Ofsted wants real life, not performance art

8th September 2017 at 00:00
Excessive preparation for inspection hinders schools, writes Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman. Instead, the inspectorate will work with them to reduce the burden

We don’t often greet the start of autumn with firework displays or the popping of champagne corks, but for most Tes readers the first week of September is probably far more significant than the start of the calendar year.

This week, more than a million parents will have that tear-jerking moment when their child goes to school for the first time. Hundreds of thousands of bright-eyed children will start secondary school, with all those startling new and yet to be adorned pencil cases (“I heart Man U” and “SWALK” – remember those?). More seriously, teachers will begin to put those months of hard work on planning and preparation for the new year into practice in their classrooms.

Heads and teachers who are expecting a visit from Ofsted this year may be approaching the new term with just a little more trepidation. Much as I would like to say that no one should worry about inspection at all, I know that would be naïve. Inspection is a kind of test and this almost inevitably gives rise to a certain level of apprehension and anxiety. What I hope I can do is to try to offer some reassurance to keep that anxiety in proportion.

First, I want to repeat what I said at this year’s Association of School and College Leaders conference. Ofsted inspections should not involve weeks of preparation and feature special “Ofsted lessons”. They don’t require “mocksteds” and my own belief is that taking resource away from the classroom to pay consultants is a shocking waste of money.

What our inspectors want to see is a true impression of life in the school. In the long run, it doesn’t help any of us if inspection expectations are distorted by well-orchestrated performances – despite what some people think, our inspectors are pretty good at recognising the difference.

In fact, we work hard to make sure that our processes reduce the burdens on schools and provide a fair measure of education quality. A basic tenet of our approach is that data should only be a starting point: the human element of inspection is vital to complement the picture given by data. However, we must always recognise that human judgement is a good but not perfect tool. That is why I have committed to work to improve the validity and reliability of inspection, the first stage of which I published earlier this year.

Engaging properly

My second reassurance is about stability. I know that the introduction of new curriculum and the associated tests and exams has meant a lot of work for schools, which isn’t yet finished. I don’t want Ofsted to be the cause of unnecessary workload while this change is being digested. That’s why we won’t be changing our Common Inspection Framework this year or next year.

Instead, we are working towards a new framework for September 2019, giving schools and other institutions a long lead time. This will also let us engage properly with teachers, school leaders and parents, and to make sure that the new framework draws fully on our own and relevant third-party research.

Third, I want to reassure you about how Ofsted will use this year’s exam results, especially the new GCSEs and A levels. Having been chair of Ofqual while these were developed, I know they are a marked improvement on previous versions and that teachers are already putting time that they were spending on all the prep and admin around coursework back into teaching. But I also know that any change in qualifications can affect results and while, happily, volatility has been lower than some expected, some schools have seen big changes. I have put in place a robust package of training and analytical support for our inspectors, including a dedicated help desk to advise inspectors during the inspection process. All of this will make sure inspectors know what can and, as importantly, what can’t be inferred from a school’s results in the new GCSEs. We know how important it is for you that we get this right. There will be no knee-jerk reaction to the outcomes.

As important as grades are, not least for our young people, I’ve also been clear throughout my first eight months as chief inspector that the substance of education matters. Qualifications recognise learning in a large part of the curriculum, but they aren’t the curriculum itself: test and exam outcomes can never capture the full scope of the rich education provided.

Emerging trends

That is why we have been surveying curriculum in schools and colleges around the country. The initial findings have thrown up answers and also many questions, particularly around the lack of a shared understanding of where curriculum begins and ends, what it includes, and how we talk about it.

There are some emerging and clear trends: a shortening of key stage 3 in favour of starting GCSEs early, the suspension of a wider curriculum in primary to make way for Sats preparation and lower-attaining pupils being diverted away from more academic subjects in KS4. These approaches have the most impact on those pupils for whom schools can have the biggest effect in terms of widening their cultural horizons. In the next few weeks we will be publishing some of our initial findings.

This month, we will also be launching our new strategy for Ofsted. Developing this has engaged practitioners, unions and policy-makers, among others, to discuss where and how Ofsted adds value. The strategy grounds Ofsted very much as a force for improvement in the sector. While Ofsted should never be an improvement agency – work that is best done by the school-led system – we should be publishing reports, analysis and conclusions from which all schools can learn. The past decade has brought impressive improvements in the quality of education. I am determined that Ofsted will continue to play its part in maintaining that momentum.

Finally, I want to take this opportunity to wish you all the best for the next school year. And I hope to meet many of you in your schools during it.

Amanda Spielman is Her Majesty’s chief inspector

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