Ofsted: Overseeing the Tyranny of Testing

Warwick Mansell
The most significant speech about Ofsted inspections in recent years was delivered by David Miliband to the North of England education conference in January, 2004. Miliband, who at the time was nearing the end of a two?year stint as Schools Minister, set out the basis on which the current inspection regime is founded. Schools are still living with the consequences. And the education service as a whole is, I would contend, vastly the poorer as a result.

?bench peer who advocates greater trust of public service professionals. Miliband said it was time for the government to step back. Where previously the Ofsted inspection system had been geared to policing every aspect of a school’s performance, including using lengthy lesson observations to judge teaching quality, now it had to become more focused. The key, he said, was for inspectors to look at the ‘outcomes’ achieved by schools for their pupils, rather than worrying too much about the methods they took to bring about any improvements in these end measures. He added that it was necessary to consider whether in?

depth inspections of schools of up to a week in length, which had been a feature of the inspection system since Ofsted’s introduction in 1992, were the best use of the state’s resources. Might it not be better, was the implicit suggestion, to cut the length of them to save money?

Both of these statements dovetailed neatly with two key government priorities at the time. First, they fitted with the seemingly wise mantra of delivering more money to the front


?line of public service reform—in this case, the classroom itself—rather than to sup

porting functions such as the inspectorate. At a time when Ofsted was about to undergo the largest expansion in its remit ever, with its extension to children’s social care and adult learning, the logic of this move is clear: the new regime would be cheaper.

Second, and more fundamentally, Miliband’s claims matched a drive across the civil service for it to focus not on micro


?managing how public sector institutions go about improving their provision, but simply to hold them to account for the results they achieve for those they serve. This also appears sensible. The great danger, many within government now argue, for a public sector which lacks the focus on the bottom line which characterises private firms, is that money is pumped into the system but wasted on bureaucracy, with little end product for the users of public services. As Matthew Taylor, former public services adviser to Tony Blair, wrote recently: ‘Poor performance [and] a loss of focus on outcomes are endemic vulnerabilities for big institutions, however laudable a system’s objectives and methods.’

In education, Miliband’s concerns have been translated into an inspection system which is much more focused on pupils’ test and exam results, as the ‘outcome’ measure for the schooling system, than it was in previous years. And it is my contention that this has been hugely damaging. It is helping to turn education even further towards a bleak and narrow vision that sees its defining purpose as being to maximise the next set of test scores. Yet the assumptions on which this rests are both simplistic and questionable, while the exam results data which now drive most inspections are often unreliable and vulnerable to manipulation.

The first question to consider, in evaluating the current inspection regime, is to what degree pupil test and exam outcomes now influence the verdict which each school receives from inspectors. That is, how much does children’s success in the national tests they must sit at seven, 11 and 14, and GCSEs, A-


levels and vocational exams, affect their school’s Ofsted verdict?

Results have become much more significant after inspections changed in 2005, in line with Miliband’s proposals. In the 13 years from the introduction of Ofsted in 1992 to 2005, inspections followed a well


?worn pattern. Inspectors spent several days in a school, forming views of its quality by watching teaching, looking at pupils work, analysing their test and exam results and talking to staff and children, before writing up their judgement. Since 2005, the inspection scenario has changed dramatically. The process now starts with schools providing a pre?inspection report, which consists of their own analysis of their strengths and weaknesses. Inspectors then go into the school and spend a much shorter time than under the old regime—typically, in a secondary school, a day and a half—checking if the school’s verdict is correct. Crucially, before having done so, they will have conducted their own desk?based checks on the school’s qualities, in which the results of its pupils in national tests—the statutory assessments all children have to sit at age seven, 11 and 14—and exams—mainly GCSEs, A?

levels and vocational courses—will have been central. Even after visiting the school, test and exam scores are the inspectors’ main measure of its quality.

In early 2006, the Association of School and College Leaders, the secondary heads’ union, started reporting that inspectors were arriving at many schools having already made up their minds on what their verdict would be, based solely on the school’s test and exam result data. Ofsted, embarrassed that its regime of school visits might be seen as unnecessary, took action. It warned its inspectors in the spring of 2006 that results statistics, while ‘informing’, should not ‘determine’ their judgements. This remains its position.

