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Ofsted: Was my cynicism over the new inspection framework misplaced? Maybe

Ofsted has listened – it’s unfair to say otherwise. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions, writes Ed Dorrell

We will have to wait and see whether cynicism about Ofsted's inspection changes was unfair, writes Ed Dorrell

So here we are. To absolutely nobody’s surprise, the response to the consultation on Ofsted’s new inspection framework has revealed that there will be little in the way of substantial change to the original document (apart from rowing back from the plans for nearly-no-notice inspections).

So here we are. Schools now have 40 working days to prepare for the introduction of the new framework – and its associated inspection handbooks – from September.

So here we are. The long-trailed quality of education judgement will be ushered in with its new focus on curriculum as the central pivot for deciding the fate of schools (and therefore the central lever for school improvement).

Some will say that chief inspector Amanda Spielman has not listened to the many voices (including mine) warning that these reforms represent too much, too fast. That the inspectorate’s “biggest ever consultation” was little more than a smokescreen.

But I am not sure that the accusation that Ofsted has ignored its critics is entirely fair.

Firstly, and most importantly, even before the consultation was launched, Spielman made it clear that schools would be given more time to prepare for the new focus on curriculum. For at least a year, schools won’t be marked down based on the curriculum they are implementing, but instead will only need to have a discussion about their direction of travel in this area.

Ofsted: a new inspection regime

Secondly, the inspectorate has been busy implementing an extensive programme of re-education for its inspectors, a process it insists has been successful.

Thirdly, and related, is the process of inspection pilots that it has undertaken. I have now spoken to several schools that have been on the receiving end of such a process. And (I will admit, slightly to my surprise) they have been universal in their praise for the experience as refreshing and even enlightening.

Is it possible that the cynicism of many observers (mine included) was misplaced?

Maybe. There remain a number of questions that are yet to be answered; issues that will only be cleared up, or otherwise, once the changes are rolled out in four months' time.

Is the entire inspection workforce really capable of having an intelligent, nuanced conversation on curriculum with hundreds of schools week in, week out? Are all inspectors, for example, really capable of resisting the lure of exam results as a shortcut to making judgements?

Is that workforce really capable of maintaining a studied neutrality on issues of curriculum in the face of political support for “traditionalist” ideas such as “knowledge”, direct instruction and cognitive-load theory?

I struggle, too, to imagine that, given the sheer scale of the inspectorate’s work – combined with Spielman and the government’s very public backing for concepts such as “mastery” – there won’t soon emerge an unofficial preferred curriculum style. Or perhaps worse: the perception among schools that there is one. This leads in only one direction: heads and teachers being ripped off by snake-oil salesman flogging quick-fixes to desperate schools.

After all, one of Ofsted’s biggest problems, pretty much since its inception, has been perceptions of what it is looking for, far more than the reality. In an area as subjective as curriculum, this has the potential to get worse, not better. All too often what follows is amplified workload as school leaders and their teams run around frantically trying to second-guess what inspectors are going to want. 

Anyway, we are where we are. I have never doubted Amanda Spielman’s motivations. I have never doubted her central philosophy: if we are to have inspection, far better that its outcomes are based on the actual education taking place rather than results or data. And that the resulting behaviours in schools are based on that process rather than teaching-to-the-test.

Let’s hope with all our hearts that Spielman proves her doubters – including me – wrong.

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