Why Ofsted’s judgements are too blunt for curriculum

The row over Ofsted's approach to GCSE preparation just shows that its four gradings are inadequate, says Geoff Barton

Ofsted concerns: Geoff Barton, of the Association of School and College Leaders

Ofsted’s much-debated new school inspection framework has undergone a rocky week after two of the big beasts of the academy system criticised it as “a middle-class framework for middle-class kids”.   

Sir Dan Moynihan and Martyn Oliver, leaders of the Harris Federation and Outwood Grange Academies Trust respectively, are concerned that schools are being marked down for running GCSEs over three years rather than two.  

Sir Dan told The Times that a wider curriculum for an extra year was fine for “SW1” but not for disadvantaged children. “For many of our children qualifications are all they have in their hands at a job interview or college application and beyond,” he said. “They have no networks, no contacts, no professional people in their family to help them on in life. Their GCSEs are crucial. Ofsted is valuing curriculum over qualifications.”

The problem with that argument, of course, as Ofsted’s national director of education countered on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, is that this can sound as if we’re proposing one curriculum for the middle classes and a different, dumbed-down one for the disadvantaged.  

So Ofsted is sticking to its guns on the merits of the new framework, which focuses more on the quality of the curriculum and less on exam and test results than previous frameworks. And it has insisted throughout that running a shortened key stage 3 is only the starting point of a conversation and will not automatically trigger an unfavourable outcome.  

But the backlash against the framework is intense, and the question of a shortened key stage 3 and longer key stage 4 is the most inflammatory aspect of this increasingly heated debate.  

So, let’s attempt to unpack the various strands of the controversy. 

Ofsted has the right intention

The first thing to say is that the aim of the new inspection framework and the principles behind it are right. It simply must be better to focus more on the stuff of learning – the depth and breadth of what we teach children – and less on test and exam results, which are heavily dependent upon prior attainment and disadvantage.  

If we focus on what we teach and how we teach it, then we ensure that all children have a common entitlement to a broad and rich curriculum, and logic would suggest that a great curriculum, which is planned and taught well, is also more likely to lead to successful results in tests and exams.  

So far, so good. The problem arises in how this laudable aim is then translated into practice and exactly what Ofsted tells its inspectors to look at. And here it increasingly feels that too much emphasis has been placed upon the rather narrow question of whether key stage 3 is staged over two years or three years.  

To anyone outside of the education community, this issue will seem arcane and unfathomable. Only in education do we seem to be capable of tying ourselves in such knots over minutiae about a concept – key stages – designed in and for a different era.

The pressure of tougher GCSEs

After all, there are contradictions galore. The government has busily been reforming GCSEs over the past few years in order to deliberately make them more difficult and content-heavy. So, it is not wholly unsurprising if some schools decide to give pupils three years to prepare for GCSEs. And it seems a bit harsh if Ofsted then takes a dim view of this practice. Surely curriculum quality should trump quantity.  

Added to this is the fact that a key promise of academisation was to give schools autonomy over the curriculum. Leaders, the narrative went, are best placed to make the decision on behalf of their pupils and thei rcommunities, not officials in Whitehall. Thus it seems counterintuitive if now we have an inspectorate castigating schools for exercising that very autonomy in order to prepare their pupils for content-heavy GCSEs. In truth, the balance between curriculum breadth and GCSE preparation is a fine judgement that is likely to change from school to school depending on what works best for their students.

It is pretty difficult for an inspection system to determine exactly where the correct balance lies and apply that consistently in every inspection. It is certainly too complex a matter to be reducible to a single graded judgement.

Let school leaders make a judgement

So, our advice to Ofsted – and we say this as supporters of the new framework – is to stop fixating over a shortened key stage 3 and give more weight to the fact that school leaders are well placed to make this fine call of judgement in the best interests of their students.

There is so much in the framework that is really very good about designing and implementing a great curriculum, an opportunity to reskill a profession on something so central to great learning. The debacle over the length of key stage 3 is just one element and yet the perception of the entire framework is in danger of being irrevocably tarnished by this issue alone.

And doesn’t this debate once again tell us something wider about the shortcomings of graded judgements? They are simply too blunt to reflect the nuances of what a school does well, what it does less well and what it must do to improve. There can be no better illustration of the crudeness of the system than the manifest difficulty of trying to pigeonhole the complex balance between curriculum breadth and GCSE preparation into one of four broad judgements. 

Indeed, it could be argued that this is the underlying problem with all inspection frameworks and that, however well-intended and planned, the inspection system is always bound to run into the same difficulty.

In the end it reduces the complexity of schools into a label that is stripped of nuance and that will often feel harsh and unfair to those who receive a poor judgement.

In the long term, all we can do is continue to press for a more enlightened system. In the short term, Ofsted would do itself a favour by dialling down the focus on a shortened key stage 3.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton

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