Here’s an early Christmas present for Ofsted. A poll we conducted recently with school leaders attending our annual round of regional conferences showed that 88 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the inspectorate’s plans to put more emphasis on the curriculum.
But at the risk of seeming like an educational Grinch, and while supporting Ofsted’s direction of travel, I think it’s important to sound a few health warnings.
In particular, I worry that, whatever the wording of the new handbook, inspection will continue to create winners and losers. For those schools judged "requires improvement" or "inadequate", there will be little in the framework that will help them to mitigate the accompanying stigma, and the challenge of recruiting and retaining the best teachers in these schools is likely to continue.
From the moment Ofsted declared it was sticking with the existing graded judgements, a deeper and more substantial change to the climate of inspection was off the table. This is not to say that the next framework can’t have a beneficial effect, if done well, but it is crucial that we go into the consultation and subsequent framework with our eyes open.
Schools must also understand the subtext of the new framework. HMCI Amanda Spielman has spoken publicly about needing to focus more on the "substance" of education, but what does this mean? In my view, it’s about more than just your curriculum "offer" – the breadth of courses you teach and how long you teach them for.
Rather, it is born of a philosophy, and supporting research, which emphasises the importance of knowledge as the basis of effective education. Ofsted does not deny the importance of skills, but schools should pay close attention to the inspectorate’s definition of a skill as “a complex performance drawing on what is known.” Without knowledge, there is no skill.
The role of the curriculum in education
So, what does this mean for schools? Well, I believe the implications are potentially far-reaching. This is not to say that Ofsted will expect particular responses from schools, but schools should at least consider the research evidence that Ofsted will publish shortly. In some ways this will be more useful than the detail of the handbook.
For example, if subject knowledge needs to be given higher value, schools may consider moving away from generic training towards more subject-specific professional development. They may also need to think about other aspects of teaching, such as how they use assessment and feedback. A better understanding of curriculum is likely to lead to more use of formative assessment, with teachers becoming more skilled at identifying exactly what pupils do and don’t know and when content may need to be revisited or broken down further.
What this all entails is the development of a deeper philosophy and understanding of the part played by the curriculum in education. This is the journey Ofsted has been on over the past two years and inspectors must recognise that schools will need time to do likewise. A rush to action without proper thought would be damaging.
It was, therefore, encouraging that at the launch of her annual report, HMCI Amanda Spielman said the new framework is an evolution not a revolution. “From September, we’ll be just as interested in where you are going and how you intend to get there, not just whether you’ve arrived there yet,” she said. This should provide some reassurance to schools that they will have time to develop their thinking.
What may not play as well with schools is the reality that, despite the headline rhetoric, performance data will continue to be an influential part of inspection. Such data may be explored with greater nuance than at present and more helpfully set alongside the quality of the curriculum, but it will still be there and it will still matter. And, regrettably, school leaders will continue to feel vulnerable as a result of the "football manager"-style treatment of leaders in some of our most challenging schools.
None of this is to malign the new framework before it’s seen the light of day, or to decry Ofsted’s plans – after all, Association of School and College Leaders members seem to be broadly supportive. But it is important that we don’t get carried away.
The next framework might well be a step in the right direction but it won’t be a panacea for our harsh accountability system. It needs to be followed up by wider reforms to make the accountability system feel more supportive of school improvement and less punitive.
Stephen Rollett is the curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders