What should Ofsted and Education Scotland be doing in the current crisis?
I have been asking questions about why we are not learning from the experience of lockdown. My concern was that we tended to collect anecdotes, usually ones that confirm our existing views on education, but what I wasn’t seeing was any systematic effort to collect evidence about what was happening for young people. Should that not be a priority? Should the organisations charged with protecting the interests of children and young people be trying to establish how well these interests are being served while many schools are closed? Is that not the role of an Inspectorate?
What is the point of inspection anyway?
I have long argued that inspection should have two purposes.
One is to assess whether young people are achieving all that they can in schools, regardless of how they are being educated. In other words, the prime purpose is not to enforce particular policies and pedagogical practices, but to see the impact of the practices that schools are deploying. It may be that they would offer advice on the basis of what they observe, but that would be an outcome of the inspection. There would be no assumption that practice should be dictated.
If ensuring the best possible outcomes for children is indeed the prime purpose, why is no effort being made to do that during lockdown?
The second purpose, at least in my view, is to offer advice to government based on collating inspection findings. Education Scotland has tended to do that well by publishing a summary of the findings of their inspection programme. The approach is based on the format – “this is what we have seen, these are reasonable conclusions to draw from these observations”.
The process that they have is very clear – the criteria used in inspection are public through the “How good is our school?” documents, individual reports are published and the summary report is also published. The Ofsted model seems to be a little different.
If you broadly agree with these two purposes, it would lead to the next question.
How can an Inspectorate advise Government on a return to school if they haven’t made any effort to take stock of children’s experience over the last seven weeks or so?
Let me be clear from the outset. I am not suggesting that taking stock would be an easy task, but it would be reassuring to know that it had been considered. I am suggesting that inspection is on behalf of children and 7 weeks is a long time for the task of inspection to be deferred.
Does anyone know how many young people have been attending schools? Does anyone know how many are vulnerable children and how many are children of key workers? What efforts have been made to establish what sort of experience they have been having in schools? Have any efforts been made to monitor the take-up of available resources? Have there been any attempts to engage with other agencies supporting families to try to establish what sort of experiences children are having at home?
I am not assuming that the answer to all of these questions in “no” or “nothing”, I am simply making the point that I don’t know what the answers are and the questions are not being publicly discussed.
I also remain convinced that if anyone has a responsibility to ask and seek answers to these questions, it is the national inspectorate. I would love to be reassured that responsibility is being fulfilled.
One thing is clear, the Westminster Government desperately needs advice on how any reopening of schools should be managed. Clearly a whole range of people involved in education think that their current proposals are unworkable. What are Ofsted telling them, not just about feasibility, but about what can be achieved with and for children? An Inspectorate should be stating clearly – “On the basis of what we have seen in practice, and what we know of the experience of young people during lockdown, here is what we think can be done”. Is this happening? Are they being asked? What does this tell us about the role of inspection?
Don’t these organisations have other priorities at the moment?
Education Scotland, which is an inspection and development agency, have provided support for schools and I am sure that many people will welcome that. I am concerned that an inspection agency should never finish up in the position of inspecting their own advice, far less the use of their own materials, so I am a bit more equivocal about that sort of contribution. Maybe staff have been furloughed, although I doubt that, and capacity has been reduced. Ultimately though, the question must really be should they have other priorities.
It has been suggested that Ofsted should be harrying schools who are not rigorous enough in enforcing distance learning. That is a good example of the issue implied earlier, that inspection in England has become more about enforcement than investigation. In both countries, there has been a tendency for inspection to become a means of informing parental choice. I understand that, but ultimately it is a counsel of despair. It accepts that there will always be relatively poor choices for children.
The current crisis has shown very clearly how important schools are. Should we not be reflecting that by offering them the inspection system that they deserve, one characterised by curiosity, rather than certainty, which is genuinely focussed on inspection and not enforcement? Do they not deserve a natonal system of monitoring and evaluation which looks after the best interests of children at all times?