Yet, two years on, the complaints from heads remain. One cheekily wrote: ‘This is no way to assess our pupils’,


and suggested that inspectors should simply short?

cut the inspection process by looking at the data and then either writing to schools to tell them that they were outstanding, or starting proceedings to close them down. Another said he would be judged ‘totally’ by inspectors on the number of his pupils who achieved the central government benchmark for primary schools: the percentage of pupils achieving the target level in national curriculum English, maths and science tests. Are these heads right? Are Ofsted inspections really little more than a check on schools’ academic achievements, as measured, also, by league tables?

Thankfully, it is no longer necessary to consider only anecdotal evidence in checking the veracity of these claims. Ofsted itself now provides data on all of its inspection verdicts in recent years. An analysis of these judgements shows just how clear the link between a school’s test and exam results and its overall judgement is. Ofsted visited 6,331 primaries in 2006


?07, the last academic year for which results are available. Of these, 98 per cent had the same inspection verdict overall as they had for ‘achievement and standards’. This latter judgement is based on pupils’ test scores, and is only one of six main sub?headings within each inspection. The other sub?headings focus on children’s personal development; the quality of teaching; the curriculum; care and guidance offered to pupils; and the strength of the school’s leadership. Among  secondary schools, the apparent link between exam results and the overall verdict was almost as strong, with 96 per cent gaining the same summing?

up judgement as they were awarded on ‘achievement and standards’.

Ofsted now uses a four


?point judgement scale: outstanding provision is rated 1, and inadequate 4. In not one single school of the 7,612 visited that year did the overall judgement differ by more than a single grade from that given to a school on the basis of its results. Figures for 2005?06, the only other previous year on record since the introduction of the new Ofsted regime, suggest a similar link. Yet the statistics show that there is a far lower association between Ofsted’s verdict on other aspects of school life and the overall outcome. For example, only 41 per cent of primary schools received the same overall judgement, in 2006?

07, as the inspectors reached on how much pupils enjoyed coming to school.

The emphasis of the inspection system on results statistics stands to be even further accentuated in future, with the promise that schools with good scores might go six years between inspections, while those where exam results are low will be visited every year. Indeed, Ofsted even admits the centrality of test and exam results to its inspectors’ overall verdicts on schools. When I put to Ofsted the strikingly high correlation between the judgement reached on test results and the outcome of inspections, the inspectorate replied: ‘We would expect these two grades to be the same, or very similar, in the vast majority of inspections. This is because achievement is arguably the most important of all the grades. Other aspects of the report—personal development… leadership and management—all contribute to how well learners achieve.’



But can a valid assessment of an education service be founded almost entirely on pupils’ test and exam results? And is the purpose of education simply to maximise children’s grades?

In fact, while the current data


?driven inspection regime may fit an ideology which says public services are to be defined almost completely in terms of outcomes they achieve for those who use them, and be relatively cheap, it brings with it a host of problems. There are two aspects to this. The first could be characterised as the effect on schools’ behaviour of an inspection regime that puts such weight on improving exam scores. It is to accentuate test?

orientated teaching, and moves by schools which are understandable, given the pressures on them, and encouraged by the system by which they are judged, to manipulate the results statistics to their advantage.

The introduction of school league tables in the early 1990s under the Conservatives, followed by New Labour’s launch of targets for school improvement and test


?orientated performance pay for teachers, mean that even without Ofsted in its current form, teachers would be very focused on improving test scores. English pupils face more centrally?monitored tests than their counterparts anywhere else. In most primaries, children encounter a government?designed test at the  end of years two, three, four and five, before the major Sats hurdle: the Key Stage 2 tests in English, maths and science. In the four?month run?up to these tests in May, data from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority reveal that schools spend nearly half the teaching week, on average, on test preparation. In the mean?time, non?tested subjects such as history, geography and music receive less curriculum time. Then, in secondary schools, pupils spend most of Year 9 preparing for Key Stage 3 tests in English, maths and science, before embarking on GCSE and A?level courses for which they can now expect final exams almost every term. In the coming two years, new modular GCSE courses which allow re?sits and examining to be staged over the two?year course and yet more tests—‘functional skills’ exams designed to respond to employers’ concerns about school?

leavers’ mastery of the three Rs—will be introduced. This will mean that many pupils’ last five years of secondary school will consist largely of exam preparation.

Does this define a good education? Well, it is fair to say there are many who have doubts, not least the university admissions tutors who are presented with the products of this regime and who have, as a 2005 report by the Nuffield Foundation suggests, grave worries about the benefits of an exam


?driven system. The report, based on focus group work with 250 university representatives, said: ‘Narrow account?ability based on exam success… needs to be avoided. This leads to spoon?feeding rather than the fostering of independence and critical engagement with subject material.’

