Like most, I am really encouraged by the direction of travel that Amanda Spielman and her team have outlined. The promise of a shift away from an over-reliance on test and exam data is clearly very welcome.
The chief inspector has made a strong case that Ofsted should seek to complement rather simply replicate published performance data, and there are few people working in schools who would disagree.
If the inspectorate is able to achieve this ambition, we could be talking about a real game-changer. It has the potential to be one of the most positive reforms Ofsted has embarked upon since its creation in the early 1990s – it’s that significant.
However, changing the inspection framework, as the chief inspector herself has acknowledged, will have an enormous impact on schools – and this is simply unavoidable. It’s the reason people are so keen to see and understand the detail as well as the broader guiding principles. School leaders and teachers know that it is the detail of each bullet point in the framework that will really matter, as these will guide inspectors and ultimately determine the judgements they make.
While we don’t yet have sight of the finer details, we are beginning to get a clearer picture of how schools might be inspected this time next year.
Based on what has been shared so far, there seem to me to be a few critical questions to answer:
How manageable is the new framework for inspectors?
One proposal is that “pupil outcomes” and “quality of teaching” will be subsumed into a broader category of “quality of education”. Into this will also be added an evaluation of the school’s curriculum. It could be interpreted that this means more has been added into an already packed framework. Whilst inspectors will no longer be expected to grade the quality of teaching and pupil outcomes, I assume they will still need to spend time considering these if they form part of the new broader judgement. We know that inspectors already find it hard to fit everything in under the existing framework: what will they no longer do in the new version?
What will the relationship be between the “quality of education” judgement and the “overall effectiveness” judgement?
Will the Quality of Education (QoE) judgement be a limiting judgement? It’s hard to see how a school being graded Requires Improvement for quality of education could be judged Good for overall effectiveness.
What will the weightings within the new judgement be?
In this new QoE judgement, if an inspector judges the curriculum to be highly effective but pupil outcomes are way below the national average – how will this be reflected in the judgement for that area? While the chief inspector has suggested that she hopes there would be a link between the two, what if an inspector finds a school where there is an apparent disconnect?
How will inspectors judge the quality of the curriculum?
This remains a question of fundamental importance. I appreciate that there is a great deal of research going on at Ofsted to try and answer this one, but for me it remains an extremely difficult area. Let’s take the example of a school that says it simply follows the national curriculum in all its breadth and depth. Will that be sufficient? Let’s not forget that this is the curriculum that, when it was launched, was described as being “world class” by the then secretary of state for education and one which “has been deliberately designed to ensure England has the most productive, most creative and best educated young people of any nation.” On that basis, following it pretty closely might seem a reasonably sensible decision for a school leader to take. Will further explanation be required from schools?
How will the new framework reduce workload?
Ofsted has suggested that the new proposals will have a positive effect on workload in schools. At the moment, it’s not clear exactly how this will happen. The claim appears to be that with Ofsted focusing less on data, teachers will have to spend less time collecting it. However, the recent myth-busting work has already clearly established that schools do not need to produce excessive amounts of tracking data for inspectors. For me, the high-stakes nature of inspections and cliff-edge judgments have always been the main drivers of workload, rather than such specific requirements.
It is vital that ample time is given for these and many other questions to be discussed and debated fully and then for schools to have the time to consider what it will mean for them. Whilst I have touched on just a few questions, there will undoubtedly be many others.
It may seem somewhat picky to raise these sorts of questions about the finer detail when the inspectorate is clearly trying to move in the right direction, but when it’s your school that’s being inspected, it’s the finer detail that really matters.
James Bowen is the director of NAHT Edge