As the teaching unions’ conference season draws to a close, the call by the National Education Union to abolish Ofsted seems a legitimate way to dismantle the accountability framework that has driven the climate of fear for far too long. Sadly, systems rooted in and justified by distrust are part of a global phenomenon dominating all walks of life – though they are at their most dysfunctional in teaching. And, realistically, the inspectorate in some form is here to stay.
But that doesn’t mean that accountability has to retain its current form. Heads union ASCL has already made its views known on the inspection framework: on EBacc; on the new focus on curriculum; on Ofsted’s decision to ignore school-generated data; on whether there should be a two- or three-year key stage 3; and on a new focus on leaders taking more responsibility for workload while stopping their own spiralling out of control.
Within such concerns lie genuine seeds of hope, of an obligation on the part of school leaders to reduce pointless admin – especially the mushrooming data collection. If Ofsted doesn’t value it, why produce it? The vague but explicit expectation that leaders will take more seriously their responsibility for reducing teachers’ workload – and may be called to account for excesses – might just be sufficient motivation actually to implement the recommendations from the workload groups.
But what all teachers should be pressing for is higher-quality professional development and a greater role in the construction of the curriculum within their schools. The shift in the accountability system could have far-reaching implications for professional identity. Rethinking and reconstructing the curriculum requires more conceptual input from all practitioners. School leaders should be re-equipping themselves and their staff, seeking out more durable, flexible pedagogy. This means re-negotiating relationships – and not just with the inspectorate.
Changing relationships with awarding organisations
The "three Is" – intention, implementation and impact – make greater demands on teachers’ knowledge and skills. "Intention" should mean the underlying principles of the curriculum as well as the prescribed content. For too long this has been left to awarding organisations, which have been happy to profit from the void. The commercially-produced progress tests for hapless KS3 students keep them on track for the current model of KS4 terminal examination – always assuming that the test remains the same for the next five years!
This relationship is shifting though. The most recent awarding body consultative group I attended for English qualifications showed a much more enlightened stance. The discussion was much less on the provision of materials and far more on supporting the growth of professionalisation of teaching. It’s early days still but this is a step in the right direction.
Ongoing teacher development
The most enlightened leaders will involve their staff in working parties, subject discussions, even the writing of the distinctive curriculum for their context. Bringing in a consultant can be expensive and requires very careful thought about the short- and long-term benefits of that financial investment. All consultants will provide “takeaways” in terms of ideas for the classroom, and some will take time after the event to discuss the school context. Involving everyone in the key concepts directing the curriculum design is more likely to ensure a shared purpose when translating the model into the classroom.
According to the Tes podcast, teachers in Finland have master's degrees, so they are very knowledgeable about recent research and how to assess the impact of the curriculum with their own classrooms. Not all professional development has equipped British teachers so well. This skills-gap could be offset through longer-term development to equip all teachers in the school with the diagnostic tools for successful small-study research as well as evaluation of the impact of current practice.
What subject associations offer
As Ofsted emphasises the importance of a subject focus to ensure the best choice of content and skills, the debate is whether the skills work to release the content or the content shapes the skills. This is where subject associations come into their own.
Periodic online newsletters with lesson practice and resources are much appreciated to refresh practice, and updates on the development of national initiatives give a broader overview. The subject association journals offer subject-specific research findings that can impact on practice in a way that the more generic research of the established master's degrees cannot.
The most significant benefits of subject associations come from annual conferences such as those put on by the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) linked up with its international counterparts to compare practice and curriculum thinking across national boundaries.
This year’s conference in June includes a number of sessions on key stage 3 curriculum thinking and practice. The interactive workshops offer opportunities to discuss and evaluate the practice on show and to think about implications for current and future development in the possible year Ofsted is likely to give schools to improve and hone their models.
Forward-thinking heads fund attendance for their representatives to subject-based conferences like this so that an array of ideas can be brought back into school. The short-term cost of sending a number of individuals to conferences can be justified by intelligent reporting and discussion post-course in staff gatherings to share new insight and practice. Sharing Inset and costs between schools would be even better.
The curriculum journey
With time now so short before September, hard-pressed leadership teams could struggle. In an ideal world, Ofsted would give all schools a year off from inspection of any kind to put their houses in order. It’s almost impossible to make long-term, sustainable change to the curriculum while keeping all systems go for an inspection at any moment.
Perhaps what we all need to realise is that for most schools the curriculum is always in a state of flux, as it should be – not even the national curriculum has retained its original form. And instead of expecting schools to display the finished working product, Ofsted inspectors should be thinking about the curriculum journey. In that case, inspectors should be sufficiently-trained to evaluate an evolving curriculum and to value the three Is of intent, implementation and impact accordingly.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama at a school in the south of England