Inspector who? What to make of Ofsted’s latest regeneration

Lada Riva advertHere’s something you can try at  home:

Take three deep bowls (each large enough to immerse your hands in). Fill one with cold water, one with water at room temperature, and fill the final one with hot water. Place them in front of you in a row, with the bowl of room temperature water in the centre. Now place one hand in the bowl of cold water and one hand in the bowl of hot water and leave them for about 20-30 seconds. Take your hands out and quickly  place both in the room temperature water. Interesting, eh?

Now let’s stop pretending that you actually did all of that (but kudos to anyone who did: you’re in my fraternity now – I’d show you the handshake but, you know, you have wet hands). The sensation that one feels when placing both hands in the room temperature water is that the hand that was in the cold water first now feels as if it is in hot water, and the hand that was in hot water now feels as if it is in cold water.

This is called perceptual contrast – the idea that our perception of something is affected by the context in which it is placed. In this instance – as in most examples – by presenting two different things directly after one another, our perception of the second thing is altered. It’s a form of anchoring, which I wrote a little about here.

This phenomenon isn’t just present as a physical sensation – it also works psychologically. You will have seen lots of optical illusions like the one below. They basically work on the same principle – we perceive the contrast between the two orange circles to be greater than they are. In fact, as your relentless experience of this type of trick has probably told you, the two orange circles are actually the same size. It is the context that makes you perceive the contrast.

Which of these two orange circles is bigger?
Which of these orange circles is largest of the two?

But where perceptual contrast really comes into its own is in the world of retail as, in the words of psychologist Robert B. Cialdini, a “weapon of influence”. In his book ‘Influence: Science and Practice’, Cialdini refers to how both clothing retailers and car dealers use perceptual contrast to make more sales. He writes:

Suppose a man enters a fashionable men’s store and says that he wants to buy a three-piece suit and a sweater… Clothing stores instruct their sales personnel to sell the costly item first. Common sense might suggest the reverse: If a man has just spent a lot of money to purchase a suit, he may be reluctant to spend very much more on the purchase of a sweater; but the clothiers know better. They behave in accordance with what the contrast principle would suggest: Sell the suit first, because when it comes time to look at sweaters, even expensive ones, their prices will not seem as high in comparison. The same principle applies to a man who wishes to buy the accessories (shirt, shoes, belt) to go along with his new suit. Contrary to the commonsense view, the evidence supports the contrast-principle prediction.

The same principle is applied to car sales. Quite often you’ll see an advert for an ‘on the road’ price of a car. Once you’ve acquiesced to pay this price for a car, the dealer will offer you add-ons. After you’ve spent thousands on a new car, a few hundred on some added flashes and gadgets seem trivial and you are more likely to pay for these. I don’t know about you, but I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve paid for add-ons to expensive purchases that I’ve made.

This ‘weapon’ is also prevalent in restaurant menu design. Menu Engineer (‘Mengineer’?) Gregg Rapp talks about how he places expensive items on menus as decoys to make other items seem more reasonable. See him expose his tricks in this video (skip to around 2mins for his use of perceptual contrast):

It is with this phenomenon in mind that I think we should have reservations in our reception of Ofsted’s revised school inspection handbook, released this week.

After years of campaigning for Ofsted reform (by the way, that is a brilliant list of blogs compiled by de facto Chief Librarian of the campaign, Joe Kirby), the Rebel Alliance, led by legendary master Old Andrew Kenobi and flaxen maverick Jedi hero David Didau have recently begun to engage the inspectorate in dialogue. This has resulted in reiterations of policy and rewrites of the handbook, culminating in this week’s revised guidance.

"You're my only hope." Deep in the BlogCave, David and Andrew receive a holographic message from new EdSec Nicky Morgan.
“You’re my only hope.” Deep in the BlogCave, David and Andrew receive a holographic message from new EdSec Nicky Morgan.

The revisions have been received quite warmly – who could complain about the reiterations that inspectors – and I might be paraphrasing here – “definitely 110% guaranteed-or-your-money-back won’t be grading individual lesson observations, oh no siree, Bob, not this time and you can take that to the bank”?

But is it enough? Are we in danger of accepting this Gallifreyan regeneration of the inspectorate because, well, it’s a bit different to the last one and the perceptual contrast means we see that difference as greater than it actually is? Is this a reboot or is it just a shot-for-shot remake with a different cast? I must admit, I think that the differences between this revision and the last aren’t as great as I’d expected them to be.

It’s really important that we look at the inspection process from September in isolation and not in the context of the last few years. It doesn’t matter if it is better than what we had before – perceptual contrast has no actual value. What we should be asking is, just as the relentless bloggers have been asking all this time, is this incarnation fit for purpose? Is this incarnation actually right? I’m not sure that it is… yet.

So let’s take up Joe Kirby’s rallying call:

Now, above all, is the time to keep up the pressure. The education blogosphere is organising. We, the teachers, are reclaiming our profession. The momentum is rising. The next campaign target is to stop Ofsted grading teaching altogether.

If we sustain it, radical reform of the inspection regime is within reach.

Now, go and dry your hands.


‘Influence: Science and Practice’ by Robert B. Cialdini



8 thoughts on “Inspector who? What to make of Ofsted’s latest regeneration”

  1. Spot on. (I would go further, though. There has been no indication that Ofsted yet acknowledge that the way they have operated has had severe unintended negative consequences. I’m sceptical that they can transform into what is required).

  2. Thanks for the blog James. What else would you have expected to see in the revised handbook for September?
    Best wishes

    1. Hi Sean – thanks for engaging. I have full respect for the way that you are engaging with teachers on Twitter and in person and am certain that you want what is best for schools. I think the point I am trying to raise here is that an overhaul is needed along the lines of the Policy Exchange and Civitas suggestions. As such, I think you are working largely within your remit as to the changes which you personally can oversee.

    2. Sean, I think this misses the point. True, various prominent Ofsted people are engaging via social media, handbooks have been changed, and guidance ‘clarified’, but…..there is no indication from Ofsted that anything other than adjustments are needed to make things right. Contracted out inspection services have been blamed for unintended adverse consequences. Ofsted has not taken any responsibility for these consequences (and the consequences have been insidious in undermining the teaching profession). Until such responsibility is genuinely admitted, I am very sceptical that Ofsted can make the changes necessary to become a force for encouragement and development.

  3. I don’t trust that Ofsted will not grade the lesson at all. They will have an idea of what they think it is (even if they’re not allowed to write it down) because they have to grade the overall quality of teaching in the school. They’re not going to pluck a grade out of nowhere are they? It’s going to come from notes taken during observations etc. I’d love to be proved wrong, just doesn’t add up.

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