Why must Ofsted dictate what key stage 3 looks like?

The inspectorate has been at pains to point out that there's no 'Ofsted model'. Yet they're dictating what key stage 3 should look like, says Bernard Trafford

A row of identical gingerbread-man cookie cutters

The battle continues between Ofsted and the multi-academy trusts (MATs), led by Harris Federation boss Sir Dan Moynihan. 

Whispers suggest that Number 10 may have more sympathy with the schools than the inspectorate. The PM and his famously maverick chief adviser like to claim they’re not afraid to make bold, even wacky decisions (how about moving the House of Lords, for a start). 

Nonetheless, with education secretary Gavin Williamson promising the World Economic Forum that there would be no let-up in “driving up standards” (that awful mantra again), one just cannot see him risking drawing the teeth of his pet Rottweiler.

The problem is this. Ofsted’s new framework focuses on curriculum, assessing how schools’ decisions on this enrich – or otherwise – the educational experience of children.

Rebel MATs

Early inspections within this new framework demonstrate the presence of an agenda. The inspectorate is convinced that key stage 3 should be three years long, and that Year 9 (the third of that phase) should be as rich and broad as the other two. 

These rebel MATs have been moving towards making Year 9 effectively the start of key stage 4, giving their academies a three-year run in to GCSEs. 

This approach may be argued to narrow the curriculum offer in Year 9. But its proponents claim that children in disadvantaged settings need that extra year of specifically GCSE-focused work, citing as evidence the excellent progress and strong results attained as a consequence.

The whole idea of the academies programme is about giving schools nowadays – within the preferred government structure of MATs – the freedom to make decisions that work for them and provide the best opportunities for children in their settings. 

Sir Dan’s allies are standing together on this issue because they reckon they’re doing just that. They’re tackling disadvantage by tweaking a single year out of the 14 years kids spend in school. And they’re getting great results, as the figures prove.

Hollow grades

Ofsted’s head, Amanda Spielman, is having none of it. The notion, she says, is “wrong-headed”. Those good grades “are hollow if they don’t reflect a proper education”. 

Meanwhile, her number two, Sean Harford, characterised designing a separate curriculum for deprived children as “Victorian”.

The conflict raises questions about who runs schools, who makes curriculum decisions and what specific outcomes they (whoever “they” are) are seeking for children.

Already schools have been marked down by the inspectorate, with at least one high-profile and much-lauded head driven out of the profession as a result

Curiously, Ofsted has spent much of its 30-year life denying that there is an “Ofsted model” for anything, claiming its role is solely to check that children receive a good education. Now, by contrast, it seems to have developed a precise and preconceived picture of what a Year 9 curriculum should look like. That sounds like a model to me.

I’m not alone. Former schools commissioner Sir Andrew Carter tweeted this week: “The regulator should be praising great thinking, not wrapping its own view of the world around judgements.”

Who knows best? 

In seeking to resolve this impasse, why not revisit the 1944 Education Act, still (unless someone knows otherwise) the basis of our national education provision? Chapter 31 instructs local authorities [sic] to provide “full-time education suitable to the requirements of […] pupils”.

The key word, surely, is “suitable”. It’s regularly quoted in tribunals by families battling for provision suitable for a child with SEND. 

Around the turn of the century, schools were routinely using that same reason for “disapplying” pupils from some aspects of the then rigid national curriculum, their particular needs calling for flexibility. 

Arguably, what Sir Dan and his colleagues are providing in their particular settings is suitable for those children.

So who will be deemed to know best on this use? That powerful alliance of experienced leaders of high-achieving schools? Or will the government’s enforcer of standards (standards set, in this case at least, by the enforcer itself) prevail?

I’d always leave it to the professionals to make such decisions, and back them. But that’s not the way governments generally operate, whatever their political complexion. Watch this space. 

Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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