I'm holding my nerve in my support for the new Ofsted

The new Ofsted inspection framework is not short in detractors, but ultimately it could prove a major step in the right direction. We must remember that

Geoff Barton

Of all the decisions I took during 20 years in school senior leadership, one proved far more controversial than all others.

It wasn’t the one where we switched to a three-period day of 100-minute lessons. It wasn’t the decision that we would ignore the government’s EBacc target.

It was instead a decision about something much straightforward, but which left a well-established senior leadership team divided, and me feeling vulnerable and doubt-ridden.

It was the decision to switch off all the school bells.

It emanated from a conversation with a friend who was training to be an HMI as we walked around the school, our conversation interrupted by the clanging of bells, then the subsequent jostling of young people down too-narrow corridors.

“This place is so civilised”, my friend said to me, “except when this happens”. 

He was right. Children were being treated as Pavlovian dogs compelled to be on time to lessons because of an extrinsic trigger rather than an act of personal responsibility and courtesy.

And so, with great trepidation, we turned off the bells. And once the school community adjusted, we found that pupil and staff punctuality improved.

Those first few lesson changeovers were fraught as we worried that chaos would prevail, that a well-ordered school ethos would fragment.

Instead, it became calmer, less frenetic, more civilised, more at ease with itself. And as a result, we awarded ourselves the No Bell Prize.

That’s the thing about decisions. You sometimes feel they are instinctively right but lose your nerve because people around you – plus that irksome inner voice – keep telling you that you’ve made a mistake.

Which brings us to now.

With the autumn half-term break just around the corner, commentators have been taking stock of the new Ofsted framework.

It’s worth remembering that a year ago there was a clamour from many quarters for Ofsted to abandon its plans to shift its focus towards the quality of the curriculum.

The new framework, critics claimed, would be too subjective, would add to teacher workload, would merely reinforce an ideological view of one "official" curriculum over another.

There were calls to abandon the new framework, then to postpone for a year, then for a term.

At ASCL we resisted this, knowing that our support for the inspectorate’s direction of travel carried risks.

But we also knew that Ofsted really had to change its approach. The previous mode of inspection was far too closely defined by a school’s external data, from results and performance tables.

As I said in frustration to the lead inspector at my last-but-one inspection: “You might as well have stayed at home and just phoned this in.”

I believe we’re at a point in our education system where teachers and leaders need to regain control and stop feeling subjugated by performance measures, league tables, and things done to us by other people.

It’s time to shift the narrative from talking about accountability to responsibility.

And I believe that Ofsted’s shift in focus will make that easier, even if in these earlier days it won’t always feel like that for everyone.

After all, at the core of what schools do should be their curriculum – the decisions that teachers make about the knowledge, skills and attributes our young people will need in order to step confidently into the world as successful citizens.

So what’s happening in schools at the moment is not just about rebuilding our sense of what deep curriculum thinking and planning means. It’s also about shaking off the idea that other people out there know this stuff better than we do.

It’s about our responsibility rather than our accountability – what we do because it’s right for our pupils rather than what someone out there mandates us to do.

And all of this takes time. We always knew that.

So six weeks in, we’re hearing stories of schools genuinely feeling refreshed at the quality of professional dialogue they are able to have with inspection teams. Some leaders talk of celebrating the work that their teams are doing on behalf of young people which would never have been recognised under the previous framework.

But also, inevitably, there are the stories of inspectors criticising schools for their two-year key stage 3 provision and – quite wrongly – penalising schools for not matching the government’s national EBacc targets. And there are concerns about whether inspectors are yet well enough equipped for those so-called "deep dives".

As an organisation, we are gathering this feedback from leaders in all kinds of schools across England, and we will take it back to Ofsted as they review the early days of this inspection model.

And, just like decision to turn off those school bells, my sense is that now is the time to hold our nerve.

If we have a shortened KS3 curriculum, then it’s only right that we should be able to explain the rationale. After all, it means a year less of national curriculum entitlement.

So, if in their early secondary years a child is losing a third of studying, say, music or history, it’s not unreasonable that an inspector – working on behalf of parents – will ask what the intention is here, and how that child’s entitlement to history and music to the age of 14 is being compensated for elsewhere.

Not everyone will agree, of course. And certainly there’s an important message to government and Ofsted itself that the time needed for proper, thoughtful, intellectually-rigorous attention to the curriculum won’t have been completed in six weeks. Indeed, it is likely to need months or years to rebuild our professional expertise, our collective sense of self-confidence.

But if inspectors understand that, asking questions with nuance and sensitivity, and rewarding school leaders for doing what’s right for their pupils, then we’ll be able to look back and say, “look what we did” rather than “look at what they made us do”.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders