Talk to teachers and school leaders about what creates the most extra work and Ofsted and wider accountability issues are never far away.
Ian Hartwright, senior policy adviser at the NAHT heads’ union, says accountability is cited by members as a key driver of unnecessary workload, which, in turn, impacts on recruitment and retention.
“That’s to do with the fear associated with inspections, the use of very narrow data against which schools are judged on, and the overlap in accountability between regional schools commissioners, local authorities, multi-academy trusts and Ofsted itself,” he says.
Some of this overlap should be dealt with by the streamlining of the accountability systems announced by education secretary Damian Hinds at the NAHT conference last week (see bit.ly/HindsAcc).
There will, for example, be an end of school visits from regional schools commissioners.
NAHT has welcomed the changes but is pushing for an even more radical rethink. It has set up an independent commission aimed at overhauling England’s “high-stakes, low-trust” accountability system, and has been questioning witnesses including Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman.
A report is expected in September that should include recommendations on a future role for the inspectorate.
What do inspectors expect?
For its part, Ofsted is working on a new school inspection framework for 2019, but has also sought to alleviate the anxiety by busting a number of “myths” about what inspectors want to see during school visits.
Triple-marking, 10-page lesson plans, endless pages of data, providing photographic evidence of practical work, printing the photos and sticking them in children’s books to prove what was taught – they are all the sort of distractions that teachers could well do without. Yet there have been reports that some inspectors are still asking for such proof.
An Association of School and College Leaders survey of secondary school leaders inspected by Ofsted since the beginning of 2016 found that almost two-thirds (62 per cent) were asked to predict pupil attainment and almost half (47 per cent) said they were asked for predicted progress scores, despite these not being Ofsted requirements (bit.ly/WorkOfsted).
Similarly, while Ofsted says it doesn’t require extensive tracking of how pupils are doing, almost half of respondents (45 per cent) said their school was asked to provide this information.
Daniel Kebede, a primary school teacher and NEU teaching union rep in North Tyneside, says he hears the oddest stories from colleagues in other schools. “The craziest thing I’ve heard of is a teacher having to stage a photo at the end of a lesson because she’s got caught up in the excitement of the lesson, just to prove that’s been done,” he says.
“That’s not for the benefit of the children, it’s just there to satisfy someone further down the line for book scrutiny or Ofsted.”
Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, says that the anxiety around what a school will be asked to provide can result in heavy-duty auditing and monitoring of teachers’ work by heads, who are understandably nervous given what is at stake. “It is a consequence of making such a high-stakes accountability system whereby every child’s exam results isn’t just judging the child, it is judging the teacher, the school, and people’s jobs rely on it,” he says.
And as much as Ofsted may try to dispel misunderstandings about what it wants from schools, some believe the inspectorate will always be a workload problem.
Last week the NAHT’s new president, Andy Mellor, used his conference speech to say: “Please, no more ‘mythbusting’ – Ofsted contributes to unnecessary workload. It just does. That’s a fact, not a myth.”
NEU teaching union joint general secretary Kevin Courtney argues that teachers’ fear of Ofsted is now so embedded that it would be better to scrap the inspectorate altogether in favour of a system where self-assessment is the starting point.
Ofsted says it knows that teachers welcome its efforts to reduce their workload. A spokesperson says that there is “always more that could be done”, but that the watchdog was disappointed by Mellor’s tone.
But there could soon be more pressure for change from government spending watchdog the National Audit Office, which has been looking at whether Ofsted’s inspection approach provides value for money. The report is due this spring. Maintaining the status quo looks like an increasingly unlikely option.