Ofsted’s wooing of schools in the run-up to the unveiling of its new inspection system has ended today. Thankfully. After all the hearsay and swirling speculation, with the publication of its new framework, we can finally begin to look in more detail at the likely fallout for schools and colleges.
The much-trailed announcement of a shift away from judging schools on their exam and test results and a new focus on the quality of their curriculum is there and will be largely welcomed. There’s an encouraging recognition that changing something as significant as a curriculum takes time, and thought, and planning. We don’t need more quick fixes or consultants selling snake oil gimmickry. Leaders are likely to welcome an emphasis on the things too easily squeezed out by a previous obsession with data and metrics. Now perhaps we can focus on real things – what is learnt, how it is sequenced, how it is taught.
That, at least, is the optimistic promise of the new framework. But it seems there is still a lingering tone of Ofsted finger-wagging – which will inevitably be reported as a crackdown on this, that or the other.
So, inspectors will be looking out for signs of schools off-rolling pupils, gaming the exam system, narrowing the curriculum, or using exclusions (external and internal) inappropriately.
Headteachers will be judged on how well they manage teacher workload, and, if they decide to collect data on pupil attainment or progress (so-called data drops) more than two or three times a year, they will be asked to justify that decision.
Similarly, those schools which teach Key Stage 3 over two instead of three years will be questioned about how they make sure pupils study a broad range of subjects.
Perhaps most controversially inspectors will want to know what schools are doing to achieve the government’s ‘ambition’ of 90 per cent of pupils studying the EBacc subjects at GCSE.
That is controversial because many school leaders don’t think the EBacc subjects are the right set of qualifications for every child and, on a practical level, the 90 per cent target isn’t achievable because there aren’t enough modern foreign language teachers. We don’t think even the government’s heart is any longer in the EBacc, so we should really let this accountability measure wither away and quietly die.
Nobody is going to have a problem with the bits in the handbook about off-rolling and gaming. They are unacceptable practices, they shouldn’t be happening and they don’t do so in most schools.
The issue of exclusions is a little bit more nuanced. The procedures must be followed properly of course, but there also needs to be some recognition that schools need to be able to provide early intervention to prevent exclusions and that the ongoing school funding crisis makes that very difficult.
On management of teacher workload school leaders obviously have a role to play. But there has to be some recognition that a lot of the pressures emanate from the weight of government reforms to the curriculum and to exams, as well as the fact that the funding crisis is pushing up class sizes.
And, as for schools which shorten Key Stage 3, let’s hope that this really is the start of a conversation about the breadth of the curriculum rather than a rush to judgement.
The reality is that the new reformed GCSEs are so heavy in content that many schools find they need an additional Key Stage 4 year to deliver them, particularly for pupils who struggle the most.
There’s a danger here of the accountability system pulling in two directions – with government performance tables focusing on the importance of GCSEs, while Ofsted takes a dim view if schools try to jump through that hoop by teaching GCSEs over three years.
That’s why those conversations between Ofsted inspectors and school leaders will need to be nuanced and this will be a big test of the new system.
Which takes us back to the main change – the focus on the quality of the curriculum rather than on exam and test results.
Because, of course, that also pulls in a different direction from the government’s performance tables which are fixated on exam and test results.
We’re supportive of Ofsted’s direction of travel in this respect because we think that education simply must add up to more than a set of grades. Its essence is the whole breadth of what a pupil learns and experiences – the curriculum.
But there’s an inevitable tension between that vision and the hard data of performance tables and it remains to be seen how that plays out in the future.
This is, of course, only the start of a consultation process, so there’s a long way to go before the new inspection regime begins in September.
And Ofsted deserves a lot of credit on the way that it has already consulted and listened to ASCL and others in developing the new system.
But in lots of ways the real test won’t begin until the new system goes live in schools.
What schools will want to see is a nuanced approach that takes into account their individual circumstances, and which is observably fair and consistent.
The proof of the proverbial pudding will be in how well inspectors use and implement what adds up to a pretty radical change of direction. We hope this is the moment when Ofsted lives up to its mission statement: to be a force for good.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders