Sunday thoughts: Will Labour’s plan to replace Ofsted with a School Report Card work?
Bridget Phillipson’s speech to ASCL conference this weekend was interesting for a number of reasons. It’s a shame we couldn’t contrast it with Gillian Keegan’s, but as she said in her apology, that college visit to Darlington just couldn’t wait. Or maybe she was locked in pay negotiations. I can’t remember. Anyway, I digress.
(I should say, in an effort to be even handed with my snark, that as of Saturday evening, I still can’t actually find a transcript of the Phillipson speech anywhere, so I’m going off the press release, plus the newspaper commentary, and her own Twitter thread summary. It doesn’t strike me as impossible that the speech could have been uploaded somewhere by now, given that a lot of people will be focussing more on these set piece remarks from the Opposition than thwy were a year or so ago.)
Anyway, from the summaries that exist, and comparing it to a lot of her interviews and speeches from the last few months, you can see a growing confidence to do what Lt Commander Galloway asked Daniel Kaffee in A Few Good Men: “I want you to stand up and make an argument”. Of course she is, you might say, she’s 20 points up in the polls. But she’s now clearer on setting what she believes, and what she wants to do — but also what not to do. Whether it’s telling people (at her Onward speech) that she’s not going to abolish Ofsted, or (in her remarks to the Spectator) giving the clearest and best possible framing I’ve seen so far of the argument as to why private schools should be taxed while respecting parent choice, or (to Bloomberg), defending why Labour shouldn’t be embarrassed to talk about the family, you sense someone who is not just going to triangulate her way through her time as a Shadow Secretary of State. I completely approve. It’s also not a coincidence that I’ve highlighted publications and organisations that aren’t always sympathetic to Labour. Of course all Oppositions spend time in the “enemy camp”. But although Phillipson has of course continued to talk to the Mirror, the New Statesman, the Guardian et al, I detect a real sense to spread her engagement.
Finally, I just want to note this paragraph, from the press release of her ASCL speech:
“The next Labour government will bring a wind of change to our education system…and drive forward reform of education and of childcare as part of our mission to break down barriers to opportunity.
“Because I am determined that under Labour the focus will again return, to how we deliver a better future for every child, through high and rising standards in every school.
“I will make no apology for being demanding for our children, and I want parents to be part of that wind of change through our classrooms: partners in the push for better.”
Every part of that — the use of the word reform in the first sentence; the push for high and rising standards; the no apology for being demanding for children (including to the schools they attend); and the parents as partners framing — every part of that has been meticulously chosen. Apart from the clunky wind of change metaphor that should have been cut on a final read through, that paragraph wouldn’t look out of place being delivered by any of the great reforming Secretaries of State or Ministers in recent years — Gove, Blunkett, Adonis. But I can’t imagine it being said by Angela Rayner, and I definitely can’t imagine it being said by Rebecca Long-Bailey. And this para is the chosen excerpt in the press release. Phillipson, and her team, want this framing up front.
On the substance of her remarks, the headline commitment was a pledged reform (not abolition) of Ofsted — including an annual safeguarding review, and the big promise of replacing Ofsted’s current grading system with a new “School Report Card”.
I like the safeguarding commitment a lot, but I worry — as Amanda Spielman pointed out — that this is a lot more resource intensive than it might first appear. On a quick back of the envelope calculation, if you want to send in an inspector for even a 1 day visit to every one of the 20,000 schools in the country, then you need approximately 60,000 person days to do that (1 day prep, 1 day visit, 1 day write up). Spread over a 39 week year, that means you need to deliver 1,500 of these a week. If — if — an inspector can do two a week every week, you need 750 more staff — more plausibly you need closer to 1,500. That’s easily £75m a year just in salary / contractor costs, and Ofsted’s budget is only currently £130 odd million. I don’t think this one will fly as currently envisaged.
On the report card, this took me back to a huge amount of work I did in government in 2008 and 2009, under Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, when the latter announced the same thing for England. At that time, we were inspired by how Mayor Michael Bloomberg had rolled out similar in New York City, to triangulate between the harder left in the NYC education establishment who wanted an abolition of all accountability measures, and a recognition that a more balanced approach was fairer to schools, especially those serving more disadvantaged populations.
I want to make three quick observations on the report card, which will help (hopefully) the Phillipson team as and when they begin a consultation, as promised, on this announcement.
