Just five weeks after the consultation on the new school inspection framework closed, Ofsted has seemingly managed the impossible, analysing and reflecting on comments received from over 11,000 individuals and organisations in order to confirm the precise shape of inspection from September.
In truth, I suspect that it wasn’t just superhuman efforts from the team at Ofsted that got us to this point today. At the outset of the consultation, Ofsted made much of the fact that they were releasing the handbook a full eight months in advance of the new framework starting to give schools plenty of time to become familiar with it. This suggested a strong belief on the part of the inspectorate that little of substance would change. Indeed, it hasn’t.
While my NAHT [National Association of Head Teachers] colleagues and I need more time to scrutinise the revised framework before publishing more careful analysis, three things of particular note stand out from an initial review.
The 90-minute phone interview
Firstly, the proposal to introduce on-site preparation for inspection has been dropped, but it has been replaced by a 90-minute phone interview between headteacher and lead inspector on the day of notification.
The areas set out in the handbook for questioning go far beyond what had previously been proposed for on-site preparation. Headteachers will now be quizzed on areas such as progress made since last inspection, their assessment of strengths and weaknesses, and specific areas of the school that should be the focus for inspectors during the following two days on site. This is inspection activity.
Inspection will now commence the moment the inspector calls.
This is likely to prove almost as problematic for school leaders as on-site preparation would have been. Headteachers value the short period of notice they currently receive giving them time the night before inspection to marshal their thoughts. A 90-minute inspection interview a few short hours after notification ignores the significance of the event and the pressure this will place on them.
Secondly, despite significantly more opposition than support, short inspection will increase from one to two days. The only concession appears to be that small schools (those with fewer than 150 pupils) will continue with Section 8 inspections of one day. Ofsted has yet to clarify how inspectors will manage to cover the requirements of the new, extended framework within one day in those small schools. Clearly something will have to give.
Last year, the Accountability Commission proposed a different approach – a return to the original concept of a short, light-touch health check for good schools with rapid conversion to inspection where concerns existed. The Commission argued that Ofsted should focus its limited resources on providing stronger, deeper insight to schools that are struggling, to help them to improve. Under their current plans, it remains unclear how the inspectorate will be able to extend the time spent inspecting good schools, without any additional resource being made available.
Updating the curriculum
Thirdly, Ofsted has confirmed that schools will have time to adjust to some of the new requirements around curriculum. They have said that they will phase in how they will use the "intent" grade descriptor in the quality of education judgement. Ofsted state that, during the next academic year, the judgement will not be negatively affected if "it is clear to an inspector that leaders have a plan for updating the curriculum and are taking genuine action to do so".
This is welcome. Last year, the NAHT called for a pause on implementation of the framework, to recognise that schools need time to respond to new requirements, particularly on curriculum. This, in part, accepts those concerns. However, further information is needed to better understand what constitutes an acceptable plan and what passes as "genuine action", to avoid this becoming too subjective among inspectors or resulting in unnecessary workload in the short term.
The outcome of this consultation was not what we wanted but was what we expected. The process was always intended to be confirmatory rather than conciliatory. Yet, significant questions remain while new questions have emerged, all of which will need answering before the September start.
And with only 40 school days left before the new framework is implemented, the challenge on inspectors to make new inspection arrangements work may well make responding to 11,000 consultation responses in five weeks look like a walk in the park.
Nick Brook is deputy general secretary of the NAHT headteachers' union, and chair of NAHT's accountability commission