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Ofsted's spring conferences

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The last of our spring conferences for school inspectors took place on Friday 20th April.

In total, around 1,600 inspectors attended the four conferences, with two held in Nottingham and Manchester in March and two more in London in April. Along with our autumn conferences, these events form part of our ongoing training to ensure the consistency, quality, reliability and validity of our inspection practice. So, I thought I would share with you some of the things we discussed this time.

Inspection is above all about human judgement. Therefore, the quality of Ofsted’s work and our value as a force for improvement depend absolutely on the knowledge and expertise of our inspectors.Children and teachers discussing a notebook.

Sometimes, the public debate gets stuck at the level of inspection grades, especially the overall effectiveness judgement. But the professional conversations between inspectors and school leaders are where the greatest value in our work lies. When we get this right - and we usually do - our work is acknowledged as constructive, helpful and, occasionally, even enjoyable by those on the other side of the process.

With all this in mind, the single most important thing Ofsted can do is to make sure all our inspectors are supported and well equipped - intellectually and practically - for the work we have to do. Our autumn and spring conferences are a central part of this preparation.

This year’s conferences mainly focused on curriculum, specifically how a deeper understanding of what we mean by curriculum can inform our inspection practice. We also held sessions on all the different ways in which children fall out of mainstream education, and on careers education.

It’s the sessions on the curriculum that I want to talk about here.

Our overall aim was to help inspectors evaluate how well a school’s curriculum is designed and implemented - both within the context of the current Ofsted framework and school inspection handbook and, as we develop an even sharper focus on the curriculum, for the education inspection framework 2019.

We discussed the need to build a conversation about the curriculum on a clear understanding of how children - and indeed all of us - really learn, over time. So, we asked ourselves what progress really is, and acknowledged that both knowing more and remembering more, are central to it.

We discussed the idea that knowledge is ‘sticky’ – which, for schools, means that the more children know, the more they can learn. So this is a matter of social justice too. For some children, especially the most disadvantaged, school is often the only place where they have the opportunity to gain knowledge of the concepts and vocabulary that will enable them to learn effectively alongside their peers and succeed in the long term. Indeed, research from both the US and UK has highlighted the growing gap that emerges if schools do not do this well.

What exactly do we mean by curriculum?

Most people are aware that Ofsted has been carrying out research on the curriculum for the best part of a year now. We discussed our initial findings in a commentary from Amanda Spielman, published in October 2017.

One of the general findings from the review was that we don’t have a common language for curriculum. To help here, we came up with a working definition, which states that curriculum is…

A framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (intent)…

…for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (implementation)…

…and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (impact).

We have asked our inspectors to apply this definition to their practice and explore these three areas of intent, implementation and impact when evaluating a school’s curriculum. In other words, what is a school trying to achieve through its curriculum, how is it being delivered and what difference is it making to pupils’ learning.

These ideas are not new: rather they are about making visible what has sometimes been lost sight of. Effective schools have always thought carefully about the intentions behind their curriculum design, its structure and implementation, and how it builds pupils’ knowledge over time.

I also want to emphasise two things: Ofsted does not have a preferred curriculum, and our current inspection framework and handbook have not changed. There is no specific graded judgement on the curriculum, so we are not asking inspectors to grade it now. However, the curriculum already features within the judgements we make about a school’s leadership and management, and teaching, learning and assessment. This working definition is a useful tool to help inspectors have the right conversations with schools, within the context of the current framework and handbook.

The next phase of our curriculum research is well under way and we’ll publish the findings from that in due course. Ultimately, all of this work is helping to shape the education inspection framework that will apply from September 2019. Until then, there is no change to the weighting given to the curriculum or how we reach our judgements.

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