Think tank urges Ofsted to ditch lesson observations

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Monday, 17 March 2014

Synopsis

  • Report calls for more professional inspectors, a hard look at the future of outsourced contracts, and a greater focus on struggling schools

Unreliable lesson observations that normally last less than twenty minutes should be ditched in all routine school inspections as part of a radical set of reforms needed to improve the way schools are inspected in England.

A report by leading think tank Policy Exchange finds that observing lessons during an inspection, an activity which takes up a considerable amount of time and money, is neither valid not reliable. Research suggests that there is a fifty-fifty chance that the lesson observation does not tally with the actual progress made by pupils in a class. While Ofsted has told its inspectors not to grade lesson observations, this clarification does not go far enough. In a self improving school system, Headteachers should be at the forefront of making judgements as to their school, with the inspectors’ role being to scrutinise rather than make judgements themselves without sufficient time and evidence.

The report also focuses on the quality of school inspectors. It says that Ofsted should give serious consideration to either abolishing or radically reducing the number of inspectors contracted to private outsourcing companies. Currently three regional contractors employ around 3,000 inspectors, 1,500 of whom carry out school inspections. Ofsted itself directly employs 300-400 inspectors, of whom 150 work in schools. Many inspectors lack the necessary skills, especially the ability to analyse data, or the experience or specialist knowledge in primary or special needs teaching to make a fair judgement of a fast evolving and increasingly autonomous education system. This leads to schools taking a lowest common denominator approach and making decisions on what Ofsted will understand, not necessarily what is in the best interests of the school. The report proposes that in future all Ofsted inspectors have relevant and recent teaching experience in the schools they are assessing. It also says that inspectors should have to pass an exam which tests their ability to analyse data and make reliable judgements in order to become accredited.

In order to deal with the fundamental change that is needed to reset the power relationship between schools and the inspectorate, the paper also recommends the introduction of a new two stage inspection process. This would enable Ofsted to focus more of its resources on struggling schools and free up better schools from the bureaucracy of a full inspection where this is not needed as much.

  • The first stage would be a ‘Short Inspection’ for all schools (including Free Schools and Academies) which would happen once every two years. The school would be inspected on two criteria – an overall graded judgment of Outstanding to Inadequate and a new combined ‘school capability’ grade which would assess the school’s ability to continue to perform
  • The second stage would be a ‘Tailored Inspection’ for all schools that fail to achieve a Good or Outstanding grade in both criteria, as well as schools where a Short Inspection cannot make a judgement. The resources saved by the two stage model would allow Tailored Inspections to have on average double time than a normal inspection does at present. This will allow inspectors the time to really understand the school and its data, and explore issues that the school may feel a brief inspection does not cover. A school would receive an overall grade which could also be from Outstanding to Inadequate.

Jonathan Simons, author of the report, said:

“The quality of our schools is critical to the future prospects of this country. That is why we need an independent schools regulator that inspects all schools freely and fairly. But it is also why we must make sure that the school inspection regime is fit for purpose.

“At the moment a team of external observers watching a handful of lessons can make a judgement on the quality of teaching which trumps the view of the school itself. The evidence suggests that when it comes to relying on judgement of a trained Ofsted inspector on how effective a lesson, you would be better off flipping a coin.

“More needs to be done to drive up the quality of inspectors. Heads and teachers must feel confident that the person running their eye over their school is a specialist, preferably with recent teaching experience. Inspectors don’t need to be rocket scientists but they must also have the ability to interpret the increasing amounts of data on the performance of schools, and understand the different ways in which schools are now operating. Schools should not be forced to second guess what the inspector coming through the door will be like.”

ENDS

For further information or to receive a copy of the full report contact Nick Faith on 07960 996 233.

Notes to editors

As part of the research, Policy Exchange carried out a ‘Call for Evidence’ to learn more about people’s experiences of Ofsted. We received 305 responses from teachers, head teachers, school governors, parents, teacher trainers and lecturers. We also held roundtable sessions with a cross section of teachers, and Headteachers, to hear their views and suggestions for improvement.

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