Thursday, 26 November 2009

Ofsted receives a low rating, but that's its job

A month ago (see post dated 28 October) I first mentioned public criticism of Ofsted, the inspectorate for children and learners. The stream has become a torrent, including the Association of Children’s Services, which represents the head of children’s departments in English local authorities, claiming that the new annual performance profiles being developed by Ofsted are “not fit for purpose”. Why is that of interest here? The point is that systemic leadership focuses on what is going on between and around managers when they try to take on a leadership role. Are managers’ efforts helped or hindered by Ofsted’s approach? The answer from those being inspected is an overwhelming thumb’s down. For a summary of the problem, see

The root problem is that Ofted is required by government to sit in judgement – of schools, teachers, social workers. Is that helpful? Is it necessary? The heavy-handed style is pervasive in the present government culture, and ratings are a big part of that. Ofsted aside, many people seem obsessed with being able to confer a rating on others. Organisations’ performance appraisal systems are frequently brought low by this assumed requirement. As the inspiring conductor-cum-management guru Benjamin Zander says in his book The Art of Possibility, such ratings “are all invented”. In other words, why should we take seriously something that lacks any objective foundation? In his classes his own approach is to give all his students an ‘A’ grade, so that they can stop worrying what grade they will receive and can ‘grow into this top grade’, as he puts it. “An A radiates possibility through a family, a workplace, and a community, gaining strength, bringing joy and expression and a flowering of talent and productivity. Who knows how far it will travel."

Behind this is the view that it is learning and improving that matters, not having a fixed grade. There are times when it can be helpful for others to know what your grade is because it drives something (such as a job application or a computer programme calculating a bonus), but sometimes a grade serves little purpose and tells us more about the rater and the system than the person or organisation being rated. If Ofsted refocused its ‘inspection’ on learning and support, then it might have a future. But that would mean changing its values and those of its government sponsors. That is unlikely to happen. Trust has evaporated. As has faith in Ofsted’s own internal organisational management. The only question now is ‘Do we need an OfOf – a regulator to cut the regulators down to size?