity as an evaluation tool, so much as its application – and the resulting reliability of inspectors’ judgements. The Chief Inspector has blamed perceptions of an ‘element of luck’ that providers have experienced on the three contractors for the associate inspector workforce: CfBT, Serco and Tribal.
Sir Michael will therefore take this aspect back in-house, reportedly to improve consistency. The consultation’s Q11 focuses specifically on reliability of judgements and evidence-gathering, suggesting that this is a concern for Ofsted.
Is this really where the problem lies, though?
Perhaps the reductionist nature of the inspection process is the real heart of the consistency issue. Ultimately, just one of four broad grades is used – although talk of, for example, a “strong grade two” often pervades inspections, somewhat hedging Ofsted’s bets. The brave statement that inspectors will use “all the available evidence” to arrive at judgements appears in the consultation, alongside a restatement of the current grading headings.
But the complexity of what is under scrutiny isn’t amenable to such simplistic categorisation. Moreover, how any valid intelligence and lessons from provider complaints are used to improve the reliability of inspection judgements is not clear. The number of complaints, and the fact that very few are upheld, are both made public. Yet, little information is available about the nature of the complaints, the significance of any resulting changes and how all of that informs improvements to inspection. Although some complaints will come from providers who are essentially ‘in denial’ of bad news, others may have some degree of merit – and a few have sufficient to warrant being upheld. Those final two categories contain food for thought and action by Ofsted.
Shouldn’t the reflective development of a standard framework across most of the education system incorporate a proper analysis of the ‘free consultancy’ that complaints provide? After all, the complaints procedure is itself already generic across Ofsted. There’s also the issue that, if providers from the FE sector (or indeed, elsewhere) do not feel a revised ‘universal’ CIF is appropriate for inspecting their work, then complaints about the inappropriateness of judgements made using it will increase.
Ofsted has re-engaged with improvement for some time; it asks for advice on how it inspects. The consultation’s introduction indicates that future inspections will encourage “professional dialogue about the key issues, strengths and weaknesses that are most relevant to the individual school or further education and skills provider”. In some settings, linking HMI to weaker providers has been welcomed – as have proposals envisaging more frequent inspections for good or outstanding providers. Equating inspections with ‘professional dialogue’, whilst coupling them with the re-introduction of the word ‘weaknesses’ is a somewhat piquant idea, however.
A consultation question ‘that might have been’, here, would run: “How can providers work more closely and effectively with Ofsted to ensure the best degree of consistency and reliability in its judgements, whilst also maintaining proper independence and rigour?”
Ofsted already has a significant and demanding training programme for inspectors, whether full-time or part-time. To suggest more may be impractical and possibly even counter-productive. But better training, however – more closely reacting to matters like achieving reliable and consistent judgements, or using evidence with greater insight and evaluative care – is neither impossible nor a trivial as a goal. The implications of getting these judgements wrong are significant for providers and the individuals. Change is imperative.
Currently, training is varied and includes shadowing, regular updates and a requirement to keep up-to-date by undertaking several inspections a year. There’s a strong consensus that the current Common Inspection Framework focuses on the right areas; but it isn’t clear how training will address the proposed increased emphasis on the curriculum. Indeed, the focus isn’t clear from the consultation: is it ‘English and maths as indicators of employability’, or ‘how effective the offer is in meeting local employer needs’? If both, then what are the priorities? How will training enhance inspectors’ knowledge of the complexitiess and nuances of individual LEPs to which providers increasingly look for funding?
If the inspection framework is a device for evaluation, then inspectors need to handle both quantitative and qualitative data reliably. Training is necessary for using performance statistics, value-added and distance-travelled information. The validity of judgements can be enhanced through analysing qualitative data, too.
A missing question from the consultation in this field would be “How could providers help Ofsted improve its training of inspectors, without unduly increasing the burdens of such preparation?”
More practitioners as inspectors
Some of the harshest criticisms of inspection involve the credibility of highly-influential judgements from inspectors who may be far removed from the sector, the key matters under consideration (like teaching and learning, or the subjects, settings and courses involved), and from the genuine realities of provision.
One apparent solution lies in having a greater slice of inspection activity undertaken by current practitioners. It seems an obvious answer, with considerable benefits for all those involved.
However, the disadvantages are not as well appreciated. For instance, assumptions arising from being immersed in daily practice for one kind of provision can prove more difficult to put aside in a different inspection context than it is for someone who is otherwise more remote. A good example might be the highly-contested territory of graded or ungraded lesson observations, where views are strongly-held on either side.
Being a practitioner doesn’t automatically guarantee the skill-set to be an inspector, too – although Ofsted’s recruitment processes can make such distinctions. Some might however argue that they haven’t always succeeded, to date.
Relating the practical demands of inspection schedules to inspector supply may still produce anomalies. And if an associate inspector works at a provider that drops to ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’, then he/she is barred from undertaking inspections until that grade improves. All this has a potential impact on the supply of inspectors and their deployment.
More sheer practicalities add to reservations around the good idea of engaging more current sector staff as inspectors. Ofsted’s training and accreditation regime, and its inspection and reporting processes, are all famously demanding – and rightly so. Yet so too is the day-job; and as most would agree, increasingly so. Whatever the potential advantages, providers may think twice about their staff becoming associate inspectors, and a commitment to release for a set minimum number of inspections.
This is particularly so when – as one rightly hopes with potential inspectors – they are high-performing ‘assets’. Similarly, even ambitious and able full-time staff may feel that taking on an inspection role would prove one extra burden too far.
Availability at short notice is a further key challenge: for Ofsted, for providers employing would-be part-time inspectors, and for those practitioners themselves. Although Ofsted’s confidential scheduling is not normally short-notice itself, the realities suggest that there may well be an growing stream of urgent late calls for associate inspectors to fill gaps.
So, improving inspection through increasing current practitioners has clear attractions – but that involves significant risks, too.
Here, the consultation might have asked “How can Ofsted make better use of the sector practitioners’ current experience and ability in inspections, without unrealistic demands on the organisations and individuals involved?”
So, will “better inspection” actually produce improved provision for all?
Sir Michael Wilshaw was quite right to highlight those three topics in his preamble. Why those issues did not feature in significantly in the consultation is puzzling – not least because arguably, they matter at least as much as the structural discussion about a universal framework regarding the key, ultimate function of inspection: improvement.
Any change in inspection must aim at achieving more effective, speedy and reliable impact on learners’ experience and outcomes. The process also needs to become more transparent, adding to the potential for co-ownership, between providers and the inspectorate, of improvement.
Some time ago, the Skills Commission called for an evaluation of Ofsted’s role in improvement. Nothing in this consultation hints at reviewing this crucial – perhaps uncomfortable? – aspect of its work. Yet it refers to the inspectorate ‘evolving’. Few, if any, students of Darwin would recognise that as an appropriate description of the proposed changes.
If the right consultation questions aren’t being asked now, then how and from where will improvement come?
This piece was originally published in a slightly different version by ‘FE Week’, in hard-copy and on-line, in late November/December 2014. The consultation period ends on 6 December 2014.
The Policy Consortium on Twitter