Our journey with the States of Mind and the Breaking the Silence project began in the autumn of 2020. We were 12 students from London who knew nothing about Ofsted apart from the importance of ‘being on our best behaviour’ during an inspection. When we signed up for the project, none of us knew what our roles were going to be, or what it might entail. We did have one thing in common. We were hungry for change in the education system.
We decided to co-create an alternative to Ofsted Inspection Framework as we saw a root problem to be the School Inspection and accountability practices. We wanted to create a framework that ensures a high standard of education that centres around students feeling heard, fulfilled and ready to tackle the real world.
First, we went through the current Inspection Framework. What jumped out was the length of the inspection. How can you ‘carefully examine’ a school if it only lasts two days? Although accountability and standards are needed, the efficacy of the inspection is flawed. Reading academic research, we found that a common theme among top school systems worldwide was the decentralisation of evaluation systems which goes hand in hand with teacher autonomy and a child-centred curriculum. Afterwards, we generated primary data via questionnaires, focus groups and interviews. Ranging from students, teachers, head teachers, academics and ex-Ofsted Inspectors. Of all those invited, only current representatives of Ofsted refused to take part. In an email, they said all inspectors ‘have full-time roles’ and that participating would not be of ‘material benefit to Ofsted’.
A recurring theme from our research was that Ofsted inspections are too short to be meaningful or valid. Further, 88 per cent of teachers said they act differently during an inspection, something also observed by 84 per cent of students. This occurs primarily due to the fear of receiving a poor inspection result. A staggering 86 per cent of teachers surveyed felt that Ofsted has negatively or very negatively impacted their mental health. More importantly, Ofsted promotes an over-emphasis on standardised curricula. Teachers are forced to prioritise exam skills, leaving other avenues of education out, such as personal development and, in fact, young people’s views are not actively sought as part of an inspection. In sum, we found that according to those interviewed or surveyed, Ofsted as an entity does more harm than good.
Our findings helped us create our own Inspection Framework: the Review for Progress and Development (RPD) which involves self-evaluation and collaboration with partner schools rather than external inspection. Alongside, we made a documentary capturing our research and launched this in the summer of 2022; Ofsted was invited but did not respond. The project appeared in The Guardian. Breaking the Silence continued onto phase 4, where another cohort of students refined measures such as mental health, teacher student-relationships etc. Unlike Ofsted, the RPD suggests that schools engage in continuous self-evaluation using surveys and focus groups. The RPD is different to Ofsted’s approach as it focuses on school self-evaluation and partnerships with other schools, rather than external accountability. You can see the final draft of the RPD here
and a public engagement form here. Please add your comments; we really want to know what you think about what has been co-created. We have written to Ofsted Chief Amanda Spielman, composed articles and presented our findings at numerous conferences and will continue to do so.
As we got further through our research, we began to realise that the issues with the current evaluation process were a lot deeper than we could see at the surface level and that this would not be an easy fix. However, the fact that we all shared the same passion for change and met so many other students who shared the same views gave us hope that our fight wasn’t futile. The Breaking the Silence project proves that if you allow students to think together, engage in research and lead the way ourselves, we can make a difference and come up with solutions that work for everyone.
Our work is not the end of the conversation or the ultimate solution to the many problems we have found with the current system, but we have made a start and are quickly building momentum. The more people we speak to, and the more young people are involved, the better; we are not prepared to let our voices go unheard any longer.
Hamza Shahbaz and Gabriel Perez are students who have been campaigning for reform in the education system in collaboration with the States of Mind project. Hamza is currently applying for medicine, and Gabriel is studying at the University of Oxford.