The error that is Ofsted

We’ve all been to school, spent the prescribed 15,000 hours in classrooms. We know them, right – schools and classrooms?


A Paradox

Take a classroom in Birmingham, UK or Birmingham, Alabama and think about what is in it: a ‘front’ and a ‘back’; a point of attention (whiteboard); there is authority and compliance, a regime of concentration, suppressed sexuality, perhaps, lots of little people and just one or two big people, desks, tasks, deadlines….and so on. Go to Buddhist classes in Thailand or to an indigenous village school in the Bolivian highlands or to Eton or under a Banyan tree in Africa – you will find a familiar classroom with these characteristics. All classrooms are, in many ways, recognisable and similar.

But look at two classrooms on the same corridor in your child’s school. These may be worlds apart: one with a young, nervous teacher, the other with an experienced and relaxed teacher; one with unruly kids, the other with compliant kids; one with student work plastering the walls, the other with bare walls; one under rigid discipline, the other progressive and open.

Classrooms and schools are both universal and unique. Seasoned educational researchers learn to live with that, and we are modest about our claims to understanding which are, in the face of complexity, too often rather flimsy. Yes, there are certain concrete truths that we have discovered about schooling – that there is a strong relationship between economic class and achievement; that how long a student spends on a task affects how well they learn; that learning itself is highly personalised; that there is no direct relationship between what is being taught and what is being learned. But we cannot use these insights to predict how a particular student will do, how life in any single classroom will pan out, to compare one classroom with another. Thankfully, we live in a world in which people and human events are unpredictable. Dictators have a hard time of it, actually.



The need to ‘multiply narratives’ – the purpose of these Blogs – is no less true of the claims made by Ofsted to be an authority on educational quality – Ofsted is not immune to questioning. Here, the narrative we want to ‘multiply’ (challenge with alternatives) is that educational quality comes when schools and teachers are compliant with policy demands for ever-higher student achievement scores. This is the main driver of Ofsted. [Note: Ofsted only looks down the system at those who have to make sense of sometimes contradictory and sometimes infeasible policies – it does not look up the system, to subject those policies to scrutiny. It is no defence for a school or a teacher subject to condemnation by Ofsted to argue, ‘but the policy makes no sense here’.]

In its theory of education, in its methodology, in its democratic legitimacy and in its practices, Ofsted can be challenged by educational arguments. That these arguments rarely see the light of day merely intensifies the need to think again. But how do we think more critically about Ofsted? Well, let’s start by reframing the key question: where do we look for educational quality?

The problem with answering this simply by saying, ‘students achieve well’ is that you ignore too many important considerations. Take these as starters:

  • It is not possible to design a significant test or exam that is not culturally biased in terms of race and economic class (look here:;
  • In any test, it is almost impossible to distinguish between testing a student’s knowledge and testing the student’s ability to pass a test;
  • Since students learn in different ways, from different sources and for different reasons it is not possible to know just what is being tested and why;
  • Knowledge learned under pressure to recall to a deadline has a short half-life compared with knowledge assimilated over time and not subject to exam pressures;
  • An examiner cannot distinguish between knowledge reproduced in a test for the sake of compliance (and then discarded), and knowledge that is embraced by the student and which endures;
  • A single, standardised national test or exam assumes that a student on the Isle of Skye, a student in Islington and a student in Plymouth learn at the same rate, have the same learning needs and make sense of knowledge in the same way – which cannot be;
  • Standardised tests and exams assume that all teachers teach the same thing, in the same way, to the same effect – which is not possible.

Any one of these makes standardised tests and exams unsustainable, unethical or unrealistic, and Ofsted’s insistence on them risks all of these. But perhaps the most corrosive of all is this: the fallacy that we can ‘add up’ all the test scores and exam passes of students and then say something about the quality of a school, a teacher or a curriculum. This is enormously seductive an idea, but it is wrong. You cannot measure one thing (a student) in order to say something about the quality of something else (e.g. teaching). It’s like measuring the speed of a train so as to say something about the quality of a rail network in a given environment. And yet it is seductive, because it simplifies what, otherwise, is a massively complex notion: that you can produce a ‘measure’ of what it means to be a ‘good’ teacher or a ‘good’ school.