An inspection system which says, in effect, that school success depends on pupils’ scores through

out their education is only reinforcing this trend.

The government argues throughout, in defending its system of school accountability of which inspections are a key strand, that it does not encourage profess


ionals to focus only on a narrow approach to test success. But this misses the point that the assumptions on which the regime is based, and the consequences for those failing to improve the test scores, push many teachers towards doing so.

The second problematic aspect of the modern inspection regime is the question of whether the results that the tests and exams generate provide useful and reliable information about the quality of education which they are meant to assess. It is not always clear that good test results equal good teaching. There is, in fact, copious evidence that test scores can be boosted by short


?term test preparation or cramming—often repetitive practice of questions similar to those which are likely to appear in the forthcoming test—which does little for students’ long?

term understanding or engagement with the subject. Does this constitute good teaching, as Ofsted’s system would suggest it does, so long as good results are generated by it?

Ironically, some of the best evidence suggesting that the above question could be answered in the negative comes from Ofsted itself, in annual reports published before the introduction of the latest inspection regime. David Bell’s chief inspector’s report for 2004


?05 said, of Key Stage 3 English, for example: ‘In many schools, too much time is devoted to test revision, with not enough regard to how pupils’ skills could be developed in more meaningful ways.’

For maths, Ofsted concluded for the same year: ‘National test results continue to improve but this is as much due to better test technique as it is to a rise in standards of mathematical understanding.’ In science, a report for the Wellcome Trust this year, based on a survey of 600 teachers and focus group interviews with 74 of them, found that pupils were being turned off science by the two terms of revision they received in the run?up to the Key Stage 2 tests pupils take at 11.6 Yet, said focus group members ‘test preparation in its current form contri?buted little to pupils’ understanding’, while most teachers did not trust the test results as verdicts on their pupils’ underlying abilities, partly because of the hot?

housing needed to boost the scores.

The statistical formulae on which the Ofsted inspection framework sits can also be manipulated, so that the outcome may say more about a school’s ability to play the results ‘game’ than about the underlying quality of the service it provides for pupils.

Two examples best illustrate this. First, many schools have had to become adept at focusing on a narrow band of pupils, known widely as ‘borderliners’, who have the most potential to improve an insti


tution’s headline statistics. In primary schools, this is the group of children who are identified as being on the cusp of achieving the government benchmark of level four in the Key Stage 2 tests. In secondaries, those at risk of narrowly missing a level five in the Key Stage 3 tests, or a C grade at GCSE, are also the focus. Routinely, now, schools give these pupils extra attention in terms of after?

school revision classes and mentoring by older pupils and/or their teachers.

Second, secondary schools can choose to push their pupils towards GCSE



equivalent courses which are given high weighting in the formulae, such as vocational exams which are counted as ‘worth’ four GCSEs despite being widely seen as a soft option for teenagers. Thus the good results generated by the school say more about the assumptions on which the statistical formulae rest than about underlying teaching quality.

Parents’ views are also marginalised by a system which now rests so much on statistical representations of what constitutes a good school. Under the old arrangements, schools had to send out a parental questionnaire in advance of the inspection. Inspectors then collated the findings, published them in their report and, crucially, also explained their position when parents’ views differed from those of the inspect


ion team. In the current Ofsted system, although the parental questionnaires are still sent out, inspectors have little time to consider the responses in detail. They are not written up for the report, and no justification is given when the inspection judgement differs from parents’ views.

In fact, there is little space for this in the new reports, which offer much sparser information on school quality than was possible before 2005. In my recent book on the test regime,


Education by Numbers, I compared two Ofsted secondary school reports from 2002, under the old regime, with two from 2006, under the new. The old reports weigh in at 50 and 61 pages respectively, against five pages each for their 2006 counterparts. In both 2006 reports, almost the entire summary on the school’s effectiveness—from the quality of the school’s curriculum to the pastoral care it provides—relates to test data. What is left unmeasured in the results statistics on which the new system rests? Well, extra?

curricular activities and, in primary schools, any subjects which are not English, maths and science are all marginalised.

