'Ofsted needs to take its lead from teachers when it comes to curriculum change'

To fight the curriculum-devouring results-monster, Amanda Spielman needs to engage with and listen to the profession, writes one head of department

Tom Finn-Kelcey

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I have a confession to make:  I like the new head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman.

I know I’m a teacher and, of course, social convention dictates that I am supposed to immediately dislike the head of the "dreaded O" – or run the risk of being drummed out of the staffroom before my tea has even had a chance to brew.

The thing is, the lady keeps talking sense. I read her commentary on the curriculum a few weeks ago, in which, she identified some very real and serious issues surrounding its delivery in our schools. I’m sure that many of us recognised the critique of the current situation when she said: "Good examination results don’t always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum. In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding."

Essentially, she is concerned that we have abandoned our duty to deliver a full and rich education in favour of chasing stats and league table places.  And I think she is right.

While reading part one of the statement, I’m sure I wasn’t alone in screaming: "But that’s Ofsted's fault, for God’s sake!" Which, of course, it partly is.

But Spielman defied convention once more, following up with a substantial mea culpa on behalf of the organisation she leads. Yet again, this was very refreshing. Having taken her time to identify these problems with the curriculum, she then finished by announcing an in-depth and long-running investigation, rather than some knee-jerk reaction response.

You start to see my point, right? Not your run-of-the-mill response in terms of Ofsted.

Having said all of this, of course, Spielman has her work cut out in terms of tackling this curriculum-devouring results-monster her organisation has created over recent decades. There are a number of reasons this will prove exceedingly difficult.

The first reason, she identifies herself: pointing out that too many school leaders have a "weak theoretical understanding of the curriculum" and that "over time, this competence across the sector has ebbed away". Truthfully, I think this is putting it mildly. The heavy focus on immediate results, accountability, evidencing intervention, not to mention an increasing pressure to use initiatives created by the government to solve society’s problems – all this means that managerial jobs have become divorced from curriculum expertise.

Compounding this long-term problem is the economic situation – too many leaders are now occupied daily by funding and HR issues. At the same time, competition for ever-dwindling numbers of decent teachers to fill vacancies continues to bite. Spielman will have her work cut out turning the tanker around in this respect.

For me, the biggest challenge for Spielman is identifying a programmatic way for Ofsted to deal with the problem as she sees it. The organisation she leads is hardly a subtle tool for delivering change. It is, in fact, a top-down clunky tool, as are so many other state inspectorates and regulators.

In the past, when the head of Ofsted has decided that something needs to change, the following has happened:

  • Step one: Ofsted produces detailed guidelines outlining the changes they want to happen. Being the kind of institution they are, these inevitably contain methods of measurement by which schools will be judged.
  • Step two: School leaders attend conferences in which these guidelines are put under the microscope. They then get to work producing an almighty paper trail a mile long, with new policies, procedures and diktats. These range from an abandonment of all previous practice in favour of an "ultra" response, through to a box-ticking "look at me jump" response.
  • Step three: Ofsted begin inspecting schools under their new framework. Very soon word gets around about which boxes leaders need to tick to get the best gradings, and schools finally coalesce around a few key initiatives that will get them through the inspection process.

Cue a return to step one and the merry dance begins again.

If anyone thinks I am having a cheap pop at school leaders, I’m really not. This response is an almost inevitable result of a process in which people’s jobs and professional reputations are on the line. School leaders are already over-worked and in many cases considerably stressed. The way schools respond to Ofsted measures are not automaton-style mindless obedience but survival reflexes.

Spielman, to her credit, appears to be aware of this. But awareness doesn’t make that task any easier. If Ofsted builds a detailed framework outlining exactly what they mean by a rich and broad curriculum then expect to see the response I outlined above.

Produce too generalised a statement and it risks being ignored by an overwrought profession. In many ways, the problems around the curriculum that Spielman has identified go to the heart of many of the problems in British education right now. Though the aggressive policies of marketisation, accountability and monitoring may have helped raise results, they have also beaten out of the profession much of its autonomy and its capacity to take responsibility for its own pedagogy.

If Spielman wants to help fix the problem she correctly identifies, this will involve a really imaginative and reconstructed role for Ofsted. She may have to accept that her organisation cannot be the one to take the lead here, and her approach thus far in terms of engaging with teachers to solve this issue bodes well. Whether she can identify a way to square the circle remains to be seen.

Tom Finn-Kelcey is head of social sciences at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Faversham, Kent. He tweets as @TFinnKelcey.

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Tom Finn-Kelcey

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