The start of each new educational year is always bathed in optimism, as it should be – a time of fresh starts and new beginnings.
So, in that spirit, here’s a proposal for a future we should work towards – the day when we can talk about education without invoking the word "Ofsted".
Because along the way, somehow, somewhere, too many of us allowed ourselves to conflate education with accountability measures. Something as rich and intangible as children’s learning became reduced to a commodity: measurable and dissectible, farmed in data drops and then gathered onto spreadsheets, ready to present to an inspectorate in thrall to things called "evidence" and "impact".
How on Earth, when nearly 90 per cent of schools are supposedly good or outstanding, did we allow ourselves to be quite so spooked by inspections? Why do we let them dominate our educational discourse? Why did we ever let Ofsted seem to matter so much?
It’s time to change that. After all, this has been a period of Ofsted headlines. For example, the Public Accounts Committee said that a 52 per cent drop in the amount spent by Ofsted on inspections since 1999 had led to “clear shortcomings”.
None of this is especially good news for the inspectorate itself. Everyone, it seems, is lining up to put the boot in. Ofsted appears to be under assault from many quarters. And perhaps it would be easy for me to join in.
But in truth, Ofsted is a convenient target. Bellicosely blaming it makes us feel collectively better. “It’s all Ofsted’s fault” can seem to absolve us of our own responsibilities.
Schools should be accountable
So, back to principles. In my view, some form of detached inspectorate is an inherently reasonable idea in most areas of everyday life. In the health service, it has exposed medical wrongdoing, potentially saving lives; in our prison system, inspection has called out terrible, inhumane conditions; across the hospitality industry, the existence of food-hygiene inspectors will have prevented people like you and me from getting salmonella.
And schools should be accountable to parents and local communities because this is where we prepare our young people to take their place as young adults. We can’t leave that to chance.
So, an independent inspection service or a very robust process of self-review that gains the faith of parents should be one part of an accountability system. It should nudge us to be ever better, holding up a mirror to what we do, judging us against our ambitions for the young people in our care.
And since her appointment in 2016, Her Majesty’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman has brought a tone of incisive detachment to the organisation, with far less of the scattergun Wilshawesque pontification that whipped up headlines rather than insights. She has also demonstrated a notable willingness to engage with the profession at conferences, teach-meets and gatherings. She has antagonised, of course, and been lambasted, and reminded us that in public life you’ll never please everyone. Nor should you try to do so.
Now, Amanda Spielman is attempting to refocus Ofsted on the core business of schools and colleges: the curriculum. The aim seems to be that any institution should be more than the sum of its data – that a team of human beings can tell us something about a school or college that published figures can’t.
And at the heart of every child’s experience of learning is the programme of knowledge, sequenced to build understanding, that we call the curriculum.
Wait and see
It’s pretty hard to argue that Ofsted shouldn’t be helping us to focus more on that – the distinctiveness of what a school offers to every young person irrespective of background. As a principle, this is a strong development of Ofsted’s direction. I gather the aim is to test out some of the thinking in the autumn term, to consult on the revised schedule after Christmas, for implementation in September 2019.
There’s a principle that the Department for Education abides by called the one-year workload protocol – the idea that no changes should be introduced without at least a year’s lead-in time for school and college leaders to prepare.
And there are some who are calling for Ofsted’s changes to be postponed by a year.
But – in the spirit of evidence-based approaches – I’d advise us to wait and see what Ofsted is proposing before we call for a deferment. After all, the devil will most definitely be in the detail.
Quite how do you judge a curriculum in school A against one in school B, unless you have an agreed concept of what a "good" curriculum looks like? What will inspectors ask to look at as evidence? Where does curriculum (what is taught) blur into pedagogy (how it is taught) – and can those concepts be kept separate? And how – as ever – can we have confidence that the team going into a school that has good outcomes doesn’t just assume that its curriculum is better than the school next door where outcomes are weaker?
What we know is that the current anxiety around Ofsted inspections, the distraction it creates, the workload issues – all of these give a strong rationale for significantly changing the way inspection works.
That’s what’s being proposed. We watch with interest, awaiting the detail, looking for the reassurance that these changes will enact Ofsted’s slogan of "being a force for good".
Because if it gets the new inspection framework right, then perhaps at last inspection can become just one proportionate way of measuring the quality of education, and we can get back to talking about teaching, learning, the curriculum, teachers, young people and leadership – and do all that without reverting to the word "Ofsted".
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders