Why the proposed changes to the Ofsted inspection framework won’t deliver and what we need to do to really benefit our children and young people
In December 2017, the UK Government released a Green Paper entitled Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision. In response, Psychologists for Social Change wrote an open letter, signed by 1400 psychologists, teachers, social workers, students and counsellors, as well as young people with lived experience of mental health issues and their parents.
In it, we urged the government to “take a genuinely preventative approach” to mental ill-health, by acknowledging and addressing the wider social factors known to be linked to distress, as well as bringing an end to the austerity policies that have exacerbated these. You can read our review of the finalised proposals, published this summer, here. In short, we believe they fall desperately short of addressing the underlying barriers to long-term improvements to our collective mental health.
We also called on the government to review the toll that accountability measures like exams and ‘teaching to the test’ are creating, which, according to the National Education Union, are a great source of emotional distress for teachers and pupils alike. Currently, Ofsted holds teachers and schools accountable for the academic results of young people. Every child is expected to achieve a pre-defined, government set ‘standard’. Anything else is viewed as failure for the school, regardless of a young person’s needs or the pupil demographics of the area. This leads to teachers spending hours assessing students, tracking and logging data. Workload stress is having an increasingly detrimental impact on the mental health and job satisfaction of teachers. Schools can struggle to retain teachers.
In short, things are bad before we’ve even considered the impact on students. For them, the focus on results means an inflexible curriculum, with limited opportunity for creativity and a narrow conception of what intelligence and achievement means. For those who struggle to make progress, constant messages about not achieving ‘expected progress’ can be catastrophic to their mental health.
Ofsted announces a change to the system - should we be celebrating?
In October, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, made an announcement that initially made us think that our efforts, and those of others campaigning for reform, weren’t falling on deaf ears. Spielman asserted the need to change inspections to get a “handle on the real substance of education” and acknowledged that the "focus on performance data is coming at the expense of what is taught in schools”.
In her speech, Spielman said:
I want to make sure that at Ofsted, we focus on the ‘how’ and the ‘what’: the essence of what performance tables cannot capture...to bring the inspection conversation back to the substance of young people’s learning and treating teachers like the experts in their field, not just data managers”.
Possible alterations to the Ofsted criteria announced so far include :
(i) “Losing outcomes as a standalone judgement” This means removing pupil learning outcomes or ‘grades’ as a distinct assessment category.
(ii) “Broadening the existing quality of teaching, learning and assessment judgement into a quality of education judgement... [this] will also reflect outcomes” In other words, they want to focus more on a school’s capacity to teach a broader curriculum, though importantly, learning outcomes will continue to be measured.
(iii) “Splitting the current judgement of personal development, behaviour and welfare into two separate judgements" It is unclear what this might look like.
What does this mean in practice?
On face value, this is promising and seems to align with our call for a review of the impact of accountability measures. But dig a little deeper and we quickly uncover contradictions and a concerning lack of detail. If outcomes continue to be measured solely via standardised assessments (GCSEs, SATs), and there is no indication that Ofsted is thinking of changing this, how can teachers be expected to broaden “the existing quality of teaching?” It does not matter whether outcome measures are a “standalone judgement” or are embedded within another judgement or framework. They are still outcome measures. And any outcome measurement means pre-defined standards will still need to be met, league tables will continue to exist, and the high stakes accountability agenda will continue, to the detriment of mental health of school staff and young people.
Ms Spielman asserted that "Ofsted will challenge those schools where too much time is spent on preparation for tests at the expense of teaching”, where pupils’ choices are narrowed and where children are guided into less rigorous qualifications to boost league table positions. Again, this sounds like a much-needed change but just what is actually being asked of teachers is confusing. It sounds like schools are going to be challenged both for teaching to the test and for poor academic outcomes. This is extremely concerning. It is not possible to have it both ways. The message seems to be: we will continue to measure narrow outcomes the same as before via statutory assessments, but will challenge you for being too narrow. Nothing will change except increased workload for teachers, who will be expected to broaden the curriculum and teach to the test, simultaneously.
Something else that rings alarm bells is Ofsted’s proposed focus on personal development. Again, on the surface, this is no bad thing. There is a clear need for young people to engage in more personal development. As reported by the Centre for Business and Innovation, “Businesses are clear that first and foremost they want to recruit young people with attitudes and attributes such as resilience, enthusiasm and creativity. They are not selecting simply on the basis of academic ability.” However, serious questions arise as to what this might look like within the school context. What will constitute personal development and how will this be measured? Will schools be compelled to provide standardised outcome measures to track personal development? If outcome criteria are applied to personal development, surely this will become ‘forced development’? If Ofsted is serious about measuring personal development, they cannot define what this is or how to measure it. Young people, supported by teachers, should have the right to decide what their personal development looks like.
Moreover, will pressing social issues be included within the concept of personal development or will it be all about personal ‘resilience’? Issues such as gender inequality, abusive relationships and healthy sex education are not just about individual’s ‘soft skills’ but are necessary for societal health and require social change. For an interesting perspective on resilience, see here.
Is there an alternative?
What we’ve heard so far about the framework reboot is worryingly contradictory. But it doesn’t have to be this way. It is possible for schools to ensure students receive a good academic grounding while also paying attention to student wellbeing and the experience of receiving that education. We don’t even have to look too far for clues about how this could be done. In recent years, London schools have improved more than those in other areas. The reasons for this are complex. However, in evaluating the ‘London Effect’ in 2012, the Department for Education reported: “Individuals and school communities tend to thrive when they feel trusted, supported and encouraged”. The report also advocated for the importance of “bespoke solutions” to tackle issues faced in each school, to give school leaders, staff, children and young people a sense of ownership, rather than a sense of "being done to". It emphasised the value of school professionals cooperating and learning from each other. Finding a way to foster this kind of culture should be one of Ofsted’s goals for the new framework.
More ideas can be gained from looking further afield. Finland, for example, is consistently ranked in the top ten when it comes to child well-being and academic skills. This suggests that it is possible to achieve both. As the educator, Pasi Sahlberg, says in his book Finnish Lessons:
The term accountability cannot be found in Finnish educational policy discourse”
The focus is on “developing professional responsibility by educators” and encouraging learning among teachers and schools. Finnish schools assess themselves via reflective self-evaluations. There is an emphasis on creative learning, mutual trust and respect.
Contrastingly, in UK schools, we have a culture of high stakes accountability and low trust. This threatens school and community cohesion. The pursuit of accountability may provide information against which to judge schools but it creates suspicion, low morale among teachers and acts a barrier to learning. In addition, the data demanded by Ofsted is deeply flawed and positions young people as commodities that need managing, rather than human beings who need nurturing. In our opinion, the gain does not outweigh the costs.
It is possible, given the present lack of clarity around what the reforms will entail, that the new inspection regime will tighten regulatory oversight, rather than do what is needed and hand ownership to the experts - teachers, school leaders, children and young people. This is what is required to empower young people to develop the most appropriate personal competencies to flourish in the 21st century. Not another metric.
Where do we go from here?
Ofsted’s consultation launches January 16 and runs for 12 weeks. Within that time, PSC and the Radical Education Forum, in collaboration with young people and their families, will submit their vision of what a new education system could look like. If you have any thoughts on what this could look like, please put them in the comments below. The vision will be described in a second blog.
Christopher Bagley is an educational psychologist based in London. Other members of PSC and the Radical Education forum contributed.
PSC is a network of people interested in applying psychology to generate social and political action. You don't have to be a member of PSC to contribute to the blog