Is Ofsted helping to improve ITE?

A short time ago, I wrote a post about the Carter Review, and my thoughts on the future for Initial Teacher Education. With one casual tweet, the education blogmeister, Tom Bennett, catapulted that post into the limelight (well, maybe into the wings) and several people were kind enough to tweet a smattering of applause, which has provided me with useful encouragement. Thank you.

Sean Harford is Ofsted’s Director, Initial Teacher Education and Regional Director, East of England. He responded to what was possibly not the most thoroughly considered part of my post, by extending an invitation to discuss the Ofsted ITE inspection process. This follows some fairly high profile meetings between senior Ofsteders like Sean, and Mike Cladingbowl, and people like Andrew Smith, Tom Bennett, Tom Sherrington, David Didau, Ross McGill, Shena Lewington et al.

What I actually said was “Do something about the dreadful way in which Ofsted inspects ITE (won’t go into details here but it really sucks)”. That is not terribly nuanced so I think the first thing I need to do is to clarify my own thinking about this. And since it is possible that the university I work for will become known, I should start by stating unequivocally that our most recent inspection, which was under what at the time we were calling the new framework but is now the old framework (i.e. the one that ran from September 2012 to June 2014), was highly professional, very well-led, produced a report which reflected strengths and weaknesses in our courses, and the grade was probably about right. I am making this statement partly to attempt to show that my thoughts on inspection of ITE are not just the rumblings of someone who feels his chips have been pissed on, and partly because the inspectors’ names are obviously on the report and I don’t want anything I say to reflect badly on them.

So, moving on from the preamble, it seems to me that the starting point for thinking about either the ITE Inspection Framework or the wider role of Ofsted in teacher training, is to decide what the purpose of inspection is. At the moment, it’s primary function is to grade ITE providers and report on the strengths and weaknesses of their provision. What purpose does that serve?

Ofsted grading affects allocation of places to training providers; this is set out clearly for next year but is not new. This is pretty crucial; in schools the difference between grades might have some implications for SLT careers but only an Ofsted disaster usually leads to redundancies. In HEIs the difference between Grade 1 and 2 might well be the difference between financially viable or not, and therefore everyone’s jobs. The impact of the Grade 3 for the University of Leeds will be worth monitoring. This could all be seen as a drive to higher standards – sorting the wheat from the chaff – but this assumes both that the grading is reliable* (at least to within about 1/4 of a grade) and that Ofsted grading has a direct effect on the future of ITE provision (it doesn’t – ITE is much more precarious in a Russell Group or 1994 Group university than in an ex-teacher training college or SCITT because it’s not the main focus of the institution).

Secondly, Ofsted grading might affect trainee choices. I can’t produce any evidence to support this claim but I think that the most astute trainees probably do look at both Ofsted grade (and HEI reputation if relevant) but it is difficult to see how anyone not familiar with the system would correctly compare reports for HEIs, SCITTS, and SD lead schools. The less astute trainees are often thoroughly confused by the variety of training routes and have done shockingly little research before making their decisions so Ofsted reports don’t have any impact on their choices, and even for the first group, I think a lot of decisions are based on geography in the end.

Thirdly, within any given institution, there is likely to be pressure to aspire to an Outstanding grade (even if this pressure is not the same for every provider). This will drive standards up if, and only if, inspection outcomes make a valid measurement of the quality of training. In the end, the reliability* of the grade doesn’t matter for this but it does matter if Ofsted divert attention away from the quality of training towards other things that might influence the inspectors.

Finally, an Ofsted grade of Inadequate would lead to the removal of accreditation by the NCTL so Ofsted inspections have a role in setting a minimum standard. I don’t think there has been a Grade 4 since 2010 but a Grade 3 will lead to a further inspection within 12 months and might lead quite quickly to improvement or annihilation.

Actually, not finally, but it’s instructive that all my first thoughts were focused on the grading. An Ofsted report, of course, also identifies what the inspection team think are the strengths and weaknesses of the provision. If these are accurately identified then the report would be a useful guide to making genuine improvements; if these are not accurately identified then they become a ticklist of things to fix before the next inspection and may have no positive impact on the quality of training. And accurate or not, if the tutors don’t buy in to the conclusions then it will definitely be an exercise in papering over cracks, whether these are structural or cosmetic.

Ofsted also has a secondary role in identifying and reporting particularly good practice but I think these reports tend to be too superficial to do more than point out a direction – with the emphasis at the moment strongly focused on effective partnership. I guess there are some suggestions here for ways of managing partnerships that seem to be working but there isn’t the detail needed to understand why some partnerships work better than others. I think the danger with this secondary function is that ITE providers will start looking for “what Ofsted want” which has been the scourge of many schools and colleges, and we don’t necessarily want every provider running an EAL session in Hungarian, as Durham do, so maybe Ofsted should restrict itself to commenting on themes emerging from its inspections e.g. that the quality of partnerships is often an important difference between the more and less effective providers, with the best providers identified. These providers might then be in the best position to explain to the rest of us exactly what they have done, perhaps with UCET or the TSC etc. helping to co-ordinate this; I think that might be a more effective way of disseminating good practice and it matches the model that hopefully schools and teachers are moving towards, of taking professional responsibility for their own development.

So if Ofsted were to step back from reporting on good practice, and if the difference between Grade 1 and 2 (over 80% of providers) has a rather arbitrary effect on available provision, that leaves Ofsted as an effective enforcer of absolute minimum standards and a possible pressure, and possible guide, to improving the quality of training. The former role requires reliable* differentiation between Grade 1/2 and Grade 3/4; the latter two require valid measurement of training quality, and the ‘guide’ bit requires accurate identification of strengths and weaknesses. In my second post on this, I’ll try to dig into the issues of reliability, validity, and accuracy that my original comment alluded to.


*Yes, science teachers, I know this should be “reproducible” but this is social science, not GCSE Physics, so I’m going old skool.


2 thoughts on “Is Ofsted helping to improve ITE?

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