If one accepts Ofsted’s justification of the new regime, however, this is not so. For all aspects of school life, it argues, contribute to pupils’ (test and exam) achievements. They are thus, indirectly, captured through test data, since a pupil given a rounded educational experience and who is enjoying his or her school life is more likely to succeed. This might sound a persuasive argument in theory. But the idea that every aspect of school life can be captured and measured through the statistical formulae of exam success, is, I would submit, simplistic and naïve. Neither would common sense suggest that every life


?enriching experience a pupil has at school will have an immediate pay?

off in terms of exam success.

Yet schools are being judged in this way. One primary head teacher, whose school failed its inspection in late 2005, put it this way: ‘In every section of the inspection report we were criticised for the same thing: standards (i.e. test scores). In “teaching and learning” the reason we got a 4 (the lowest category) was because standards were not good enough… The care and support we gave children was down because our academic support (as measured by test scores) was “inadequate”. And my “leadership and management” was down because the statistics were inadequate. In every section, we were damned because of poor test results.’

In fact, Ofsted’s argument fits the theoretical rationale which was used to justify the current structure of the inspection regime, rather than being based on the reality on the ground. The assumption is that all aspects of education contribute directly to immediate exam success, and that pupil outcomes matter more than the means used to achieve them. Yet I would argue that the means by which students achieve good grades are hugely important. A pupil who has managed to gain a particular level in a test at age 11 at the cost of a narrowed curriculum and months of repetitive question practice has not received an educational experience I would want for my children, if I were a parent.

Inputs, in terms of the quality of teaching as distinct from the ‘outcomes’ it generates for pupils, are important in this context. Education, I would contend, has value in itself, not just in terms of the immediate exam success it generates for pupils. Any inspection system, then, has to find a way of assessing the quality of teaching not simply through outcome statistics. An obvious way to do this would be to return to the old system of much more direct observation of lessons. 

Test results can only ever be a proxy for good teaching. And they are a limited one, because they test only a proportion of the curriculum. For example, pupils’ speaking skills are not assessed in English exams until 16, while in science experimental work is not assessed in any government test until GCSE.

There is one final objection to the argument that Ofsted inspectors are right to base their verdicts to such a large extent on schools’ exam results. Although there might seem to be some logic in the notion that public services should be judged on their ability to ‘deliver’ better outcomes for those who use them, the generation of good exam results for pupils differs from other measures of public sector success. For, unlike, say, success rates of a surgeon on the operating table or the ability of companies to get their trains to run on time, the consumers themselves have a key role to play in the generation of good school results. Indeed, exams were originally conceived wholly as a way of assessing the qualities of the pupil, rather than his or her school. Pupil motivation and effort, then, have always been thought to be a key element in securing good marks.

In trying to make them, now, much more of a verdict on the quality of those educating the child, inspectors are underlining the view that improving test and exam scores almost have to be achieved for pupils come what may. In this way, student agency is down



graded: they become a much more passive recipient of education, and are sent the message that their teacher must, essentially, achieve the results for them. This is not just a theoretical argument. The best evidence of how it is happening in reality comes with GCSE coursework, for which many teachers now confess to routinely telling pupils what to write, since they cannot afford for them to fail to achieve the grades on which a school’s future may hinge.

A quotation from an academic in the Nuffield Foundation report also reflects the knock



on effect of this among undergraduates: ‘I don’t like the “empty file pad syndrome”, when students arrive at a seminar with an empty pad, waiting for solutions simply to be communicated to them. The attitude is often “what do I need to know in order to be able to do the examination?” There’s a search for people who break out of that mould.’ Ofsted inspections are, I believe, now the most influential factor in encouraging teaching to the test and reduction of education to exam preparation.

When league tables were introduced, schools could at least take the view that they would not become ‘exams factories’ focusing relentlessly on test success. If results were slightly lower in consequence, at least parents could be the judge of whether or not the trade


?off was a price worth paying. Now, under the new Ofsted inspection regime, schools are facing a choice of going down the better?grades?at?all?cost route, or potentially being failed by inspectors impatient with any action which does not maximise pupil achieve

ment, as measured by its results formulae. I believe that this is pernicious, at worst leaving Ofsted’s role as an enforcer of the political agenda of ministers to raise test scores, almost come what may. For New Labour’s  system of targets has ensured that statistical indicators of pupils’ test success are how the politicians are judged.At the very least, this new regime should not be accepted without a detailed and public debate about whether the purpose of education is solely, as the modern inspection framework clearly implies, to improve exam grades, or whether the public has a right to expect something more from it.




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