Notice to improve

The Ofsted inspection judgement was that the school was 'performing less well than it might in all the circumstances reasonably be expected to perform' and, as a consequence the outcome was a ‘notice to improve’.

What was striking during that lunchtime was the focus of the conversation, while the teachers highlighted some of the inspector’s reasons for his judgement they were particularly vocal and distressed by the inspection process. They talked of ‘stress’ and ‘anxiety’ and as the conversation continued they became increasingly animated, if not agitated, and discussed being ‘frustrated’, ‘unhappy’ and ‘angry’ at their treatment during the inspection.

What was emerging through their talk was the mediation of their work as teachers and the incorporation of their sense of ‘self’ and their emotions into capital (Colley, 2011), that is, a key aspect of their work was emotional labour and this did not appear to be accounted for in the inspection process.

I subsequently negotiated privileged access to the school for the following year, a period when it was expected to improve and was subject to further inspection visits. Undertaking an Institutional Ethnography (IE) (Smith, 2005) I worked as a volunteer and was present before, during and after each inspection visit to the school.

Silencing the ethic of care

In my recent book, Primary Teachers, Inspection and the Silencing of the Ethic of Care, based on this research, I argued that particular aspects of the teachers’ understanding of care were silenced.

Drawing on Tronto’s (1993) positing of a political argument for an ethic of care, I revealed how the teachers came to 'care about' their work, especially how they understood, noted and made assessments of needs. Their attentiveness to the needs of children and their own needs were shaped by political and ideological abstraction which framed certain forms of action, particularly in relation to pedagogy and assessment, as desirable. Furthermore, the teachers were required to 'take care of', the second of Tronto’s phases of care, as an aspect of the particular moral, legal, regulatory and contractual responsibilities. 

The silencing of their understanding of wider aspects of care involved the neglect and diminution of their own needs and those of their own children and family. Most discussed working lengthy hours and not spending sufficient time with their loved ones, indeed one teacher highlighted how she didn’t notice her daughter’s anorexia; others highlight strains in their relationships.

These findings resonate with other research into the performative and instrumental nature of teacher’s work, for example, Stephen Ball (2003) has raised concerns about the challenges of the teacher's soul and the terrors of performativity.

Arising in all of this research are concerns about policy engagement and the inequality in power relations between teachers and those responsible for ensuring policy is enacted. 

Power and ethical concerns

Where power is an aspect of the relationship between people then ethical concerns arise, and here is the crux. To gain entry to the school took me time since I had to negotiate with gate keepers, complete an ethics approval process and put in place procedures to ensure that the teachers were empowered to raise questions and withdraw from the research without repercussion. Moreover, ethical research is not just a matter of concern on entry to the school but requires reflexivity and constant reference throughout the research. Particularly helpful in this are the British Educational Research Association (BERA) guidelines for ethical research (updated 2018).

Despite the ‘terrors of performativity’ (op cit), I became aware that the inspectors did not appear to be required to follow similar ethical approval process. Indeed, these terrors were palatable. The school had a rough timeline for inspection visits but these were only confirmed by a phone call no later than 3.00pm on the day before the visit; as inspection visits were to last two days, the phone call could only come Monday to Wednesday. There was more anxiety in the teachers’ everyday experience at the beginning of the week and they became more relaxed after 3.00pm and on Thursday and Friday. In their own words, they were more ‘stressed’ when awaiting the inevitable phone call.

In this context, paragraph 34 of the BERA (2018) guidelines appears appropriate:

Ethical research design and execution aim to both put participants at their ease and avoid making excessive demands on them. In advance of data collection, researchers have a responsibility to think through their duty of care in order to recognise potential risks, and to prepare for and be in a position to minimise and manage any distress or discomfort that may arise. Researchers should immediately reconsider any actions occurring during the research process that appear to cause emotional or other harm, in order to minimise such harm. The more vulnerable the participants, the greater the responsibilities of the researcher for their protection. (My bold/italics)

That inspection visits and the process of inspection can produce such levels of stress and anxiety is known and noteworthy, yet unlike researchers, inspectors do not have to undertake an ethical approval process before each visit. This I checked through two Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FoI) requests to Ofsted.

Can inspection be considered research?

Oxford Dictionaries online define research as:

(noun) The systematic investigation into and study of materials and sources in order to establish facts and reach new conclusions.

(verb) Investigate systematically.

In these terms it is difficult to differentiate inspection from research. Yet Ofsted do not consider inspectors to be undertaking research and, more recently, have instigated a separate researcher role. Since the academic year 2017/2018 Ofsted researchers have been visiting schools to understand and develop the inspection process (as distinct to undertaking inspections).

In response to the FoI, Ofsted informed me:

We can confirm that Ofsted use the British Educational Research Association ethical guidelines as our organising framework. All projects go through an ethics review as part of the scoping process, and ethical processes are included in the finalised scoping document which guides our work on the individual project. The scoping process consists of three meetings, research focus, research methodology and research ethics. A range of key stakeholders (relevant remit deputy directors, head of research, research lead and programme manager) are present at the ethics meeting for each project we undertake. All members of the research team receive yearly ethics refresher training.

However, for inspectors there is:

no standalone piece of training is delivered that specifically covers the topic of inspections being carried out in an ethical way. Inspectors use their professional judgments to gather evidence to form inspection outcomes that are robustly supported. Inspection work is subject to internal quality assurance processes as set out in our published inspection guidance.

This appears to be a less robust process, one in which one person (the inspector) has a statutory power to make decisions about another person (the teacher) and what the teacher’s priorities and needs are.

This is not to argue that inspectors behave unethically, far from it, and all inspectors must follow the Common Inspections Framework Guidance (Ofsted 2015) which requires inspectors to, 'uphold the highest professional standards in their work and treat everyone they encounter during inspections fairly and with respect and sensitivity'. This includes the requirement to; 'carry out their work with integrity, treating all those they meet with courtesy, respect and sensitivity', and, 'take all reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and minimise stress'. But it is not clear how the latter in particular is planned for and achieved.

There is significant evidence, including from my own research, that both anxiety and stress are accepted as an everyday aspect of the inspection experience and while the inspectors might present themselves in an appropriately professional manner when in schools there is little known of their accounting for power and anxiety and stress outside working hours and beyond the immediate environs of the school. Furthermore, a concern arises since the context in which the inspector’s attention to sensitivity in their work is one of foregrounding performative demands and the needs of the elite who frame what is evidence of ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ educational outcomes. Such a position cannot wholly account for the needs of all stakeholders, including the teachers.

Onara O’Neill (2013) offers a number of solutions in achieving what she terms Intelligent Accountability in Education. In this she argues that accountability should not be limited to dubious metrics and processes but that an intelligent system of accountability recognizes all stakeholders and their needs. She does not view performance indicators as helpful especially as 'many things that are important for education cannot be counted, or added, or ranked because there is no genuine unit of account' (p.14). This is particularly relevant in consideration of the silencing of aspects of the teachers’ understanding of care and the terrors of performativity.

In a previous blog post Professor Rob MacDonald argued that  policy-makers and influencers have a responsibility to listen and Ofsted inspectors are influencers. I would also argue that the role involves research and as such Ofsted should consider how teachers’ wider needs are accounted for.

A significant step toward recognising the needs of all and those things that are not counted in the inspection process would be an applied ethical process, prior to inspection, which explicitly considers, records and tracks ethical dilemmas and their management.