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Spielman: Ofsted report into Reception curriculum is 'as controversial as custard'

Tes spoke to the Ofsted chief inspector, following the launch of the watchdog's annual report today

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Tes spoke to the Ofsted chief inspector, following the launch of the watchdog's annual report today

The Ofsted chief inspector has said that she was taken aback by the criticisms of the inspectorate’s report into the Reception curriculum, given that the report was “as controversial as custard”.

Speaking at the launch of the watchdog's annual report this morning, Amanda Spielman said: “I was taken aback by some of the more extreme reactions,” to the Bold Beginnings report into the Reception curriculum.

“I share the view of one education reporter, who said the report is about as controversial as custard.”

Ofsted faced criticism – on the Tes Breaking Views website, as well as on Twitter – for suggesting that the Reception year could do more to prepare early-years children for the Year 1 curriculum.

Many teachers and commentators felt that this would rush children into formal learning.

'Irresponsible'

Speaking to Tes after the launch of the annual report today, Ms Spielman said: “The problem I’ve seen in some of the reaction is trying to wrap up everything that’s curriculum and say, ‘It’s all pedagogy, therefore you’re not allowed to discuss it.’ So what I’m trying to do is to make sure that the curriculum gets a proper piece.”

She insisted that the watchdog’s comments about the Reception curriculum were not veering outside Ofsted’s designated territory.

“Curriculum and pedagogy always bump up against each other to some extent,” she said. “But we’re very clear, I think, in our conclusions, that we were finding that the early-years foundation-stage curriculum had shortcomings.”

The Bold Beginnings report, she said, included an analysis of 41 schools. “So we have a well-founded study of what is happening in the schools, where particularly those children from the lowest starting points do very well.

"And I think it would be irresponsible of us not to report on that, especially where we find some clear common characteristics in how they approach the curriculum.”

'Good pedagogy and bad pedagogy'

Besides, she argued, it would be self-defeating for Ofsted never to comment on pedagogy or recommend specific teaching methods. “There is good pedagogy and bad pedagogy,” she said. “There is evidence on pedagogy.

“One of the things we must make sure is that our default position on pedagogy doesn’t mean that we blind ourselves where there is clear evidence of one way of teaching having advantages over another. But, at this stage, we’re simply reporting on what’s happening in these excellent schools.”

'The things that really matter'

Tes also discussed some other issues with Ms Spielman, following the publication of the annual report.

The report launch drew attention to problems caused by the difficulty recruiting and retention. Is there a solution to this?

“Whether we like it or not, there is a job market, and the availability of all kinds of jobs fluctuates. So some of the fluctuation we see in demand for teaching jobs is just inevitable, is structural.

“But the other piece of it is just making the job as doable and as rewarding as it can be. Which is why we’re so concerned about what we do on workload.

“Teachers are the most conscientious, most thorough people I know. So we’re helping people let go sometimes – to say, ‘These are the things that really matter. You really shouldn’t be worrying too much about doing this and this and this and this and this and this, to the nth degree.’

“That’s part of what we’re doing, in developing the new inspection framework: trying to make sure that we’re as well-linked to the evidence about education effectiveness as we can be – so that nothing we do creates unnecessary demands.”

Doesn’t a low Ofsted grade contribute to a school’s recruitment difficulties?

“It’s no question: some schools are in places or have reputations that make it much, much harder to recruit. But the grading of the school makes much less difference, I think, than people commonly suppose.

“More important for somebody considering working in a school is whether they’re going to be part of a good team that’s well led and working in the right way: the leadership and management judgement.

“Our analysis shows that the leadership and management judgement does take account of disadvantage levels – that more disadvantaged schools in a given outcome category are much more likely to have a higher leadership and management judgement than more advantaged ones.”

You highlighted the culture of “disadvantage one-upmanship” that you’ve observed in schools. Is this merely what former education secretary Nicky Morgan referred to in 2015 as "the soft bigotry of low expectations"?

“It’s not soft bigotry of low expectations. It’s about trying to keep a positive outlook and find ways of reinforcing the focus on what is the job to be done, not how many challenges are there.

"A school has the pupils it has. It’s about moving away from cycling round 'My pupil premium’s higher than yours,' or ‘I’ve got more home languages spoken in my school than yours’ – those kinds of things that, ultimately, just don’t help anybody. A good leader’s got to focus the team on the job to be done.”

The report emphasises the importance of inspecting multi-academy trusts, but the DfE and the regional schools commissioners (RSCs) appear to be resolutely against it. How would you avoid treading on the toes of the RSCs?

“It’s a continuing discussion, it’s fair to say. I think there’s a clear DfE strategic distinction between the diagnostic side and the treatment side. Ofsted’s job is assessing the quality of what’s there and what the problems are. And RSCs are responsible – where schools don’t have the capacity to do whatever’s necessary themselves – to help find additional support and solutions.”

Won’t Ofsted’s focus on a balanced curriculum simply create extra work for teachers who are already very worried about exam league tables?

“The truth is that, if you teach a good curriculum really well, then good test results are what drop out of it. It can be tempting to try and teach very directly to the very specific requirements of the test. That’s the great difficulty: it feels safer for schools to go straight to the demands of the test. And yet, if they keep their confidence and go for teaching the curriculum, for really covering the substance, then those children really fly in tests.”

Can Ofsted be a counterpoint to the testing system?

Testing itself isn’t a bad thing – it’s how it’s used. Right from when Ofsted was set up, 25 years ago, the intention then was that Ofsted should complement performance tables.

“Where we see a need for balance between the things that happen if you look purely at the data, and the things that happen if you apply human judgement and interpretation, I don’t think there’s anybody in a better position than us to be that balancing influence.

“We’re not the government. We don’t make policy. We don’t control the money in the system. But I do believe we have an important voice – and that we should use that responsibly and sensibly.”

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