What key points confuse you about Ofsted’s proposed framework?
The consultation for school inspection was published on the Department for Education’s website on 16 January 2019 and is open until 5 April 2019. There is a good period of opportunity for everyone to engage in how our education settings are evaluated across England.
I consider myself to have a decent understanding of school improvement, but there are five things which baffle me about Ofsted’s proposals and how it proposes to inspect our schools.
1. We have no preferred curriculum
The curriculum is at the heart of the new proposed Ofsted inspection framework. Ofsted has made this very clear. Three buzzwords now circulating the echelons of our education system, or at least on social media are intent, implementation and impact.
Only last week, a prominent headteacher told me that a senior leader from Ofsted had told them: “If you don’t offer an EBacc curriculum, then you’re screwed!” I suspect this to be true. I mean, why would a headteacher have any reason to lie to me?
Digging into the details, this appears to be correct despite what schools are being told across England. Ofsted clearly wants secondary schools to meet the government’s ambition to have 90 per cent of all pupils studying an English Baccalaureate curriculum by 2025. Yet, without enough teachers in certain subjects, this is never going to happen.
Ofsted clearly does have a preference.
2. Broad and balanced for as long as possible …
What is worth noting is that Ofsted does not require schools to be, “…at similar stages of EBacc implementation as other schools, or provide additional information outside of their normal curriculum planning” … and that … “the curriculum remains as broad as possible for as long as possible, and pupils are able to study a strong academic core of subjects, such as those offered by the English Baccalaureate” (EBacc) as highlighted on page 41.
This is clearly an attempt to keep key stage 3 teaching as open as possible before creative subject options are dramatically reduced throughout key stage 4.
3. The heart of an effective curriculum …
Paragraph 162 on page 42 is the most damming of all. “At the heart of an effective key stage 4 curriculum is a strong academic core: the EBacc. The government’s response to its EBacc consultation, published in July 2017, confirmed that the large majority of pupils should be expected to study the EBacc… It is important that inspectors understand what schools are doing to prepare for this to be achieved, and they should take those preparations into consideration when evaluating the intent of the school’s curriculum.”
For the ‘quality of education’ judgement of schools, to achieve a good rating it says, “The school’s aim is to have the EBacc at the heart of its curriculum, in line with the DfE’s ambition, and good progress has been made towards this ambition.”
If results and national tests are not good enough, a requires improvement judgement beckons for that ‘quality of education’ evaluation. I thought Ofsted was promoting less of a focus on data and examination results?
4. Policy contradictions
On paragraph 291 the draft consultation says, “…Inspectors will also explore whether the school is either working towards or has achieved, the EBacc as the foundation for its key stage 4 curriculum” and in paragraph 292 it also says “The government’s ambition for all secondary schools is for 75% of pupils to be entered for the EBacc by 2021.”
This seems to be one year earlier than the Department for Education’s ambition of 75 per cent by 2022. Is Ofsted trying to drive up EBacc compliance to support the DfE’s ambition? Perhaps it simply is a typo?
The research is becoming increasingly strong and clear about this. The English Baccalaureate is narrowing our school curriculum. Only last week, I shared two new reports by the Fabian Society and GL Assessment who are leading provider of formative assessment in UK schools. Why on earth would an independent organisation wish to inspect schools on a policy which has developed a narrow curriculum offer for pupils, but claim that they want schools to do the opposite?
5. External expertise
There has also been a slide circulating on social media from those who have attended one of Ofsted’s briefings. There is one slide that says, “Should I get advice from a consultant or buying specific products?” I can understand why this is being challenged. As a school leader, I’ve held this (narrow) view myself. There will be some organisations and consultants who peddle the latest recommendations and charge extortionate amounts of cash. On the other side, there will be consultants who genuinely support schools, regardless of Ofsted preferences, and have done so for many years.
Research by government-funded Teacher Development Trust reported 8 recommendations for high-quality professional development for schools. Number six on the list said, “… external input from providers/specialists must challenge orthodoxies within a school and provide diverse perspectives.”
So, why is Ofsted keen to eradicate consultants who support schools if it goes against government-funded advice and expertise? Firstly, I suspect one reason may be due to the extortionate costs some will charge, which Ofsted offer freely at conferences, plus the myths which are exacerbated and the poor advice offered. Frustrating though it is, Ofsted rarely offers any of this advice to schools before or after an inspection in a peer-review model, because they simply do not have the workforce to do so. A school is left with a paper report to muse over and it’s up to the leadership team and the governors to sort out. A recent announcement from the government aims to stop this and put in support where it is needed.
Over the last 17 years as a school leader, I have used school funds to buy in external expertise for teacher professional development, support in lessons and with departments as well as behind-the-scenes strategic thinking for middle and senior leaders. This has come at a cost, but nothing extortionate compared to what an Ofsted inspector earns for a day’s inspection work. Many people I know and have used in the schools I have worked, each proved to be value for money for a number of reasons, and note, regardless of the school’s grading by Ofsted or inspection framework. External people can provide deep and meaningful support for the thousands of colleagues, especially those working tirelessly in challenging schools and at the sharp end of the Ofsted wedge.
The future is not Ofsted
Two things to ponder on: One, it will take Ofsted 5 years to visit all schools under these new proposals. Some schools will never be evaluated on this framework. Two, if current school leaders who work as Ofsted inspectors resigned, Ofsted’s capacity to lead who be severely damaged.
If Ofsted wants to remain tenable and offer good value for money, and if accountability and transparency are to work both ways, then the organisation must live up to what it promotes on schools: challenge and scrutiny (see slide 2 and 5) from all of us interested in genuine school improvement. We are only a couple of months away from Ofsted’s annual report being published and I hope this report does not damage their proposed plans for 2019 – I’ll be taking a good look at the developments of diversity in their leadership team, their gender gap pay and of course, leadership team bonuses funded by the taxpayer.
And don’t get me started on ‘Cultural capital’ and how Ofsted intends to evaluate the “best that has been thought and said”. It’s simply not possible to evaluate a 5-year curriculum pathway in a two-day inspection. So, I’d argue that we must stop wasting time and energy and instead, genuinely start supporting teachers and schools to do what is best for their pupils. There is no preference or one-size fits all. The time has been and gone for Ofsted to make revolutionary reforms, and this evolutionary model doesn’t do it for me.
I clearly am a confused soul.
I welcome Ofsted’s plans to become a more humane watchdog, but I am vehemently against its plans to continue grading schools and its intentions to widen social exclusion, ostracising creative subjects for pupils who wish to study them. Some would argue the EBacc creates a level-playing field; I have serious misgivings. As Professor Robert Coffield said, this is an example of unintelligent accountability.