The first is natural evolution. This is an example of a report card as it looked in 2011 (which is also how it looked in 2008 and 2009 when I looked at them):
The basic premise of the report card is that you should assess schools against a range of measures — not just student performance but also progress, how safe and welcoming the school is, how well students progress, and how it compares to other schools like it. There’s also a wider and separate Quality Review score which is actually closest to an Ofsted inspection — I’ll come back to that. And then, each sub category, and the school as a whole, gets an overall category score — and I’ll come back to that too.
But here’s a report card as of 2018/19 (I’ve used this year because like England, school data publishing and results for accountability purposes was suspended during the pandemic):
There’s a number of changes. The first is that the grading score has been diminished somewhat — with the overall judgement removed (this happened in 2014). The second is that the data is just much more complex. There’s a whole rubric for measuring great schools. There’s a total of 42 indicators just on the category of student achievement here. Don’t get me wrong — I can imagine as a policy geek spending hours on these datasets, drawing comparisons, running regressions on to which indicators are mostly predictive, and analysing trends. But you can imagine what has happened — which is that over ten years or so of a system, both because there are complaints about bleak judgements, and as more people lobby for their element to be assessed in the framework, complexity sprawls. This also happens in current Ofsted frameworks, of course. So lesson 1 — you may want simplicity, but you’ll end up with complexity.
The second thing is that the NYC example really blends together the two main forms of accountability for school — the performance measures, and the human intelligence inspection. The NYC report card is actually closer to what would happen if you printed off the Progress 8 and related data sitting in the depths of the DfE’s Compare Schools Performance service. We have really rich data in England on many of the things covered here, but they don’t get used except by policy nerds. I haven’t been able to find out how well used the report cards are in NYC in 2023, but I would worry that two things happen as a result of the growing complexity — either people will simplify down to some headline measures (probably around student achievement), or people will ignore the data when choosing or judging schools. And like in NYC, I suspect in England we’d never want to remove what they call the Quality Review, and what we would call an Ofsted inspection — a face to face judgement of how well a school is performing. However you assess that, it will remain. So Lesson 2 — you will need to think about how the two forms of accountability mesh together both for parental information and for school performance. If Phillipson and the team want to replace Ofsted with a report card, then will the performance tables still exist? I’m assuming so. Or if they want to effectively try and replace league tables with this form of balanced scorecard assessment as in NYC, then Ofsted will still exist, and still make judgements. Being clear how schools are held accountable, and what is changing and what is staying, is important, and the potential for something going wrong here accidentally is high.
And the third lesson, and the biggest fight that happened in England, was over the framework / rubric / single grade. As can be seen, at that time New York ran with a fairly clear and explicit letter grade system, including — importantly — for the school as a whole. East Side Community School got an A grade in 2011/12. There’s lots of rationale, sure, and lots of sub data, and lots of nuance, but ultimately — this is an A grade school. A lot of people in England (including ASCL) didn’t like that, and pushed hard for the new English system to be ungraded — just the data, ma’am. Ed Balls, to his credit (imho), pushed back. Looking forward a decade, we can see how the whole system in NYC responded. They don’t have letters any more, and the totemic single grade overall has gone. That’s a big concession by the less reform minded mayors and Schools Chancellors who succeeded Bloomberg and Joel Klein. But NYC still have Excellent / Good / Fair / Needs Improvement — a grading system by any other name — across the main sub categories, prominently displayed at the top of the report. So Lesson 3 — your biggest fight will be over grades — do you keep them, do you have an overall judgement, and do you keep them for sub categories. The applause her team got for promising to abolish grades will quickly be retracted if — when? — it’s clear that there still will be some sort of framework and grading. I’d push quite hard for an overall grade, but others disagree. It’s possible that Labour really would abolish all grades on judgements. But the very careful way in which they’ve presented this — including Phillipson saying they’re not abolishing Ofsted, and the briefing to ASCL conference being about replacing grade descriptors, while still keeping the categories, makes me think they won’t instinctively want to do this. They want nuance unpicking the grades, but not abandoning grades full stop.
Labour appear to be finally starting to roll out some detailed policy now. We can expect more, I would guess, over the next few months as part of the Starmer missions — and a big drop of policy at conference in the Autumn. Phillipson is riding the wave of a strong reception from the sector now, and it’s to her credit that she’s not simply telling them what they want to hear.