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Bring on Labour’s National Education Service, Ending Ofsted Means Ending a System That Fails Children

Until recently Labour’s flagship education policy – a National Education Service, first proposed in the party’s 2017 manifesto – was as vague as it was exciting. This changed at last month’s Labour Conference when a comprehensive picture emerged for the first time: the policy will be a full throttled attack on neoliberalism in education. There’s plenty to welcome in the National Education Service, but for overworked teachers like me one element will stand out; the party is to replace Ofsted with a new accountability mechanism, ending the unnecessary stress of the inspection regime. 

But what about the rest of the population? Education policy cannot be pitched at teachers – it must meet the needs of pupils, parents and the wider community. Given that most parents are not educational experts, many value Ofsted reports for shedding light on their local school’s performance. The Tory response to Labour’s plan has capitalised on this: they claim Labour will lower educational standards. Labour rightly points to the impact of stress on teacher recruitment and retention. But much of the population will see a couple of days’ stress for teachers as a reasonable trade-off for higher standards in schools.

The left has a duty to set the record straight. Ofsted does not raise standards. It does not even assess them reliably. Rather, its purpose is to introduce competition into the system, and by definition competition means losers as well as winners. Ending Ofsted means ending a system that fails children and schools. 

A broken yardstick

Imagine you visited B&Q to buy a curtain rail and the staff could not agree on its length. How confident would you be that it would fit your windows? That is the reality of Ofsted’s shoddy inspection framework: in 50% of cases two inspectors will fail to reach the same judgement on a given lesson, despite assessing it against the same criteria. Parents wanting information about their children’s school cannot rely on Ofsted.

Worse still, Ofsted ratings appear to be affected by the class background of the pupils. A school with a more disadvantaged intake is far more likely to be rated inadequate than one with an affluent student body. Ofsted ratings are simply not an accurate measure of quality. This is no surprise really, given that the inspectors who make these judgements often have little knowledge of what they are assessing. Under Ofsted’s new framework, introduced this year, inspectors are sent into schools to conduct ‘deep dives’ of areas outside their specialism. Early years provision can be assessed in depth by someone whose experience is only of Further Education; the teaching of Drama can be evaluated by an inspector whose specialism is Mathematics. Most of the inspectors are inexperienced too: they tend to be part-time and conduct on average only 9 days a year of inspections.  

Not only do Ofsted inspectors disagree on the measurements, they seem to be measuring the wrong things. Ofsted is a broken yardstick, and they are trying to measure in metres.

Competition and failure

Ofsted ratings may be questionable but they are certainly not meaningless. On the contrary, they play a central role in promoting competition in the state education system. Neoliberals, obsessed with injecting market forces where they do not belong, argue that competition raises standards. If schools compete with one another then they will all be motivated to improve. 

There would be a twisted logic to this if a school’s success was purely a result of its own decisions – but it is not. The school’s demographics play a big part, and the unreliability of Ofsted inspections adds a degree of randomness too. But not only is an Ofsted rating a poor reflection of a school’s provision, it can actively contribute to worsening it. These ratings are often self-fulfilling prophecies which help schools in richer areas to improve, while creating further obstacles for struggling schools in poorer areas. Will a school find it easier or harder to recruit experienced teachers if it is labelled ‘inadequate’? How about attracting middle-class higher attaining kids? A poor Ofsted rating can lead to an exodus of teachers and a lower pupil-intake. It can mark the beginning of the decline, not the moment it turns around. It can lead to a school closing and its pupils being scattered.

The tragedy of school closures is not an accidental byproduct of the system. It is there by design. Improvement is driven by fear that the school will fail, and for school leaders to have this fear, the risk needs to be plausible. If you want competition in the system then some schools must fail. 

Fear of failure drives market capitalism too. Mars and Cadburys each fear that the other will drive them out of business so they are forced to innovate, or so goes the free market mantra. But the consequences of failure are so much higher in education. If Mars collapses then you may have to swap your Galaxy for a Dairy Milk. If you’re a child and your school fails then this will shape the rest of your life. You won’t have the opportunity to go back and do your school career again.

From competition to collaboration

Labour’s plans for schools follow the belief that accountability should be democratic and that standards rise through collaboration not competition. Labour will replace Ofsted with two mechanisms: a new inspection framework and peer support. 

Inspections under the NES will be nothing like Ofsted. Most significantly there will be no ‘grades’ and therefore no ranking. Instead, the inspectors will identify areas of weakness and make suggestions for how they can be improved. Inspections will be timetabled on the basis of need with parents, teachers and the local authority able to request one as necessary. Whole school inspections will be rare because in most cases concerns about a school are focused on particular areas. This means that the inspectors can be full time specialists in that area, recruited from the teaching profession. Parents will have greater confidence in their findings. 

Coupled with these improvement-focused inspections will be a system of school-to-school peer support. This will be overseen by the local authority which, unlike the distant Department for Education, is integrated into the community and understands the local context. The goal will not be to pit schools against one another but to improve the quality of education in them all.

The Tories claim that the left shuns accountability. They could not be further from the truth. We just want to measure metres with metre sticks, and we want to raise standards by not letting schools fail.

James McAsh is a primary school teacher, a Labour councillor and an activist in the National Education Union.

Published 16th October 2019

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