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Will Ofsted's curriculum vision be reduced to a box-ticking exercise?

It's crunch-time for the planned inspection reforms but will they prove a damp squib?

Ofsted criticised for running an insecure survey

It's crunch-time for the planned inspection reforms but will they prove a damp squib?

And so Ofsted chief inspector’s Amanda Spielman’s day of reckoning moves nearer. 

In just under two weeks, Ofsted will launch the consultation of the latest draft of its new inspection framework, the one that will include plans to refocus its inspections on curriculum and away from performance data, both internal and public.

To say this has been long-awaited would be an understatement. Heads and teachers have been in large part delighted by the direction of travel: the idea that inspectors will now put emphasis on a new category, “quality of education”, has been cheered from the rafters in some quarters. Some have even read it as a promise that these changes would reduce the likelihood of a school within a deprived catchment receiving a poor Ofsted verdict because they would be judged on the work they do, not the results their kids achieved.

The central philosophy of these reforms is certainly one to get excited about.

But as I documented with possibly tedious regularity over much of 2018, there have been more than a few voices, mainly behind the scenes, who warned that these changes risk easily as much as they promise. Unions have worried about the readiness of both schools and inspectors for the new focus on curriculum; the Department for Education has been extremely concerned about the impact of such major changes on teacher workload; heads have worried about the possibility of nearly-no notice inspections

Many are concerned that the pace of reform (the new framework is due to come into force from this September) means that what looks like a great idea will suffer because the implementation is rushed.

Behind the scenes in Whitehall, these discussions have become impassioned in recent months, even heated, with Spielman and her people fiercely defending their position in the face of those who would like to see it delayed or even canned.

However with the consultation about to open, something close to a ceasefire has broken out in recent days. Power-brokers in the DfE appear to be more relaxed than they were, and the unions have stopped lobbing grenades. Why? 

Put simply, Ofsted has quietly granted a series of concessions. Perhaps most important among these is that schools will have a year’s grace from September during which they will not be marked down if they aren’t living up to the new curriculum-focused aspects of the framework. I also understand that schools will have more information on what inspectors will be looking for in these areas in advance of their arrival.

This, and the promise that the nearly no-notice inspections idea may be quietly dropped, has been enough to buy the inspectorate a little silence from its critics.

However there are a number of risks implicit in this strategy.

First, that Ofsted doesn’t give enough ground post-consultation, and the attacks on its proposals restart at the very moment that inspectors start using the new framework.

Second, that to buy the ongoing silence from her critics, Spielman’s vision is further watered down and her grand idea becomes just another hoop for heads to desperately jump through in their attempts to avoid a career-limiting verdict.

These reforms may yet prove less a revolution in inspection, and more an evolution. And even that may oversell it. There’s a good chance they will be reduced to a box-ticking exercise.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes

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