What we learnt from Ofsted’s annual report and Wilshaw’s speech

Today Ofsted published its annual report on the state of the education system which was accompanied by a speech on the same subject by Michael Wilshaw. The main themes were hardly a surprise. It largely marked a reiteration and development of much of what Ofsted and Wilshaw have been trying to draw attention to for the last two years. Nonetheless, several things stand out.

1. There are some grounds for optimism, but we are starting from a low base

On the whole England’s schools are improving, or at least they’re improving if you accept the validity of Ofsted judgements as an indication of school quality (I’m something of an agnostic on this point). As the report puts it, ‘children in England now have the best chance they have ever had of attending a good school’. The number of schools rated good or outstanding is now 78%, up from 70% last year.

Despite this Wilshaw thinks that we still have a very long way to go. It is clear from his speech that he thinks this improvement should be seen in the context of a system in which mediocrity had become the norm. He is not yet convinced that this has significantly changed, even if we are starting to head in the right direction. As he bluntly explains his ‘report this year seeks to explain why we are still mediocre, but also why there are significant grounds for optimism’. The order in which he puts those two points is, I think, significant – in his eyes the mediocrity of our schools continues to be a much bigger story than recent improvements. This is good news for those newspaper editors ready with a damning headline.

2. An immodest narrative of improvement

What explanation is given for the fact that more schools than ever are being designated as good by Ofsted? Apparently it is the result of changes made to the inspection regime itself. According to Wilshaw:

There is no question that the system has responded positively to the tougher frameworks we introduced in September last year. The abolition of the word ‘satisfactory’ from the Ofsted lexicon and the introduction of the ‘requires improvement’ grade have had a galvanising effect. Coasting schools now know that mediocre standards will no longer be tolerated.

I’m somewhat dubious about this. Without any evidence that schools previously deemed satisfactory were under less pressure to improve I’m not inclined to accept this explanation over one that is equally plausible; namely that the introduction of the new name has resulted in inspectors being more reluctant to designate borderline schools as ‘requires improvement’, leading to an increase in the number of schools placed in the ‘good’ category instead

3. Regional variations are getting increased attention but the solutions are still vague

Unsurprisingly the report identifies ‘pockets of weak educational provision in parts of the country’ as one of the three key barriers to raising standards further. It rightly draws attention to under-performing areas, particularly the 13 local authorities where less than 50% of schools are good or outstanding (the Isle of Wight gets a particularly tough time).

 As seems to be inevitable whenever such under-performance is talked about London is held up as an example of educational excellence. In his speech Wilshaw notes that education in London was once seen as ‘uniquely awful’. He then gives a list of reasons why the quality of education in London has improved dramatically. These types of lists are something of a forte for Ofsted. The inclusion of ‘determined leadership’ and ‘persistence’ are indicative of the kind of vague truisms that are regularly included, resulting in lists that look less like a set of clear reasons why improvement has occurred than a set of incredibly loose characteristics of a good system.

4. Wilshaw cares little for the distinction between ends and means (or inspector and improver)

It is not impossible to imagine a situation in which a Chief Inspector is content to report on what the state of our schools is and leave it to others to decide from a range of options what the best way forward is. This is far removed from the current situation. Perhaps exploiting the inherent messiness of such a distinction Wilshaw is more than happy to tell schools exactly what they need to do to get better. As a consequence, both his speech and the report are to different degrees infused with soaring rhetoric about what makes a good school. This is accompanied by a sneering disapproval of those who would have it any other way.

To take just one example, he thinks that it is vital that children’s progress and outcomes are benchmarked at regular intervals in their school career. Few would disagree with this statement. However, he argues that the best way to achieve it is to reintroduce formal testing at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 3 and claims that ‘any good headteacher’ will agree that getting rid of such testing was a mistake. He goes on to suggest that abolishing those tests ‘conceded too much ground to vested interests’. The idea that there could be legitimate grounds for not having such tests whilst still endorsing the need to measure progress is not even contemplated. In Wilshaw’s world pluralism is associated with weakness and excuse-making.

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