Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The balance of risk and regulation

Matthew Taylor has already raised some pertinent questions about the power of regulators, after a seminar that he expertly chaired at the RSA yesterday. There is a particularly interesting debate underway in government, reflecting some of the schizophrenia that surrounds the whole issue of regulation and accountability.

Over the past 20 years, there has been a transformation in attitudes to data within the public sector, particularly in schools. It isn't just about high profile league tables, though their presence has undoubtedly spurred some improvement. As important has been the ability of schools to compare their performance with others with similar characteristics, and to benchmark themselves against the best in their field with the help of organisations like the Fischer Family Trust. Familiarity with data, a rarity 15 years ago, is now universal among school leaders. For the coalition, this data is at the heart of their accountability agenda, and in an education system where many of the levers have been withdrawn and market forces are largely absent as a result of the admissions system, an ever-increasing supply of data is the seen as the biggest driver of improvement.

The corrolary of this is that regulators like Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, are expected to do more with less. Michael Gove, the education secretary, is facing growing opposition in the House of Lords to the idea that schools designated outstanding, even if that designation is several years old, should not be re-inspected unless there is a significant change in the data or substantial parental complaint. Gove has decided that such schools are low risk compared with the failing and barely satisfactory schools where he wants Ofsted to focus its resources.

There is nothing new in the idea that such interventions should be in proportion to their success. Michael Barber's phrase informed an approach to inspection that did focus resources on the weakest schools and saw inspections of the most successful reduced to short visits as little as every six years. But there is a big difference between short six-yearly visits and none at all. For a start, the expectation of a future Ofsted visit is as important as the visit itself in spurring improvement, and this is as true in successful schools as any other. Then, the evidence suggests that a significant minority of outstanding schools are less successful on re-inspection. Inspectors themselves need to know how good schools can be if they are to set their sights high enough for those that don't make the grade. And, as Gove himself acknowledged, even many outstanding schools may not reach that grade in their teaching and learning, and need to be encouraged to do so.

At the heart of all this is a debate about the balance between risk and regulation. Inspectorates are there to reveal what is wrong, but also in doing so to encourage public services to do better. Ofsted has had remarkable success in this since its inception, and has arguably been as important to the improvements of the last twenty years as league tables and other published data. Gove has set himself ambitions for England to become a world-beater in education over the next five years. In doing so, he is accepting that schools have improved, but is insisting they need to do much better. Is there a danger that he has made his goal harder by reducing pressure on those schools that need to be at the vanguard of such global ambitions? Where should that balance lie?

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