Ofsted was never going to get an easy ride after announcing its consultation on the latest edition of the inspection handbook – and nor should it. If anyone should be held to account, the inspectorate should be. After all, as has often been said: who inspects the inspectors?
So let me give some credit where it’s due. First, we’ve had a fairly stable period of several years now without major changes to the framework – and this time it appears that we have a proper consultation. Given the chopping and changing that happened for a while, this is something to be grateful for.
Second, it does genuinely seem like Ofsted has listened and thought about what really matters in schools. Teachers have complained for years that the inspectorate is driven by exam results; that inspection outcomes are decided before inspectors even walk through the door. Now the direction of travel is clearly in the opposite direction, and that, surely, is to be welcomed. As chief inspector Amanda Spielman herself said: inspection should complement exam results, not intensify them.
Perhaps most welcome is the emphasis on reducing workload. I’ve argued before that the focus on the Department for Education has been somewhat unreasonable when it comes to workload. The department has certainly tried to make changes in the past few years, but it has long been the fear of inspection that has driven workload in schools, and this has often has led to school leaders thinking too much about evidence and not enough about manageability. The new framework goes some way towards trying to correct this, even putting managing workload in the criteria for leadership and management.
But there’s a risk here. Often the reasons why school leaders felt they had to ask things of their staff was because they thought Ofsted expected it of them. The ramping up of internal data over the past decade has almost certainly come as a result of Ofsted expectations, or at least the hearsay that surrounds them. Shifting the focus from marking and results to curriculum and exercise books won’t magically make the workload issue disappear.
If inspectors are now to spend more time looking at books and making their judgements about a school on the basis of what they see, then no doubt schools will shift their focus to ensuring that the books show the school in the best light. Teachers who were previously hauled over the coals for the data on their spreadsheets will instead be pulled up for the content of their pupils’ books – and just as with exam results, the control that any one teacher has over the outcomes will be somewhat limited.
What’s more, do we really trust all Ofsted inspectors to be able to draw conclusions about a school based on curriculum and books? Are all inspectors so knowledgeable and well-trained that they can make such judgements in a relatively short space of time? Given that, as the head of a primary school, in my last three Ofsted inspections, nearly half the staff have been secondary-trained, I have my doubts.
That’s why I worry about the decision not to look at a school’s internal data. I understand the thinking, but I’m not sure the consequences have been thought through. Why is a junior school’s Year 3 baseline data any less reliable than an infant school’s unmoderated Year 2 data? Why is statutory writing teacher assessment any more valid than an externally marked standardised test?
It’s a big leap to say that one Ofsted inspector’s interpretation of progress from books is more valid than any school’s own data. I’m not so sure they’re right.
Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979