Reporters' take: Ofsted is ready but are schools?

Questions are being raised about how Ofsted will inspect the curriculum and what the knock-on effects might be

John Roberts

Reporters' take. What are the pitfalls of Ofsted putting greater emphasis on pupils' books?

Schools have less than three working weeks before Ofsted’s new inspection framework starts after the summer.

The watchdog’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, told Tes last week that it was “very well prepared” for this. But can the same be said of schools?

Ofsted’s big idea –  to focus more on curriculum and less on exam results through a "quality of education" grade – is well understood. However, there is major uncertainty about how this will work in practice.

Comment: The problem with Ofsted looking at books

Ofsted: Inspectors to get extra help on secondary school curriculum 

'Deep dives': How inspectors will look at the curriculum

Ofsted is looking at the intent, implementation and impact of the school curriculum. And it has said that lesson observations and looking at pupils’ work will play an increased role in its inspections.

But there are questions mounting. In a report based on its own research, Ofsted admitted there were some shortcomings in the reliability of this approach in secondary schools when inspectors would be looking at subjects they are not specialists in.

How will Ofsted inspect curriculum?

And that research report also acknowledged that at the start of the academic year there might not be enough books for inspectors to be able to form reliable judgements.

It then suggested that inspectors could get around this by looking at books from the previous year. But when Tes asked Ofsted whether that would be what inspectors do, the watchdog said it did not expect schools to keep hold of such books for inspection. What are schools to make of this?

The uncertainty is already driving the next wave of inspection myths.

This week the inspectorate warned against writing curriculum intent statements after hearing that schools were being offered half-day courses in how to produce such a document.

And last week Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director for education, said that the new framework could lead to the myth of the “perfect book syndrome”, with schools thinking pupils’ performance would be measured through book scrutiny.

He sought to reassure people that, in fact, Ofsted would be looking at books to check that the school is delivering its intended curriculum.

But could this actually be the biggest problem of all?

Will teachers go out of their way to ensure that pupils’ work provides clear evidence of a coherent curriculum being delivered because schools know that is what Ofsted will be looking for?

I was struck by something Mr Harford said at the Hallam Festival of Education in Sheffield a few weeks ago when addressing the separate question of why inspectors are no longer looking at schools' own internal data.

He said that data can be “bent out of shape” because teachers know somebody else – such as Ofsted – is going to be looking at it.

“If you have assessment information and you are gathering it for a certain purpose, the way you gather it and present it is changed by who is going to look at it,” Mr Harford said.

“If you know you are gathering it to put in front of some third party, like me as an inspector, there is a reasonable chance that that is going to be reflected in how you do the assessment, how you gather that data, and how you present that information.”

If that is true of internal data, could it also become true of pupils’ work?

If any piece of work could later become evidence of curriculum coherence to be scrutinised at a future inspection, does that risk distorting the work of teachers across a school, day in and day out? 

And would this mean the shadow of Ofsted never really leaves the classroom?



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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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