'There are dangers lurking in the new Ofsted framework'

'Curriculum is inexorable; frameworks are transitory,' says Stephen Tierney. So will someone point out that the emperor has no clothes?

Stephen Tierney

children, working in classroom

The story goes: the little boy was the only one who was prepared to shout out the obvious: “The emperor has no clothes on.” Once it had been said, everyone recognised that, for whatever reason, they hadn’t been prepared to admit the obvious.

A recent report by Ofsted – and credit to them for publishing it – has identified what many people have been saying for some time: book scrutiny is problematic. It’s more problematic when you want to use it for accountability purposes, where grading from 1-4 is retained. 

Inspectors who aren’t subject specialists are going to struggle as the content becomes more demanding. Add to this that subject specialists don’t actually agree what "good" looks like in their subject, and the issues around reliability and validity mean that the process was flawed at inception.

Dangers lurking

Ofsted’s Workbook Scrutiny Report involved nine HMIs, of whom seven had two or more years’ experience, described as substantial. These are the crème de la crème of the inspection workforce. They have long experience of inspecting many different schools and have seen frameworks come and go with each new chief inspector. 

The Ofsted report highlights the dangers lurking in the new inspection framework: the inter-rater (consensus) reliability was not exactly great. They were even less reliable at secondary level, where only one of the four indicators used to assess workbooks showed moderate reliability and three in the range below, described as fair. I’m not sure many teachers and school leaders are going to think it’s fair when teams make very different decisions having seen very similar work. 

As an aside, I believe Ofsted has substantially overstepped its remit by starting to apply the force of accountability to dictate what that curriculum should be like. Balance largely disappears; relevance is sacrificed to the EBacc in secondary schools and a focus on literacy and numeracy in early years. Cultural transmission is in, and personal empowerment is out. Particular approaches to the curriculum have major implications for what will and will not be seen in books.

Unrealistic expectations

When the inspection framework is implemented at scale, the very much less experienced inspection workforce will most likely exacerbate problems. A bit of training and subject guidance isn’t going to fill the gaps in subject knowledge (or phase knowledge) that inspectors have. The potential consequences, in a high-stakes system, are too great for this to continue. Workbook scrutinies exemplify the problems but they aren’t the really big issue.

The past 30-plus years have seen a broad movement around school effectiveness. It has built up a considerable body of research and led to a focus on schools, often leading to unrealistic expectations about what schools can do. Metrics were then devised to measure different schools’ effectiveness. From a research perspective, care was taken to control for other factors, in particular those related to intake. What followed was the desire to ensure that schools were held accountable for their outcomes, as measured through league tables and Ofsted gradings. Context became a dirty word and measures became absolute.

The limitation of the school-effectiveness approach, distorted by the accountability system, is that there are many external factors, outside of the control of schools, that have a far greater impact than school factors. 

Accountability at a school level led to competition, pitting one school against the other one down the road. Deep, meaningful collaboration, on behalf of all the pupils in the district, town or city, came secondary to survival or to your school flourishing at the expense of another. 

Cue various sometimes dubious means to improve outcomes without actually improving education. While both performance tables and Ofsted are supposed to be telling parents about school quality, there is an increasing number of people who believe they are simply reporting a school’s intake. The emperor has no clothes on.


We’re being told that accountability is the balance within a highly autonomous system. I beg to differ. 

I suggest that increasing responsibility is far more likely to make the system work. The current example would be curriculum. Ofsted has decided, in this particular iteration of the framework, that the curriculum is king. Schools will feel the full force of the inspectorate squeezing down on them; the inspectorate is ill-prepared, as are many schools. There will be much talk of curriculum, a great deal of busyness and more smoke than light as people run around in ever-decreasing circles. The paradigm is wrong and needs changing. 

Instead of starting with Ofsted, you need to start with the teacher in the classroom and the school-wide structures, systems and processes that bind them together. Instead of seeking to inspect the curriculum every four years (accountability) you seek to enhance the professional development of teachers every day (individual and institution responsibility). Curriculum development requires deep, collaborative, continuous professional development; inspection merely distorts it. 

Curriculum development takes time. Four years into implementing our five-year strategic plan – containing 11 objectives with seven explicitly related to the curriculum and its development – we have made great strides and paradoxically are still scratching the surface. The next five-year plan will see a similar curriculum focus. That’s a decade – plus time in the years before, disrupted by an inspectorate who wanted to see progress every 20 minutes – invested in curriculum development. Curriculum is inexorable; frameworks are transitory. 

Stephen Tierney is chair of Headteachers' Roundtable, a blogger and author of Liminal Leadership. He tweets @LeadingLearner

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