Ed Dorrell

'Maybe Ofsted's inspection reform could do with a little less va-va-voom'

If done right, a new Ofsted framework would provide significant and positive change to the education system. But as the inspectorate bats aways concerns over the reforms this outcome looks far from certain

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Should teachers embrace risk-taking in their classroom practice? This is the question we ask in today’s Tes, as we talk to teachers and heads who have put themselves on the line by exposing their frailties to their colleagues and pupils.

We ask whether this kind of thing – studying physics GCSE alongside your form, learning a musical instrument with your Year 7s – is good for your teaching and your students. The jury is still out, but it is perhaps worth celebrating the bravery (madness?) of Suzie Longstaff, who joined her students in trying to learn stand-up comedy.

What a contrast with the current crop of education’s frontline politicians. At the Conservative Party conference this week, education secretary Damian Hinds avoided most of the school sector’s most controversial issues in his speech: absent were funding, recruitment, workload, off-rolling.

A week earlier, his Labour shadow, Angela Rayner, was not much different. Would a Corbyn government reverse academisation? It’s not clear. Would it reimagine the Tories’ skills policy? Who can tell? Just what is the National Education Service? It largely remains anyone’s guess.

At a time when the nation is crying out for a vision, when the education system feels tired, underfunded and unloved, there was a distinct lack of hope.

One public figure who apparently isn’t short of the chutzpah and va-va-voom so absent on Parliament’s front benches is Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman. She is pushing on with her plans to redesign the regulator’s inspection framework, putting curriculum at the centre of how schools are judged, which in turn is designed to reduce their focus on raw outcomes. This is a big deal. Done right, it would lead to significant – and very positive – change in the way many schools behave. It could lessen teaching-to-the-test, broaden the experience of pupils and reduce gaming of the qualifications system.

But for months now there have been voices worried that Ofsted might be rushing this reform. The Department for Education is apparently worried about how such a change would affect teacher workload, its number-one priority. Senior mandarins are also yet to be convinced that the inspectorate is capable of judging the subtle nuance of different curricula. Can one be confident that a skills-based curriculum would get as fair a hearing as one anchored in knowledge, for example?

There are also valid questions being asked by, among others, the NAHT heads’ union about the quality of the inspection workforce and whether perfectly good schools would be punished just because they had not had enough time to prepare for this step-change.

Two hugely influential names added themselves to the chorus of consternation this week: Teach First chief executive Russell Hobby and Inspiration Trust boss Dame Rachel de Souza. Both question the capacity of Ofsted in its current form – and with its current level of funding – to make the new framework a success.

Ofsted bats away these concerns, insisting that time is of the essence, that its consultation will be extensive, that it is embarking on a major training programme for its staff, and that its plans are backed by research – but here, too, there have been voices challenging its rigour. It is perhaps worth pointing out that two schools in de Souza’s trust were central to the inspectorate’s latest curriculum research.

If Spielman and her well-intentioned team were to get this reform right, there is the potential to reduce gaming and lead to a blossoming of curriculum innovation, including possibly a flourishing of the kind of risk-taking that we explore in this week’s Tes.

But, as it stands, this outcome is far from guaranteed. It would be tragic if such an interesting idea foundered simply because it was rushed.

Is the new framework a gamble too far?