After years of denial, Ofsted has seen the light. It’s admitted that the current school accountability system (in which it plays a central role) can "divert schools from the real substance of education".
Ofsted has recognised that "an industry has arisen around data, and what young people learn is too often coming second to the delivery of performance table data".
And it has acknowledged that "this data focus also leads to unnecessary workload for teachers, diverting them from the reason they chose to enter the profession’.
And accepted that "teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum have had the greatest negative effect on those we care about the most: the disadvantaged and the least able children".
Indeed, Ofsted is so concerned that its current inspection framework is not fit for purpose that Luke Tryl, the inspectorate's director of corporate strategy, wrote recently that a year’s delay in implementing a new inspection framework would be equivalent to 8.5 million pupils years "of a system that we agree isn’t working as it should for children or teachers".
Ofsted's change of focus
Keen to waste no more time with inspections that divert schools from what they really should be doing, Ofsted is now consulting on a new approach that aims to refocus school leaders and teachers away from data and towards quality of education.
From September, Ofsted wants its inspectors to look at a school’s curriculum to provide evidence for a quality of education judgement.
Inspectors will judge whether the school’s curriculum provides pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to take advantage of the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life; whether the curriculum is planned and sequenced so that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and to what extent it reflects the school’s local context.
Ofsted’s proposals have been widely welcomed by many school leaders and teachers, who see the harm that has been done to their pupils by a narrow focus on tests and the endless, spurious obsession with data.
I understand the desire, amongst the profession, for something different. But I would advise caution.
And I would ask Ofsted a one-word question.
This was a question asked by inspectors involved in the pilots of the new inspection framework when they expressed concern about the "number of subjects that would need to be seen in order to effectively assess the whole curriculum".
I want to add to the inspectors’ question. I want to ask: how will Ofsted’s additional inspectors, who on average spend nine days a year conducting inspections, come to valid, reliable judgements on highly complex questions on a school’s curriculum quality?
Because Ofsted does not propose that its inspection teams will be made up of subject or age/phase specialists. Inspectors who are maths graduates will continue to inspect English and history teaching. Secondary school leaders will continue to inspect early years provision.
How will inspectors be equipped with the detailed knowledge and skills to make valid and reliable judgements on the extent to which the curriculum of a subject they have not taught, nor studied at degree level, is well planned and sequenced?
How are inspectors going to assess whether the curriculum reflects the school’s local context when they will spend, on average, two days in that locality?
Ofsted provides some potential answers to these fundamental questions in its draft inspection handbook.
At key stage 1, the handbook asserts that teachers should focus on ensuring that pupils are able to read, write and use mathematical knowledge, ideas and operations. (It’s not until KS2, apparently, that inspectors will expect to see a broad, rich curriculum).
So, remarkably, the evidence for Ofsted’s judgements on the intent and implementation of a broad and balanced curriculum will, at KS1, rely on reading, writing and maths.
At KS4, Ofsted’s judgement will rely on the proportion of pupils entered for the EBacc, a qualification which has been widely criticised since its introduction for decimating GCSE arts entries, and is regarded by many as a key factor in the narrowing of the curriculum offer at GCSE.
A careful and detailed reading of Ofsted’s draft inspection handbook has not reassured me that schools will get the inspections they need, nor the judgements they deserve.
I am afraid that Ofsted has neither the financial nor the human resources to effectively implement its ambitious inspection proposals.
There is no evidence that Ofsted inspection teams will gain the necessary expertise and experience, nor have enough time in school to come to valid and reliable "quality of education" judgements.
So, if you are intending to complete Ofsted’s consultation on its proposals, please pause at the first question: "To what extent do you agree or disagree with the proposal to introduce a quality of education judgement?"
Think about this question in the light of your experience of the competence of Ofsted inspection teams who have come to judgements on schools you have worked in.
And consider whether Ofsted’s honest appraisal of its past failures, and its desire to do better, will be enough to make the change in inspection that our schools need to grow in confidence and ambition to provide the best education for their pupils.
Mary Bousted is the joint-general secretary of the NEU teaching union