by Dr Jo Albin-Clark, Edge Hill University and Dr Nathan Archer, Leeds Beckett University
Inspection in the news
Being involved in education in England involves navigating an intense policy landscape where accountability is entangled with surveillance and performativity (Spencer Woodley, 2014; Kilderry, 2015). Ofsted, the regulatory accountability mechanism in England, has seen heightened scrutiny recently after the tragic death of a headteacher. Consequently there have been impassioned reactions, with calls for reference to Ofsted to be removed, inspections to be halted and ultimately whole-scale reform.
Certainly, in the work of (early) education there are accountabilities to multiple stakeholders. Few educators would question their accountability to children and parents, but the surveillance and high stakes scrutiny by regulators is something entirely different. Recent days have seen a wave of stories in the press and on social media highlighting the stress, anxiety and health ramifications of Ofsted inspections. Accountability brings an emotional vulnerability as the boundaries between the personal and professional are porous, especially when it comes to judgements being boiled down to one word only. Words and images that appear through multiple documentation are powerful and have both effect and affect (Albin-Clark, 2021). There are further questions too about how the processes bound up with inspection processes (deep dives, mock inspections, data generation, staff monitoring observations) impact upon young children themselves, along with their families and educators.
According to Colman (2021), Ofsted foregrounds a hyper-enactment of policy that prioritises compliance at the expense of school leaders’ ability to address the important social context of the school. Professional unions have questioned the relationship between inspection and educational standards in English schools (Bousted, 2020). It would seem we have reached a crisis point in asking questions about who exactly schools and early childhood and care settings are in service to as they walk a tightrope of conflicting accountabilities.
One key factor is how the educational system in England foregrounds an audit culture where settings and schools are expected to have an “Ofsted story” ready that details a narrative of progress for children (Bradbury and Roberts-Holmes, 2017). Consequently, Ofsted acts as a constant form of surveillance which means their function has extended way beyond an inspection body, and instead manufactures a “mandate for defining ‘quality’ and ‘good’ practice.” (Wood, 2019:784). A consequence of this is a preoccupation with metrics, datafication and measurement (Roberts-Holmes et al, 2023). Children then become datafied even before they even reach compulsory schooling (Bradbury, 2019). Thus, regulators rely on a centralised and technical prescription of quality. Yet in reality we exist in a post pandemic era where settings and schools are supporting families and their staff through an extraordinarily demanding period of hardship and vulnerability. Yet metrics cannot measure that kind of emotional labour, but it is central to the relational work of early education and care. But as Moss writes: “‘Quality’ is neither neutral nor self-evident but saturated with values and assumptions…. for example, the value given to certainty and mastery, linearity and predictability, objectivity and universality.” (2016:9-10)
It is all too evident that audit cultures have consequences. The intensification of external accountability results in a diminished agency of educators through “reduced autonomy as a result of the regulatory gaze” (Osgood, 2010:124) with identities increasingly shaped by regulation. A notable consequence of such accountability and surveillance as experienced by participants in numerous studies (Sloan, 2022; Oosterhoff et al, 2020) were feelings of not being trusted along with an erosion of autonomy. Such accountability via surveillance inevitably impacts upon the professional identities of educators. As Roberts-Holmes and Moss write:
Professional identity is corroded by this performative culture, deprofessionalising practitioners and steering them away from the pedagogical values and principles that may have brought them into the work in the first place or which they learnt during their education. …the teacher’s subjectivity becomes “made up” by performance data…(2021:120)
As a result, educators find themselves negotiating personal pathways through structural constraints (Jeffrey and Woods, 1998).
Resistance and subversion
In our recent research enquiries, we have wondered about how accountability and policy mechanisms cause tensions for educators (Archer and Albin-Clark, 2022, Archer 2022, Albin-Clark, 2020). We take a close interest in educators who find and develop their autonomy and agency through resistance and subversion practices. In our latest paper we researched how practitioners found ways to promote children’s entitlement and right to play through pushing back on accountability narratives and asserting a resistance to narrow definitions of learning (Albin-Clark and Archer, forthcoming). We found that what mattered was the capacity to tell stories of children’s play as a way of foregrounding deeply held pedagogical values.
Recent events with Ofsted suggest this resistance practice is gaining momentum (see also Eastleigh pre-school shuts over Ofsted inspection row – BBC News). Beyond resistance, there is research on educator activism. Sachs proposes a renewed focus on teacher inquiry and research literacy as features of an activist identity, in order to counter the domination of standards-based accountability. Sachs suggests:
…a new approach [which] requires that teachers collectively and individually address those in power to make it clear that a top-down approach is simply not working, nor, in principle, is it likely to work.(2016:414)
So, questions remain about how educators navigate accountability tensions and find ways of developing advocacy and efficacy. It seems at the moment there is an opportunity to amplify what is unique and distinct about early education and care and therefore what really matters for our youngest children and those who work within the field. This kind of debate can shape any calls to review the role and process of inspection processes. We have found these questions helpful:
- What matters for our youngest children, their families and communities?
- What matters to early educators in having a supportive and nurturing place to work and how are they safeguarded during inspection cycles?
- Does the current inspection process pose unnecessary risk?
- How does inspection (both experience of and preparation for) impact children themselves?
- Does having an “Ofsted story” ready at all times cause an unhealthy pressure outside of the working day and how fair is this to staff and their families?
- How can we uncouple what matters from audit and accountability agendas?
- What alternatives are there to one-word judgements?
- How can universities, researchers and student teachers/practitioners contribute to agendas beyond audit cultures?
- What kind of presence and foregrounding does inspection have in a setting/school/university? How present is the language of one word grading on documentation and what kind of environment does that create?
- How can educators develop a sense of advocacy for themselves (and the sector) and how can engagement with national organisations (such as Early Education) support such advocacy?
- What role can higher level study (such as Masters courses) have for educators in supporting identities of advocacy and activism?
- What role does advocating for a child’s right and entitlement to play have?
- How can educators tell hopeful pedagogical stories that foreground play and what matters to children and local communities?
- How can telling stories of play support narratives of learning beyond narrow and measurable developmental milestones?
Albin-Clark, J. (2020). ‘I felt uncomfortable because I know what it can be’: The emotional geographies and implicit activisms of reflexive practices for early childhood teachers. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 21(1), pp.20-32.
Albin-Clark, J. (2021). What is documentation doing? Early childhood education teachers shifting from and between the meanings and actions of documentation practices. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 22(2), pp.140-155.
Albin-Clark, J. and Archer, N (forthcoming) Playing social justice: How do early childhood teachers enact the right to play through resistance and subversion? PRISM: Casting New Light on Learning, Theory and Practice.
Archer, N. and Albin-Clark, J. (2022), July. Telling Stories That Need Telling: A Dialogue on Resistance in Early Childhood Education. In FORUM (Vol. 64, No. 2, pp. 21-29). Lawrence and Wishart.
Archer, N. (2022.) ‘I have this subversive curriculum underneath’: Narratives of micro resistance in early childhood education. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 20(3), pp.431-445.
Bousted, M. (2020). October. Ofsted: A problem in search of a solution. In Forum (Vol. 62, No. 3, pp. 433-443). Lawrence and Wishart.
Bradbury, A. (2019). Datafied at four: the role of data in the ‘schoolification’ of early childhood education in England. Learning, Media and Technology, 44(1), pp. 7-21.
Bradbury, A. and Roberts-Holmes, G. (2017). Creating an Ofsted story: the role of early years assessment data in schools’ narratives of progress, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 38:7, 943-955, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2016.1202748
Colman, A. (2021). School leadership, school inspection and the micropolitics of compliance and resistance: Examining the hyper-enactment of policy in an area of deprivation. Educational Management Administration & Leadership, 49(2), pp.268-283.
Kilderry, A. (2015). The intensification of performativity in early childhood education, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 47:5, 633-652, DOI: 10.1080/00220272.2015.1052850
Moss, P. (2016). Why can’t we get beyond quality? Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 17(1), 8–15. https://doi.org/10.1177/1463949115627895
Oosterhoff, A., Oenema-Mostert, I. and Minnaert, A. (2020). Constrained or sustained by demands? Perceptions of professional autonomy in early childhood education. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 21(2), pp.138-152.
Osgood, J. (2010). Reconstructing professionalism in ECEC: The case for the ‘critically reflective emotional professional’. Early Years, 30(2), pp.119-133.
Roberts‐Holmes, G. and Bradbury, A. (2016). Governance, accountability and the datafication of early years education in England. British Educational Research Journal, 42(4), pp.600-613.
Roberts-Holmes, G. and Moss, P. (2021). Neoliberalism and early childhood education: Markets, imaginaries and governance. Routledge.
Roberts-Holmes, G., Paananen, M., Siippainen, A., Albin-Clark, J., Archer, N. and Chung, J. (2023) Metric Fixation and The Datafication of Early Childhood Education and Care Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood:
Sloan, K. (2022). Scarcity and surveillance in early childhood education. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood. https://doi.org/10.1177/14639491221128884
Spencer-Woodley, L., (2014). Accountability: Tensions and challenges. In: Z. Kingdon and J. Gourd, eds. Early Years Policy: The Impact on Practice. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 33–55.
Wood, E. (2019). Unbalanced and unbalancing acts in the Early Years Foundation Stage: a critical discourse analysis of policy-led evidence on teaching and play from the office for standards in education in England (Ofsted). Education 3-13, 47(7), pp.784-795.