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'Ofsted changes could be a stepping stone'

Ofsted's new inspection framework takes us towards a more supportive school accountability system, writes Geoff Barton

geoff barton

There will come a day when we talk about education without mentioning Ofsted. Hold on to that thought.

But before then, there’s a new inspection framework to consider. And, undoubtedly, there are some things it doesn’t do.

It doesn’t deal with the fact that graded judgements are a blunt instrument that stigmatise struggling schools and make it more difficult for them to improve. It doesn’t allay concerns over the consistency of inspections. It doesn’t deal with a complaints system that seems to be loaded against the possibility of a judgement actually changing.

These are missed opportunities to improve trust in the inspection system and make it more effective in what matters most; being a genuine force for improvement.

So, we must continue to press for a more nuanced and proportionate accountability system, not only for the sake of fairness but, most of, all because it will better serve our students.

But let’s also deal with reality rather than pipe dreams, with what is on the table in front of us, rather than what we wish – in some land of political nirvana – might be on the table. And let’s not call on Ofsted to change things which, frankly, are beyond Ofsted’s control.

Cautious optimism about Ofsted

The consultation response that the Association of School and College Leaders is submitting today broadly welcomes what at the very least is a significant step in the right direction. At the heart of the new inspection framework is the plan to introduce a "quality of education" judgement that focuses on the breadth and depth of the curriculum.

Done intelligently, this has the potential to remove that iniquitous Catch 22 situation in which judgements are determined largely by test and exam results, thus penalising the schools that most need support – those with high levels of disadvantage where outcomes are fragile.

The vision of the new system is that inspectors will spend their time looking at the central stuff of education – what we teach and how we teach it – rather than fixating on sets of data. If all goes well, then it will put learning back at the heart of the system, precisely where it should be.

Schools with a great curriculum, distinctively suited to the range of children and young people they serve, should now be properly recognised. That is a massive gain.

But you’ll notice that the preceding paragraphs are laced with caution because, of course, we don’t yet know how well it will work in practice. The proverbial devil always lurks in the murky detail. And that is why, as an association representative of more than 19,000 members, we have expressed some important caveats in our consultation response.

  1. It is essential that schools are given time to properly consider and make changes to their curriculum, and we have warned that this transition may need to be longer than the period up to the mooted date of September 2020. Curriculum thinking is far too complex for gimmicky quick fixes and off-the-shelf solutions.
     
  2. We have challenged the idea that inspectors should judge schools on how well they are meeting the government target of three-quarters of pupils studying EBacc GCSE courses by 2022. Even if you agree that EBacc is the best thing for every pupil – which we don’t – there simply aren’t enough foreign language teachers in England to deliver that element of the target. Ofsted should leave the Department for Education to fixate over its spurious EBacc target, and empower leaders to make the right curriculum decisions in their communities.
     
  3. Similarly, we have warned that a proposal to scrutinise schools that run a shorter key stage 3 should not end up being a de facto prescription that all schools must have a three-year KS3 and two-year KS4. Many schools successfully operate a shortened KS3 while maintaining a broad and balanced curriculum. It is tried, tested and it works for them. Ofsted shouldn’t meddle unnecessarily or ideologically.
     
  4. We disagree with plans for on-site preparation on the afternoon prior to inspection, though the concept of professional co-construction of the ensuing inspection was always a well-intentioned idea. However, the reality is that once the inspectors are on site, the inspection has started, and same-day notice inspections will disrupt the normal running of the school.
     
  5. We say that the proposal for inspectors to refuse to look at a school’s internal data goes too far. It is surely reasonable for a school to be allowed to present its own information as evidence that it is improving if it chooses to do so. Reducing the amount of data collection is great, but forbidding all internal data is excessive.
     
  6. Ofsted doesn’t do itself any favours with the finger-wagging tone of some of the sections in the new inspection handbook. Here’s an example:

    “If there is evidence that a school has deliberately removed pupils from the school site on the day of inspection, or has arranged for them to be absent, and inspectors reasonably believe that this was done in order to have an impact on the inspection, then inspectors are likely to judge behaviour and attitudes and leadership and management to be inadequate.”

    We obviously don’t condone the sort of behaviour described, and we don’t believe it is widespread, but devoting a section to it in the handbook creates a false perception that it is more common than is actually the case, and promotes a climate of suspicion. That isn’t helpful.
  7. And finally, there is a new focus on teacher workload, which – again while well-intentioned – runs the risk of penalising school leaders for factors outside their control, such as the fact that they are being asked to do more with less because of the funding crisis.
     

We are sure that Ofsted will receive our observations in the spirit in which they are intended, based on discussions and feedback from hundreds of members. Ours is a genuine attempt to help to make the new inspection system work better than the old.

But this is far from being the end of the story. It is a mere stepping stone towards proportionate accountability.

There is much more to do to build a less punitive and more supportive inspection system. And there’s some way to go until we can talk about education without feeling that we have to mention Ofsted at all. But today represents an optimistic moment in that journey.

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

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