‘Good’ teachers…?

The problem facing Ofsted and the search for quality collapses to what does ‘good‘ mean? The simplest understanding of a good teacher, for example, is one through whom students learn well. First off, ‘learn well’ does not at all mean ‘pass exams well’ – sometimes, far from it. But this takes us back to the measurement problem: we cannot measure one thing to work out the quality of something else. For example, any teacher knows that one year’s students may well be wholly different from the previous ones and next year’s. One cohort is dedicated, the next disruptive; one year the students really get it, the next year they struggle; one year the students are tight-knit, the next year they are at odds with each other. This variation will mean a variation in the way the students learn and how good their learning is – a year of students who are dedicated, easy-going and compliant may perform well in tests while the next year, students subject to the same lessons and the same teaching do poorly. Against which year group do we measure the quality of the teacher?

And, anyway, why hold someone accountable for something over which they have only limited control? So set aside student achievement, and think of a teacher’s qualities. If we are interested in the quality of teaching, then we must be interested in those qualities a teacher brings to the job. They are good communicators, they know their subject and study it, they are good at building relationships with students and are reassuring, they are adept at managing discipline, they are reflective and patient, they have energy, they are adaptable, they are humble in their claims to know. Surely, these are the things we should be measuring. These are the things that do lie in the teacher’s control – unlike how and what their students learn.

How do we measure these things: charisma, passion for knowledge, reliability, adaptability, humility? – these things are inherently unquantifiable. We are forced back to making judgements – we sense these qualities, we feel them out, we discuss and negotiate them, we are content with approximations and we make guesses. But judgements are inherently unstable – one person’s judgement is another’s provocation, a good judgement here may not be appropriate there. Judgements form a good basis for argument and exchange – it is through argument that we learn from each other. Ofsted makes such judgements – but they are not up for discussion – they are announcements, pronouncements. They ignore local conditions on the assumption that context makes no difference. They are for closing down considerations of educational quality, not for opening them up.  But Ofsted makes only fleeting visits to classrooms and schools – teachers spend much of their lives there. Who is most likely to reflect on and learn from judgements? Hidden inside this is a central confusion in what Ofsted does: are they assessing the quality of teaching, or of teachers– for these are quite different things.

In fact, how we act as professionals has much to do with who we are, what we believe, what is the bank of our experiences. For a teacher to be ‘good’ is a personal accomplishment, interwoven with all the threads of their life. Students in a class do not interact with a cyborg, they relate to a person, and often in very personable ways. We have a way of talking about this: we say things like, ‘I like him, he’s strict but fair’, or, ‘I don’t know what it is but she really encourages me’, or, ‘I hated her at the time, but now I see the point of what she was doing’. It might take students months or years to work out who is a good teacher and why – and to disentangle this from the teaching they receive.  How long does it take to sum up a ‘person’ and say decisively they are ‘good’ or not – and what about the teacher with excellent qualities but whose teaching falls short; or the teacher with few personal qualities but whose teaching is highly valued by the student? Ofsted might spend 10 or 20 minutes in a classroom. How long would you want an inspector to spend with you before summing up you and what you do – your hopes, your experiments, your changing views of what education is for? Would that inspector, do you think, notice the gap between who you are and what you do?


‘Good’ schools…?

What is true of teachers is as true of schools. These are also complex, constantly changing human places. We try to control them so that they are constant, so that one year’s students and teachers are much like the previous year’s and will be like next year’s. But this cannot be. A school will have outstanding qualities here and there, it will have weaknesses here and there – and these, too, will shift and change. A teacher or a school head will have a good year and then a bad year as they lose or gain confidence, their parents die, they lose and rediscover energy and so on – teachers come and go, budgets fluctuate. Students do much to shape a school, whatever the teachers and school leaders desire. One school may be good at getting kids to pass exams but poor in educating their students in a rounded way – another school vice versa. Again, it is reassuring and convenient to say that a School whose students do well in exams year on year is a ‘better’ school than one whose students don’t do so well – but this, too, is an error. By far the greater part of a school’s exam success is down to economic class – if you remember from above, one of the few universal truths we have learned over the years.

But what of the school which drills and disciplines its students so as to achieve high exam results, but where the learning is forgotten once the exam has passed, where students learned compliance with authority, where learning has no intrinsic value, but only the instrumental value of getting through the exam? What if there truly were a tension between education (induction into autonomous knowing) and passing exams? After all, the more compliant and self-denying are the students the more likely the school is to get them through exams – yet another universal truth we have learned.  Ofsted is simply not equipped to respond to that.

To close, let’s look a little deeper at just what a classroom is and what goes on there. What is the complexity that faces anyone who enters a classroom to make a judgement about it?

Just what is a classroom?

Back in the 1960s Philip Jackson, a prominent educational sociologist, went into a school to see what a school looks like if we enter with no assumptions, if we don’t just say, ‘schools are places for teaching and learning‘ – and then stop thinking about it.

That schools are places of teaching and learning says little. In fact, Jackson noted that, though teaching is going on all the time, learning is a pretty low-level, routine business, and takes up less energy than other, more immediate demands of classrooms – he called this “the daily grind”. He observed three drivers of schooling that were more immediate and influential: ‘crowds‘, ‘praise‘ and ‘power‘. These were what most defined schools and classrooms.

  • ‘Crowds‘: for so many people to be crowded into a space so small as a classroom and have to send so much of their lives together is highly unusual. The demand this creates for tolerance and order is severe and almost overwhelming.
  • Praise‘: judgement, actually. That students (and teachers) are constantly under scrutiny and being judged is, again, highly unusual and creates its own demands and distortions in relationships.
  • Power‘: Built into the routines of classroom life are massive power imbalances among managers and the managed which lead to complex game-playing and relationships, ethical dilemmas and organisational distortions.

Now, there are a few other walks of life in which these things provide structure to the way we are, how we relate to each other and what we do: a mass production factory is, perhaps, the most obvious. A convent is another. The armed forces, another. How telling these are as comparisons. Don’t get too dispirited, but it’s worth a moment’s thought.

The challenge of managing ‘crowds’ is the primary concern of a teacher – how to create order, without resorting to naked power which is self-defeating. This, showed Jackson, was done through a process of unspoken negotiation between teacher and students: mainly, the teacher trades ‘good’ grades for good behaviour. (Not that all students get A’s and B’s, but that there is a fair and consistent grading system that allows the student to game-play and give them a non-capricious environment.) Watch a teacher prepare for an Ofsted inspection in which rigid order and discipline are of paramount importance, and you will see this trade under way vigorously.

Classrooms are not what they seem – they are highly complex social places which defy simple judgement – in fact, Jackson’s portrayal will vary across schools and classrooms according to culture, economics, local communities and much more. But classrooms demand to be understood, not measured. Much of a teacher’s practice is to do with developing this understanding over time and this, more than squeezing ever-rising exam scores, is their core job. Teachers are educational researchers. Classrooms are more like laboratories for experiment than factories for production. Jackson talked about these things as the “hidden curriculum“ of schooling. The curriculum that is on show – teaching and learning, what Ofsted focuses on – is, at best, a surface reality, probably inauthentic. Ofsted looks at classrooms, but rarely sees them.


Ofsted is crude in its methods, fails to capture those nuances that define schools, unfair in its all-too-brief scrutinies. It is rewarding of the strong and punitive to the weak – a grotesque distortion of public ethics. It ignores well-known elephant traps in its blundering search for quality, deaf to negotiated understanding, uninterested in the realities and complexities of schooling. Ofsted methods cast the teacher, not as an intellectual, but as an artificer, a wielder of tools. Ofsted is more concerned with control than with understanding, compliance before curiosity. It persuades schools to look backwards at what they have done so as to justify themselves; it discourages risk-taking and looking forward at how things might be – it is retrospective, not prospective. Ofsted as a professional group is little interested in learning about education and schooling, more interested in repetitive insistence on a simplistic theory of education. Ofsted is not educational. It is resistant to its own learning and discourages learning in others – from school communities to parents and to policy people. Until Ofsted is fundamentally reformed or closed down schools will remain frozen in a glacial prison whose bars are made of errors, misunderstandings and unfairnesses.







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